Chris Nilsen Sailing Past Vaulting’s Mental Barrier

The 6-meter barrier? Chris Nilsen’s mindset is now, “I’ve done it and I’ve done it well, so I can do it again.” (MARK SHEARMAN)

“I DIDN’T NECESSARILY see myself getting any better,” says vaulter Chris Nilsen about last year, his first full campaign on the pro circuit, where he had 8 meets over 5.90 (19-4¼), topped by a PR 19-7 (5.97) that earned him the Olympic silver. “I figured that was the best it was ever going to get.”

So yes, the 24-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, is quite pleased with how his recent indoor campaign turned out, with 2 American Records and a bronze at the World Indoor in Belgrade: “This has been the best indoor season of my life. I jumped in 9 meets and 7 of them were over 5.90 [19-4¼], twice over 6m [19-8¼].

“I definitely should have put expectations a little higher for myself… but,” he adds, “I think it was good to lowball it. When you lowball, you oversell and then you feel better about yourself at the end of the day.”

Prodded, he explains his outlook in more depth. “I knew that at some point in time I would be able to scrape over 6m [19-8¼], or just get it clean if I had really good conditions, like a tailwind and if the crowd was really nice, but I mean, I did it indoors with no conditions and I consistently jumped over 5.90 [19-4¼].

“It’s kind of a backwards mentality. A lot of people tend to believe in themselves. They think they can do something before they actually do it. I tend not to do that. I’m going to, like, see how close I can get to my target. And depending on how close that is to the actual bullseye, then I’ll assess how well I can actually do after that. So, for example, I jumped 6.02 [19-9] and I was like, ‘I could probably jump 6.05 [19-10¼] after that.’

“And then I jump 6.05 and that jump was even better than the 6.02 jump. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, I can probably jump 6.10 [20-0] outdoors.’ I believe I can jump 6.10 or maybe even a little higher outdoors, but I think I’ll leave the World Record heights to Mondo. He’s kind of the guy for that.”

The pair of AR leaps came on French soil, the 6.02 (19-9) in Tourcoing, February 04, and the 6.05 [19-10¼] in Rouen, March 05. They put Nilsen in exalted company as one of only 7 Americans to clear 6m. And now he sits behind only Sam Kendricks’ 19-10½ (6.06) outdoor American Record from ’19.

He lays out in detail what went into each clearance: “The 6.02 [19-9] jump was on a smaller pole, but not by much. They were both 17-foot or 5.20 poles. Flex for the 6.02 was an 11.8 and the flex for the 6.05 was an 11.6, so not that much different. I think the overall fluidity of the 6.05 [19-10¼] was better than the 6.02 too; I was a little cleaner, I jumped a little more vertically at the takeoff. I swung a little faster. Everything was a little less rigid than the 6.02.

“With the 6.02, I kinda got hit a little bit at the takeoff and I had to muscle my way through a lot of it and force myself to be technical. At 6.05 the technicalities just came almost naturally because of everything that had been done prior to the actual jump itself.

“I think I was a little less tired because I had spent a couple more days overseas at that point. And I had a few more meets under my belt. I had gotten a little more accustomed to my vaulting this year. So the overall smoothness of it was a lot better. And I think once I get that smoothness I’m looking for, that’s when my heights really start to come out.”

Obviously he was happy with the heights, but he admits there were some mixed feelings about the color of his Belgrade medal. “When it comes to expectations, I kind of put myself — not on a pedestal — but in a spot where, OK, I’m the only guy other than Mondo who’s consistent over 5.90–6.00 [19-4¼–19-8¼]. I think I might have the chance to win it, if Mondo doesn’t have the best day of his life. On a normal day, it’s hard to beat him. You know, even if he has a bad day, the dude’s still going 6-meters [19-8¼]. You’ve got to be on your A-game if you even want to have a drink with the dude.”

It was Brazil’s Thiago Braz who surprised Nilsen. “He’s one of those guys who just had one of those standout days. He’s a championship baller. He won the Olympics in 2016 and no one saw him for 4 years. And then he comes back to the ’21 Olympics and gets a bronze. And then no one sees him for another while, because he stopped his entire season after the Olympics, comes to the World Indoor Championships and gets a silver with an indoor personal record.

“You know, I should have seen this coming. It’s not necessarily that I wasn’t ready for it, but I think everyone was surprised when Thiago jumped the 5.95 [19-6¼]. Not to say that he is not able to do so. The dude is an amazing pole vaulter, one of the best that I’ve ever seen.”

Of his bronze, he continues, “You can’t get upset when you get a medal. It’s one of those things that some people may only have one chance in their entire life to get one. After the Olympics, when I got sober, I didn’t think I was ever going to get one again because of how stacked the competition has been over the last decade.

“I was like, ‘We’ll keep doing our thing and we’ll keep hoping for the best.’ I wanted more, but there was nothing I really could have done. I was happy with bronze and maybe I was a little bit more upset than I should have been, but that’s just me being a little bit too competitive.”

The Olympic award, he admits, changed his life just a tad: “I get a little bit more attention than I would like. I’m not one who’s really big on publicity. I’ve never been one to seek that out. And the expectations of people around me have been raised, not just only my own, because with the amount of confidence that came with the silver medal also came the expectations of everyone around me to get another medal or to jump higher. That’s put a little bit more pressure on me, but I don’t really think it’s been a negative thing. It’s been a positive stressor.

“Other than that, [life is] still the same. I come into South Dakota every day at 10:30 to do my practice, go home to my girlfriend and drink coffee, have a good time.”

The routine Nilsen follows with longtime coach Derek Miles — himself the ’08 Olympic bronze medalist — hasn’t changed much at all, he says. “My training is almost cookie-cutter what I’ve been doing since freshman year of college. It’s just better.”

That reflects the growing level of confidence, one that’s gotten another boost with his foray into 6-meter [19-8¼] territory. “A lot of people who haven’t jumped 6m yet have a mental barrier when they’re trying it. They think, ‘Oh God, it’s so freaking high!’ Personally, that’s exactly what I thought when I jumped 5.97 [19-7]. I was like, ‘That 3cm seems like a long frickin’ way, so we’re going to have to have the perfect jump on the perfect day to do that.’

“Now that that mental barrier is gone, I’m like, ‘I’ve done it and I’ve done it well, so I can do it again.’ I’m still going to have to pull off a really good job because for normal humans except for Mondo, 6m is pretty difficult to do a lot of the time.”

Speaking of the WR holder, Nilsen is perhaps uniquely situated to discuss what it takes to beat him, having authored a few key defeats of Duplantis over the years, winning in Lausanne last year, one of Duplantis’s two losses on the season, and beating him in ’19 in the then-LSU star’s only chance to win an NCAA Outdoor crown.

Nilsen is working on a string of 17 straight 19-foot meets, the best ever by an American. (GLADYS CHAI/ASVOM AGENCY)

“It’s not really something that you can prepare for. You know he’s going to jump high and Mondo’s never a guy to say, ‘You’re never going to beat me.’ He knows what he’s capable of. He’s always confident. He’s never cocky. He’s talented, but he’s not narcissistic, if that makes sense. He knows for a fact he’s probably going to jump 6m on any given day, but he’s never rubbing it in. He kind of just says, ‘If you want to beat me, you’re going to have to jump 6.10 [20-0] on the first attempt or higher.’ And everyone’s like, ‘OK, well, that’s kinda tough.’

“I think I kind of go in it like, ‘OK, Mondo’s going to be an added potential for me not winning today.’ I have to try to combat that either by jumping extremely high, or being better that the conditions that are being dealt. I look at myself as one who’s pretty good at outdoor conditions, whether it’s cold, it’s hot, it’s windy, it’s snowing, it’s raining, whatever — I can deal with it just perfectly fine.

“You’ve got to find a way to not necessarily beat him, but beat whatever negativities or insecurities you might bring upon yourself that day.”

To hear Nilsen ponder it aloud, it’s almost as if the door to beating Mondo is sometimes open, unless the challenger closes it in his own mind: “Exactly. The door’s already open and Mondo’s just kind of standing in front of it saying, ‘OK, to get past me, you either need to jump higher than me or be better than me at something today.’ And if you try to do both, then you might have a good shot at beating him.

“It’s not that he’s not human — the dude bleeds red. He’s a human being. He’s just better at vaulting than all of us. And if you can figure out how to do that, then you’ve got the world by the balls.”

Nilsen will be opening up his outdoor campaign, as usual, at the Drake Relays at the end of April. “It’s not necessarily a hometown crowd, but it’s kind of in the middle between my hometown, Kansas City, and my college town, [Vermillion, South Dakota]. I’ve gone there the last 5 years, 4 years in college and then one year post-collegiate and I’ve loved it every single time.

“A week later I’ll be going to Doha for the Diamond League meet. I’m going to Pre as well. Other than that and the U.S. Champs, it’s pretty much up in the air.”

These days the 6-foot-5 [1.96] vaulter is excited about his streak of meets over 5.80 [19-¼], now 17 and counting. That’s the most-ever by an American (Sam Kendricks had a string of 15 in 2019–20, and Jeff Hartwig had 13 in ’98).

The key, Nilsen says, is staying healthy: “I’m at the point where both my physicality and my technicalities have kind of caught up to each other and they equal each other out. It’s nice. I’m in this spot where everything is pretty consistent. My run, my strength, my speed, my takeoff — everything is pretty consistent to where all of that levels out to, on a bad day, I could probably jump 5.80 [19-¼]. At the end of the day, that’s still a pretty high bar.”

As far as what he needs to do to stay this consistent, he says, “We just need to stay healthy and keep doing what we’re doing. I’ve never been one who needs to worry about wanting it, because I still love this sport. I love it as much as the day I started if not more now. It’s just about staying healthy because pole vault is one of those sports where your body’s made either out of iron or paper or glass and you’re still trying to figure out which one it is.”

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