Sam Kendricks and Renaud Lavillenie in the pole vault at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (© Getty Images)
In his spare time – or, what spare time he has – Sam Kendricks is a second lieutenant in the US Army Reserve. In his day job, as an upwardly mobile athlete, the 24-year-old from Oxford, Mississippi, is the new commander in chief of the pole vault world.
The Olympic silver medallist has been the class act of the event all season and when it came to the competition that mattered most, he brought that to bear, holding his nerve, maintaining his smooth technique, and with it his unbeaten record in 2017.
In doing so, Kendricks added his name to the growing list of vaulters who have taken the world title ahead of Renaud Lavillenie, the 6.16m world record-holder from the Petit Champagne region of south west France.
Having missed four months of pre-season training with a back injury, Lavillenie’s form has been decidedly flat all season but, to his credit, the 30-year-old got himself in the medal frame and still had the gold in his sights when he took to the runway for what proved to be the final vault of a dramatic competition at 10pm, two hours and 25 minutes after the start.
The bar stood at 6.01m at that stage. Having registered two failures at 5.95m, it was a final throw of the dice for the man who has bagged two world titles indoors but who has yet to claim one in an outdoor arena.
Kendricks had been unsuccessful with his first effort at 6.01m but, as the only competitor to have cleared 5.95m – at the third time of asking – he was occupying the gold medal position.
Pole Piotr Lisek was out by then, having registered three failures at 5.95m but, with a first-time success at 5.89m, the European indoor champion was lying second.
Lavillenie, who showed his own class by staying in the hunt with a second-time clearance at 5.89m, having failed first time at 5.82m and then passed to the next height, was in third.
He stayed there, too, dislodging the bar with his one shot at 6.01m, adding a fourth world outdoor bronze to those he collected in 2009, 2011 and 2015. He also has a silver from Moscow in 2013.
So Kendricks was left with the gold – only the second US vaulter to claim it, after Brad Walker in Osaka 10 years ago. And deservedly so. He was the only man to record a clean card at 5.50m, 5.65m, 5.75m, 5.82m and 5.89m.
Still, it was a tough battle for the military man – with China’s Xue Changrui vaulting like a man inspired, registering first-time clearances all the way to 5.82m, a national record height (before failing at 5.89m and finishing a valiant fourth), Lisek coming back into the fray with his first-time 5.89m (after two failures at 5.65m and one at 5.82m), and Lavillenie fighting all of the way to the end.
“My goodness!” exclaimed Kendricks, who retired from the competition with the gold medal in the bag rather than take the two attempts still available to him at 6.01m. “I have never been in a competition like it.
"It is all part of a mission for me. I make a goal and chop it down to make it attainable. I've finally got that world title and I could not be happier.
"I've enjoyed 10 straight victories this year and it’s a blessing to get another today. It was another fantastic competition today and I had to jump high to take the gold. The crowd gave everything in their hearts to support me.
“After that final jump, I went to give my mother and father a hug. They mean the world to me. My coach and girlfriend were there as well so it was a great moment.”
Lavillenie was sanguine in defeat. "My main goal this year was to get on the podium, from almost nothing,” he said. “The last few months were difficult for me. My back was totally messed up.
“I knew that I might not get to the highest level but I wanted to make it to the podium. I am very happy to be able to fight until the end. Between the gold and the bronze medal, there was only a fraction."
Behind Lavillenie and the fourth-placed Xue, Poland’s 2011 world champion Pawel Wojciechowski was fifth with 5.75m, with Lavillenie’s French teammate Axel Chapelle sixth on countback with 5.65m – the same height cleared by seventh-placed Australian Kurtis Marschall and 2015 champion Shawn Barber from Canada, in eighth.
The only other vaulter to clear the opening height, 5.50m, was Sweden’s European U23 champion Armand Duplantis. Germany’s Raphael Holzdeppe, the winner in Moscow in 2013, no-heighted – as did China’s Yao Jie and Belgium’s Arnaud Art, the latter injuring himself after falling awkwardly on his final attempt.
Simon Turnbull for the IAAF