US pole vaulter Brad Walker (© Getty Images)
Brad Walker, the 2007 world pole vault champion who set the US record of 6.04m in 2008, is a big fan of Armand ‘Mondo’ Duplantis. But he is glad that the controversial new US mark of 6.05m set by the 19-year-old with joint citizenship in winning last year’s European title for Sweden has been superseded by a man in “the red, white and blue”.
There has been much debate about Duplantis being given the US record despite competing in Swedish colours, although the rule has subsequently been emended so that record-breakers now have to be eligible to compete for the USA.
In July, however, Sam Kendricks simplified the matter by clearing 6.06m at the US Trials in Des Moines.
“Obviously Mondo is a phenomenal athlete and it was cool to see him jump so high,” Walker said. “But for me it feels right to have the US record held by someone who competes for the United States, and for Mondo to have the Swedish record, as he has chosen to compete for them.
“It didn’t seem to be a very good plan to have people competing for another country being able to set a US record.”
When Walker – now 38 and about to enter chiropractic school in Atlanta, Georgia – jumped his US record in Eugene, he moved to fourth on the world all-time list behind Sergey Bubka of Ukraine, who had cleared 6.14m (and 6.15m indoors), and two men who had vaulted 6.05m – Russia’s Maksim Tarasov and Dmitri Markov of Australia.
“I just woke feeling like I was going to have a good day,” Walker recalled while attending the recent IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris, where he was coaching US vaulter Katie Nageotte.
“I came in at 5.70m, and I don’t want to sound arrogant but in my mind, after clearing that, I just wanted to get right to it, but now I’ve got to stop to clear another bar.
“I passed at 5.80m and then cleared 5.90m. After that I had won the competition and could choose my next height. Six metres wasn’t a big thing for me – I’d already been over six metres.
“I always said to myself, when you jump 16 foot, you want six metres, and when you jump six metres you want the US record, and when you get the US record you want the world record. That was how I saw it. So I wanted to beat Jeff Hartwig’s US record of 6.03m.”
That he did – and the record, set on June 21, lasted just over a decade. And while Renaud Lavillenie has since produced an epic world record of 6.16m, in the same indoor Donetsk Arena in which Bubka set his highest mark, outdoor advances have been relatively conservative.
Walker still sits at seventh on the world all-time list, with Duplantis and Lavillenie one centimetre above him and Kendricks two centimetres clear, so there has not been any Usain Bolt-like activity at the top end – which doesn’t greatly surprise Walker.
“Usain Bolt was a total outlier,” he said. “But if you look at world records in general, they represent the pinnacle of human performance, so you don’t imagine someone is going to come out and blast them away. To me it makes sense that records improve by slow increments, unless there was some kind of big technological improvement in the poles, I wouldn’t expect it in pole vaulting.”
So what does he think are the chances of Kendricks setting a world record one day?
“Getting past 6.16m?” he responded. “It’s hard to say. It takes one jump on one day in the right conditions.
“When Sergey did 6.14m in Sestriere it was obviously at high altitude, which is a help to vaulters, and I’m told there was a smoking tailwind. Altitude benefits, tailwind benefits. And both are completely legal.
“I heard that some competitors there were borrowing other vaulters’ poles because the ones they had with them were too small.
“It seemed clear that the director had put the meeting together to help Sergey clear 6.14m. They wanted the world record. When he was jumping, there was a Ferrari sitting next to the pit which was the prize for the record. The meeting was insured for it, and they were hoping for it.
“That doesn’t happen anymore. Sam had to his record at the US Championships.”
After those championships, Kendricks said that he felt the soaring temperatures had helped him, as he had managed his previous best of 6.00m in similar conditions. But he appeared to rule out an appearance in world record territory.
“I have a singular mind set in the sport,” he said. “I don’t think it’s my destiny to hold a world record. It’s way too damn high. My only goal was formulated when I came to my first US Championships. When I get the chance to wear USA, all I can do is work hard to beat, or strive to be that.”
Walker doesn’t rule it out, however.
“Renaud is an indoor jumper. I’m not saying he isn’t a great jumper outdoors, but he is at his best indoors. Sam is more of an outdoor jumper; his indoor best is 5.93m. I think with a pole a size bigger in his hands, he is going to jump even higher than 6.06m. And if he gets the right conditions and tailwind, he can have a legitimate shot at the record.”
Walker feels outdoor performances have not radically altered, nor has the overall feeling of friendliness around the men’s pole vault.
“There’s always been a camaraderie within the pole vault,” he said. “I don’t think it’s anything new.
“I think Sam is a little bit more open to showing that camaraderie in competition. When I was competing, I didn’t want to be talking to anybody, but afterwards I would be hanging out with the Australians and the Germans.
“You have to have a certain mind set to compete in the event. Pole vaulters understand what each other is about.”
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF