ON THE MORNING OF, no one would have predicted that Chris Nilsen was going to soar over 19-5½ (5.93) later that day, breaking Mondo Duplantis’s indoor Collegiate Record.
Not that the South Dakota senior is lacking in talent or experience, having won 3 NCAA titles (1 indoors, 2 out), and claiming his PR of 19-6¼ (5.95) in defeating Duplantis for the collegiate outdoor crown last year.
But on the morning of February 21, the 22-year-old Missouri native wasn’t doing so well. “It’s kind of a funny story,” he admits. “I kind of learned a life lesson the hard way that morning because I took vitamins on an empty stomach. Umm, don’t do that. I ended up throwing up four times on the bus there.”
With just 4 hours of sleep and a rough 3-hour ride to Lincoln, Nebraska, Nilsen stepped into the Devaney Center a few notches short of his usual sunny disposition. “And then we had to start warming up immediately because the competition was at 12:00. So the whole experience wasn’t the greatest. “Later I got some food in me, like a half sandwich and a Red Bull. After that, the jumps started going kinda smoothly.”
The big jump came in an indoor campaign that had already seen him put together some solid performances, including back-to-back 19-footers. “I’m not too upset about the season, but you can always hope for better and you can always hope to improve on what you’ve done in the past,” he says. “This is the most 19-foot jumps I’ve had indoors ever so in a way we’re improving, but I would like to be a little higher considering how competitive the United States is right now in the pole vault.”
Working closely with coach Derek Miles—the ’08 Olympic bronze medalist—Nilsen says his training has been remarkably consistent. “We’ll usually change it up a little bit every year just so we don’t get stagnant, but I think it’s always going to be the same focus of, ‘How can we get faster? How can we get stronger? How can we put more energy into the pole? How can we bring as much speed as we possibly can into the take-off?’ Things like that.
“Those are usually the forefront of our focus. And other than that, I don’t really think we’ve changed much. We have a lot more focus on recovery because the more you jump 19-feet the more it’s going to take its toll on your body. So a lot of focus on recovery and just trying to stay healthy from meet to meet to meet, while also trying to prepare for the professional season after college too.”
That pro world—where he plans to continue working with Miles—is one that Nilsen is expecting to dive into moments after he faces his final NCAA crossbar in Austin on June 10. The coach/athlete rapport is good: “We can be having a really good time at practice when the stakes aren’t high and we’ll be more brotherly. But if we’re at a meet and we really have to do well, it’s OK, foot down, we gotta go. Regardless of what the relationship has been, he’s been my mentor the entire way. I respect him and I hope to be training with him afterwards. That’s as simple as I can put it.”
With the OT coming fast, the two have to balance NCAA goals with preparing for the big one. “I’d like to do well at the Olympic Trials and of course everybody does,” he says. “But at the same time, I’m trying to keep my foot in the NCAA before I hop into the whole professional world. In a way that’s difficult because I want to so well at the Olympics, but the [NCAA] is more of a stepping stone. I have to be dominant, you know, and do my work here before I can step into the other world and say, ‘OK, now I’m in this group.’”
One would have to be a recluse not to know the vault world is literally hopping with great performances lately. Nilsen feels it’s part of a natural progression. “As an athlete will get older,” he explains, “they’re just going to increase in their development and their training and they’re going to get better, better, better. It’s just the culmination of every athlete doing that right now at the right time. It’s a year with everybody having the motivation of the Olympic Trials in less than 6 months, or the Olympic Games in 6 months, 7. It’s like, ‘We gotta go, we gotta get on the gas.’
“So all these vaulters have been pulling out all the stops and trying to do the best to make that team and it just happens to be that everybody’s doing it at the right time.”
Of course, he adds, there’s the Mondo effect going on. “I don’t think there’s any pole vaulter out there who’s just going to see Mondo break the World Record and say, ‘You know what, I quit. I’m done. There’s no way I can compete with that.’
“I think everybody is like, ‘OK, we gotta go now.’ Mondo’s out here at 20 years old and jumping 6.18, taking shots at 6.19, we gotta step up our game a little bit. I don’t think anybody wants to go into the Olympics saying, ‘Yeah, I’m competing for silver.’ I think everybody’s kinda fired up by it. But it’s funny to see how relaxed Mondo is about it. He’s known it’s been coming for a while.”
Nilsen is enjoying every step of his quest to jump ever higher. “This is the dream,” he says. “I don’t really see it as a day in the office because at any point something negative could happen. I could undergo an injury, there could be some kind of family tragedy. I might have to give up pole vaulting for some weird reason.
“But I get to come out here every single day and not only jump 19-feet consistently, but do it with a team of USD Coyotes. I get to do that for the rest of my college career, which unfortunately is only another 4 months. Looking back at high school, if I was jumping 17-feet [c5.18] I was ecstatic. I was losing my mind about how crazy and happy that was. Now my opening height is 18-feet [c5.49]. I’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of work to do to get to the level I’m trying to be at.”