NO. 5 IN A SERIES of articles originally intended as part of our Olympic Trials Men’s Pole Vault Preview. With the Trials and Olympics now postponed to ’21 as the COVID-19 crisis grips the world, we present this series as a look at an event that was red hot through the abbreviated ’20 indoor campaign, an event that promises to be spectacular when competition resumes.
Chris Nilsen is by no stretch an average vaulter. The South Dakota senior is the reigning NCAA champion, the slayer of Mondo Duplantis in Austin last June. In February, Nilsen’s 19-5½ (5.93) clearance at Nebraska in February lifted Mondo’s year-old Collegiate Indoor Record. (Back in ’17, Mondo had claimed the national HS record from Nilsen.)
However, Nilsen, T&FN’s Men’s Indoor Collegiate Athlete Of The Year, is a quintessential pole vaulter, practitioner of an event renowned for its camaraderie. Something to do with the reality that the bar usually wins—with a fall some 9 times out of 10 after the victor on the day has out-heighted the field. Also, smart vaulters keep their rivals close. It doesn’t do to arrive at a meet with one’s poles lost by the airline and no friends to hit up for a loan.
This may explain why Nilsen feels perplexed by questions that position him in a metaphorical O.K. Corral with Duplantis his Wyatt Earp. “It’s weird,” he says. “Something I don’t understand is when people ask me how do I feel about beating Mondo at NCAAs or beating his record, I don’t really see it as though I beat him. I mean, sure, we don’t compete for the same team but we’re not rivals, we’re not enemies. I think my goal at NCAAs wasn’t to win. My goal was to jump a PR. That [19-6¼/5.95] just happened to be the winning mark. And then I think that when I jumped the NCAA Record I wasn’t thinking I want to jump this specifically so I can beat Mondo.
“I was doing it for myself and my team. I wanted to say that a South Dakota Coyot’ had the national record for at least some small amount of time. ’Cause I guarantee next year comes along and either Zach Bradford, KC Lightfoot or some other young freak is going to come along and break it like it’s child’s play.
“So I think it’s cool, but I’m never looking at it like, I need to do this because I want to beat Mondo. I love Mondo; dude’s a stud. He’s a very good person. I’m lucky to have him as a friend. He’s the World Record holder. He’s kinda got me on that one.”
As mentioned, vaulters are used to abrupt endings. Just not of the kind that cut short this year’s indoor season—for everybody. The third week in February found Nilsen topping a CR bar and hoping to add a second NCAA Indoor title (he won in ’17) to his pair of Outdoor crowns. A month later, C19 time, he finds himself “kind of doing caveman stuff right now. We‘re doing 100s on the minute on grass fields and throwing rocks instead of med balls. I’m not joking. That’s the reality of our situation right now. But we’re making do.”
With South Dakota’s facilities shuttered at the moment along with most of the country, Nilsen says, “We’re trying to find a spot to vault right now, whether that’s the local high school or maybe we’ve got to skip town for a day or two and go vault somewhere.”
Nilsen, having stayed put in Vermillion, is “self-quarantining with my best friend, at his house, just because he kind of has a preexisting health issue” and adds that “training’s going OK” even though he hasn’t seen his coach, Derek Miles, in person since before coach and athlete departed for Albuquerque and the NCAA Indoor on different flights.”
The only certainty about further ’20 meets if they happen is that they’re not right around the corner so Nilsen, as he works toward online completion of his Kinesiology degree, is training like it’s autumn. “How fall training works at USD specifically,” he says, “is that we don’t really vault that much. Maybe once every two weeks leading up into the season until we get to November, December. Then we start going every week, like twice a week. But in the first few months—August, September, October—we tend to just do training as in speed and strength and core and stability and firing up neurological system as much as we possibly can to make sure, ‘OK, we’ve got to activate here now or we‘re not going to be ready in December.’” Nilsen hopes, of course, that an eventual easing of social distance restrictions will enable small group vault sessions: “Having taken almost a month off of no vaulting will—it’ll put on some rust, you know?”
As vaulter builds go, Nilsen’s is more Mack truck than sports coupe. “If you’re 6-5, 205 pounds [1.96/93], like myself, you’re probably able to move a pretty heavy stick,” he analyzes. “Usually I’m on like a 17-foot 12.0 flex for weight. I think that’s like 220  or something like that. But also if you’re taller the takeoff angle is probably going to be a little higher because my right arm, my top arm, can reach a little higher than someone who’s not 6-5. But I think regardless of all the physicalities, something that you need to look at is the training these athletes are doing. If you have good power distribution, if you can build power down the runway, if you can properly distribute that power into the takeoff, and if your takeoff technique is good, I think a lot of it comes from the training that you do.”
It’s not just size that counts. “If you’re training strength and speed and neurological activation and balance and stability and all these other things,” he expands further, “you’re probably setting yourself up to be a pretty successful vaulter. But you’ve got to know what to train, how to train and what works best for you. Because what works best for me probably won’t work best for Mondo and what works best for Mondo probably won’t work best for Renaud Lavillenie or Sam Kendricks. We’re all completely different people and we have different ways of being successful.”
With a grasp of the physics that more than matches his 22 years of age, Nilsen is reassured that Miles’s mentorship stands to continue past graduation. The two have struck a bargain laid out by the coach: “You’re allowed to come back and train as long as you provide some kind of positive aspect to the team—whether that means helping them with workouts or setting up the pits, driving a recruit from the airport or helping out the USD team at meets. Just being a positive influence on the team. That was the deal, I guess you could say.”
Miles brings to the collaboration collected wisdom from a 17-season world-class career of his own that saw him top out at 19-2¼ (5.85). A Coyote alum, the 47-year-old California native made three Olympic teams and earned bronze from the ’08 Games in Beijing little more than a month before his 36th birthday.
“The long and short” of what coach and athlete have achieved and hope to achieve in the future, Nilsen says, “is Derek’s training, Derek’s teaching, Derek’s knowledge of technique in the pole vault and his relatability to me because we’re both tall, heavyset men who have decent speed. You know, we kind of have very similar vaults.”