The NCAA men’s pole vault is about to undergo a sea change; it’s going to develop a crowd at the top, and the one constant in all of this, South Dakota’s reigning champ Chris Nilsen, is thrilled.
No. 4 World Ranker Mondo Duplantis heads a loaded incoming frosh class that features no fewer than five 18-footers: Duplantis 19-10¼ (6.05), Baylor’s KC Lightfoot (18-5/5.615), Stephen F. Austin’s Branson Ellis (18-3¼/5.57), and KU’s Zach Bradford & UCLA’s Sondre Guttormsen (both 18‑2½/5.55). With talent like that to face, Nilsen knows there are going to be storylines beyond the fact that he’s the outdoor meet record holder at 19-1½ (5.83), and he can’t wait to check out the new terrain.
“The NCAA has been a little down the last few years, there were a couple of 19-footers here and there—Shawn Barber, Jake Blankenship, Sam Kendricks—but it was a little down after that,” the Coyote junior says. “Now it’s about to pick up. It’s definitely exciting to see where the NCAA is going now. It’s really cool, we’re all going to push each other to higher heights.”
What no frosh can claim, of course, is to be a defending NCAA champion, and Nilsen is definitely in a different place in his life than the pole vaulting block’s new kids. He’s married with a 1-year-old child, juggling all that with school and athletics. “The last 6 months, I haven’t had any competitions, so that helped,” he says. “It is going to be a lot to handle, but I’ll get through it.”
He’s also working through a winter illness that set him back a bit, as he started with a shorter run, but that should sort itself out through an indoor season that won’t give him much head-to-head competition with the other top vaulters. South Dakota’s schedule is mostly set in neighboring states, and other than indoor nationals, the next big thing Nilsen has circled is what should be a star-loaded Texas Relays.
“There are technical things I’m working on, I’ve got to work on my takeoff, I’ve got to get stronger and faster,” he says. “I caught some kind of virus, a flu, that set me back a little. Lying in a bed four days, my system just shut down, now I’m working on gaining that speed and strength back.”
When that happens, Nilsen thinks he could be set up for something special. “I think 5.95 [19-6¼], even 6m [19-8¼] could be possible,” he says. That would make what should be an interesting year even more notable. □