Series22 Jul 2021

Sam Kendricks: why I vault


US pole vaulter Sam Kendricks (© AFP / Getty Images)

Sam Kendricks (USA)

Two-time world pole vault champion, world indoor silver medallist and Olympic bronze medallist



Before I started pole vaulting I was a distance runner. My father used to wake my twin brother and I to go for a run each morning – giving me the gift of discipline and physical courage.

My journey into pole vaulting started by pure chance. I was 12 years old when my home state of Mississippi added girl's pole vault to the high jump programme. The event was introduced for girls because a judge’s daughter from my home town successfully, and for good reason, got the right for girl's pole vault. It was my good fortune that my father was a track coach and that’s how I started pole vaulting – with the girls who, initially, were far better than me!

I was short, small and skinny back then but I think my father saw in me what we in the South call a bit of "want to". 

My father is an ex-military officer and a great problem solver and besides giving me the gift of discipline and personal courage he also gave me the gift of time and worked with me for years and years on improving my craft.

Over time I got steadily better. I trained with the girls and I grew past them. That has been the meme of my career. I’ve gradually grown into the event and it has only been in the past few years do I feel I have truly mastered pole vaulting.

In some ways I’m the very antithesis of the typical thrill-seeking pole vaulter. Yet it was watching the video of the great pole vaulters of the past – men like Nick Hysong and Steve Hooker among others – that gave me a vigour for the event.

I call them the "wild men" of the event – courageous vaulters, who had a mature yet wild heart. Yet each of these vaulters were all quite different. Not one fitted the mould of what you would expect a vaulter to be.

I had to find my own way and imitated my now good friend Jeff Hartwig (a 6.03m vaulter and joint eighth on the all-time list) – a true professional of the sport. He had a long and prestigious career and was perhaps the most internationally respected vaulter never to win a World Championship or Olympic title.

I knew I never had the skill or the potential to set big records.  I’m no Sergey Bubka – I know it in my bones and my heart and it is senseless to lie to myself. However, I knew if I could fill in the gaps then I could carve out a space to enjoy this lifestyle to be a professional.

For me, I needed to adopt a very consistent, professional mindset to vaulting. I’m not going to jump as big as Mondo Duplantis, but I am the vaulter that is hard to beat.

Pole vault is very niche. To be able to survive on the circuit you need to bring a number of other skills to the table such as people skills, athletics knowledge – a full spectrum of responsibility. It helps breed maturity. 

One of the coolest elements to vaulting is when you arrive at a meeting with your poles – it is instantly recognisable that we are vaulters. In many ways we are the travelling circus of track and field and there is a unity which comes from the strangeness and nuances of the event.

The pole vault can seems a little scary to many people but I believe it is thrilling because you have to balance risk versus reward and, for all the factors I’ve explained, I think it helps mature you as a person.

Steve Landells for World Athletics