A YEAR TO REMEMBER. 2020 full-stop qualifies—mostly because we’d all love to wake up and learn we dreamed it. Mondo Duplantis, however, an easy winner in the voting for our Men’s MVP, gifted every fan with intoxicating World Record visuals and memories worth holding on to forever.
Ask the man who turned 21 in November what he cherishes as his 2020 highlight of highlights and he answers with a rapidity befitting his shooting star rise over the past four seasons. Let’s pause and savor those memories for a second: high school 19-footer in ’17 and then 19-10¼ (6.05) prep in ’18, improving at such a rate his school boy standard is higher than the 19-8¼ (6.00) Collegiate Record he set as an LSU Tiger at the ’19 SEC Championships.
Mondo’s fave 2020 record? Easy question from where he sits. “I would say it has to be the first one,” he says, “because I think it was just the most special and, you know, maybe will always be the most special World Record. ’Cause it was just the first one, it always will be the first one and, you know, just going from not World Record holder to World Record holder in just a matter of seconds. It was just a crazy feeling ’cause it’s something that I’ve wanted my entire life. To actually happen, it’s surreal.”
“Roll the tape” of Mondo’s 20-2¾ (6.17) flight in Toruń and you’ll trust his answer, not that there’s any reason to doubt it. (Continued below)
“I definitely felt good,” he says of the day on which he clipped Renaud Lavillenie’s run as recordman at a week short of 6 years. “I felt like I was in shape do something crazy, but at the same time it wasn’t like I woke up and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m breaking the World Record today.’ ’Cause I didn’t really know what the World Record was ’cause I’d never done it. So I still kind of felt like everything had to be completely perfect.
“And I mean, there were things that I thought weren’t perfect in the first jump that I had in the day. I was like, ‘If I want to jump something really high like the record, I’m gonna have to get some things figured out.’ It wasn’t like right from the beginning I just already knew. But I had a couple of jumps towards the end, 5.92 [19-5] and then 6.01 [19-8½], and then I went, ‘Yeah, I think I have a good shot.’”
In the offing his shot resembled a breakaway dunk, 9–10 inches of hip clearance, heck maybe a foot (25–30cm), and similar when a week later in Glasgow he added another half-inch (20-3¼/6.18). Plus remarkable consistency, no losses in ’20.
“No, I don’t think it was that technical,” he says when asked if some change in his vault brought his first undefeated season in the elite ranks. “I think it was more just I was entering my first full professional season and I started to change a few things in the way that I went about my training and my recovery and started taking things a little more serious, trying to act a little bit more like a pro about things, you know, because I am grown now.
“So I just thought that if I was going to make a career out of this, then I should probably be pretty invested in it. So I think it was just a matter of a lot of little things that came together and I just started trying to improve on everything that I can do just as an athlete and that just kind of built up to some good results.”
His WRs in February came before loudly supportive arena crowds, a species that would forced into hibernation for outdoor meets by the pandemic. Nonetheless, in mid-September in Rome’s immense-yet-empty Olympic Stadium, Duplantis supplanted Sergey Bubka as the highest-ever outdoor vaulter after 27 years with his 20-2 (6.15) clearance on second try.
Trying to make anything happen outdoors “was tough in the beginning,” Mondo admits, “because it was hard to come by a good place to train. I was kind of just doing stuff in my parents’ backyard. But I mean, when the meets started to get postponed, the Olympics and stuff, I knew that the outdoor season wasn’t going to have a big championship, so I wasn’t as stressed out about everything. It wasn’t like now the season was that important because I knew that me and a lot of other people kind of had trouble training and didn’t have the right facilities to get in our best shape.
“So as far as competing in those [summer] meets, it was tough in the beginning, especially when I started getting back into competing again, ’cause I was just kinda a little rusty from like two months off of not being able to do World Record [preparation] kind of stuff. But yeah, I started to figure out a nice little rhythm toward the end and I was able to make that jump at 6.15, so that was good.”
He doesn’t find the vault superstardom he has developed to be a distraction. “I still have a lot of personal goals that I want to achieve,” he explains, “and you know, for me I’ve always loved pole vaulting, I’ve always loved the challenge of it and the challenge of just always trying to push the limits to see how high you can go. And you know, no matter how high I’ve jumped, even now, I still have that feeling, which is wanting to keep trying to strive to get better. So for me it hasn’t changed yet. I still have the love for what I’m doing and I just want to try to keep trying to get better at it.”
As his friend and rival world champion Sam Kendricks, once summed it up, Duplantis has “got Swedish citizenship but he’s an American boy, he grew up in Louisiana.” For the travel-restricted pandemic season of ’20, he trained for a good chunk of the summer in mother Helena’s Scandinavian homeland—at one point she ferried his poles all the way to Rome and back by car—and got a sense of what Swedish fans think of him.
Is his rock star status higher in Sweden or down on the bayou? ”Definitely Sweden,” he again answers quickly. ”Yeah, it’s quite easily Sweden. But I mean it’s just different, it’s just strange, because I mean people here in Louisiana, it’s not that easy for them to watch my competitions when I’m competing in Europe and whatnot. So they don’t really know what’s going on other than if I make a post on my social media or something like that. But in Sweden it’s always on the national television all the time so it’s pretty easy for everybody to follow. There’s so many people that are in tune on exactly what’s going on.
“It’s not like people don’t know me in Louisiana. It’s like people will stop me and say stuff but they just have no idea what’s going on. It’s like, ‘Hey, have you competed in the Olympics yet?’ I ‘m like, ‘No, it actually got postponed.’ They just don’t know what’s going on. But in Sweden they can tell you the 6-meters that I jumped in the last meet where it was and where my next meet is.
”Like I’ll come back from a meet in like Belgium, I just jumped 6-meters, and I come back to Sweden and I’m eating in a restaurant and this guy comes to talk to me asking what I think about 6.15 [the world outdoor best he eventually hit in Rome]. And I told him I think I have a good shot at it. I was like, ‘Wow, he really knows his stuff.’ And he wasn’t even a track guy either, he just said he just watches all my meets. I’m thinking, ‘Wow!’”
After his ’20 performances, seemingly every track guy or gal on the planet has an opinion about how high Mondo can ultimately go. Does he?
“No, not really,” he says. “I mean, I think that I can jump higher, of course. I always think there’s room to improve. But I think for now after getting the World Record I want to jump higher and I want to break my World Records, of course, but the main focus is the championship meets, trying to get the World Championships gold medal and the Olympic gold medal.”
Bubka stuck around for 16 seasons after his first WR in ’84 and set his last global standard 9 years after that first one. Lavillenie now has 12 seasons in since he first scaled elite heights. Does Duplantis see himself, too, catapulting to 20-foot-plus elevations a decade or more in the future?
“Yeah. I mean I want to,” he says. “As long as I’m jumping good and I’m healthy and I still like what I’m doing then I’ll continue to jump. I don’t know how long that is. I mean, it’s just different for everybody. But I want to jump for a long time and I’ll try to make sure I can figure out the way to put me in the best situation to make that be able to happen.”