THE INSTANT HE CLEARED the highest bar of his career, 19-10½ (6.06), Sam Kendricks knew he would be dogpiled by his competitors. More on that later. What he didn’t know coming into the meet was that he might break the American Record.
“You never do, you never do,” he said smiling in the afterglow. “If you do you’re forsaking the competition. You know, I’ve often said 6m [19-8¼] is kind of like a silver bullet in our sport. In only 4 competitions in history has someone jumped a 6m or better bar and not won. Only 4 times in history. Usually if you jump 6m you’re gonna win, and you’re discounting the rest of the great American jumpers out there if you say, ‘I’m just going to try to jump high today.’ Because it’s going to take all you have to just make it there. Like I said at the very beginning, your greatest efforts are asked of you at the end of the competition when you are the most fatigued.”
A meticulous athlete, the reigning world titlist—and now 6-time USATF outdoor champion—had, indeed, said that as he walked up to face the media. “A very wise pole vaulter once told me, ‘Do not talk technicalities in interviews,’” Kendricks declared to open the proceedings. “But I might do it just for you. The nature of our event is, ‘How well can you hold it together?’ Because the biggest asks are at the end of the meet.”
Kendricks then looked at his watch and ran the calculation. “It’s 5:34. We had a rain delay, we got here at 11:00, we started the competition at 2:30, it’s 5:30. That’s 3 hours; 3 hours of competition, it’s 90 degrees out, and if it’s 90 degrees out there it’s 100 degrees on the turf. These guys were saying, ‘The bar is not the only obstacle, it’s the heat.’
Kendricks knew he could use furnace temperatures to his advantage. He had done so spectacularly once before, at the ’17 Nationals in Sacramento where he vaulted his previous best, that 6m (19-8¼) benchmark. “What happens when you’ve got hot conditions is your poles do different things so it afforded me some things that I may not have done at another meet,” he explained. “Namely, I was able to grip the same pole that I had and speed up my run. And then with that extra stiffness you get so much more velocity going up. That’s the whole way that I jump. You want to come off the pole faster because you’re covering more distance. (Continued below)
“I jump on a shorter pole, pretty middling length for American jumpers, 4.90m, about 16-1 [by way of comparison, Mondo uses a 5.20/17-1 pole]. It’s just about everything I can do to get that pole to do what I want it to do on a pretty day like today. We had great conditions, it was hot, and a competition that stayed stalwart the whole time. You have to have that to jump high. When I jumped 6m for the first time in Sacramento it was the same conditions. Hot on the track, my shoes were melted when I came home, but there were guys that were pushing the height all the way up, American guys. You know there’s no other country out there with more than 3 guys at the [World Championships Q] standard [18-8¾/5.71]. We’ve got 11 of them; it was wild. So we have the conditions here in our own country to put international-level performances out there, and that’s what it takes.”
Well, there are other factors too. “It’s not just me,” Kendricks said. “There’s good calls from a good coach, simple though they may be, and a great competition that elevates you. And asks more things of you than you’re capable of.”
Throwing his caution about talking technique to the wind, Kendricks did some more of it, addressing pole stiffness. “If you go to a stiffer pole I try not to grip any higher because the trick of it is—and I’m talking technical and I know it’s gonna be on the internet somewhere and I hate doing that but—you want it to be fast. Speed is speed. Every athlete out here will tell you, ‘I want to be faster.’ It’s the same thing for pole vault.”
Pole vault is different, though, for its close camaraderie. It’s everyone against the bar, and maybe the shared challenge of odd-size baggage, ferrying unwieldy 15- & 16-foot lengths of high-tech “lumber” around the world. The men’s vault club members assembled in Des Moines lined the runway and clapped for Kendricks’ two shots at the AR.
As soon as he went over on second try, Kendricks said later, “I saw it coming.” By “it,” he meant the competitors’ rush to dogpile him on the pit. “I stood up and I was really trying to puzzle it out,” he said. “As I came over the bar I looked to the left and I saw that I hit it, but I didn’t hit it as hard as the one before, and I said, ‘That’s gonna stay.’ And as I was falling, I said, ‘They’re about to come and tackle me.’ All these guys, I know ‘em, we’ve been jumping together for years and years and years. Well, maybe not this kid over here [gesturing at 3rd-placer Baylor frosh KC Lightfoot], he was born in ’99 like my little sister. My God, he’s 7 years younger than me. Me and Scotty Houston were the oldest guys out there.
“But I looked, they were lined up on the edge of the runway clapping for me. You know, I have never been to a competition were there’s enough guys that want success for you that bad. We are a pretty tight-knit group all around the world in the pole vault but here in the States we speak the same language, and that’s something special. You know a bunch of American boys out there can do a lot of amazing things.” In the gang tackle Kendricks incurred only a minor spike wound to one of his shins. (Continued below)
Many in the U.S. sport liked that Kendricks had tidied up the American Record book, removing Swedish dual citizen Mondo Duplantis’s name. One writer suggested the AR was “strangely held by Mondo,” a characterization that didn’t fly with Kendricks. “Well, let me change the question a little bit,” he offered. “When you say ‘strangely held,’ well, by the rules of USA Track & Field he held the record as a dual citizen. He’s got Swedish citizenship but he’s an American boy, he grew up in Louisiana. I don’t fault him for jumping in a Swedish uniform. That’s the way the rule was and USA Track & Field, they said, ‘We’re gonna stand by what happened but we’re gonna change the rule.’ So he may not be able to set it again in the future but that’s just the nature of our sport. I wanted to jump 6.06 anyway.”
Then the new AR holder talked strategy, and his decision to vault at, and clear, 19-4¾ (5.91) before attempting the record setting: “My coach, I tell you what, he’s an old cowboy and an old Marine pilot, a captain of men. He is a horse trainer, he’s a very down-to-earth fellow.” Said coach is also Kendricks’ dad, first name Scott. “As soon as I won the competition I wanted to go to 6.06. I said, ‘Coach, today’s the day, let’s go for it.’ He said, ‘No, I want you to jump a bar between, go jump the 91 bar.’ And he is so smart. He’s been looking, he scribes all of our notes from training down in his green book—you may ask him to look at it but he’ll never let you—the notes from what leads up to our best performances.
“And I’m not going to give you the secret to that but he set in motion a few things that allowed us to step the same places that we did in 2017 to jump 6m for the first time. He said, ‘I’m gonna give Sam the best mental shot that he’s got to jump the bar. He’s going to handle the physical part.’ So that’s what he did for me. So when [I was] going up to 6.06 I already had jumped 91, right. You gotta bridge the gap between these big leaps in bar heights. So when you brush it, on the first jump I said, ‘Coach K, I’ve hit bars harder and they stayed, dang it!’ So when I came over it the second time I had that much more experience.”
Not just experience. Now Kendricks has an AR, distinction as history’s second-highest-flying vaulter in an outdoor meet—only Sergey Bubka stands ahead of him in that category—and an unprecedented run of U.S. titles in his event. “Today was my sixth USA outdoor championship in a row,” he said. “There was a record, and it’s only for me and my coach, I held with Cornelius Warmerdam at 5 USA championships in the pole vault in a row [Bob Richards also had 5 consecutive 1st-place finishes, 1948–52, but two of those were ties]. Today marked our sixth. So that was kind of a record for me and him and something we’re going to go celebrate tonight, for sure.”