The first 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 2021 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.
As the U.S. men’s vault has metaphorically flown over the moon in the past year—with a record for any calendar year 10 Americans already above 19 feet and the metric 5.80 barrier (19-¼) this winter—Cole Walsh, at 24, is the senior member of a remarkable youth brigade pushing U.S. event godfather Sam Kendricks, the world champion and AR holder. Oregon alum Walsh, training in his native Phoenix since graduation in ’17, jumped into the U.S. Rankings (No. 5) in ’18 and the World Ranks (No. 6) last year.
Says Walsh, who is coached by ’00 Olympic gold medalist Nick Hysong, “The pole vault is competitive throughout the world; there’s young guys jumping very high and I think that other pole vaulters realize that they can do it too. Inspiration has a lot to do with performances, be it in sports or any part of people’s lives. They need someone to look to and, you know, we’ve got a 20-year-old kid breaking the World Record so why can’t you do it too? I think that’s the biggest thing. And a ton of these guys that are jumping high now are being coached by some of the greats from the ’90s and early 2000s when American vault was really strong. So there’s that generational thing too.”
Walsh, the ’14 USATF Junior (U20) champ as a Duck frosh, reached his collegiate high-water mark with an NCAA equal-5th as a senior in ’17. He surpassed 18ft that spring (18-½/5.50) and charged into the thick of the post-collegiate fray with clutch clearances in crucial competitions starting just over a year later with an 18-10¼ (5.75) PR for 3rd at the ’18 USATF.
“I can really thank the pressure that was put on me for my performance,” Walsh says. “I mean the four times that I’ve jumped 5.80 [19-¼] so far, all four of those meets have been pretty much the biggest meet of my life, if you will, leading up to that moment. My first 19-foot jump was in Oslo, Norway [last June], my very first Diamond League meet. I knew going into Oslo that if I performed well I might get invited to many more of these Diamond League meets. I knew I had to jump high and use that pressure to my advantage.” The result, a 19-¾ (5.81) clearance good for 3rd with, it should be noted, one Mondo Duplantis 4th.
“The second time I jumped 5.80,” Walsh continues, “was at the Diamond League Final. I knew I had to jump high to get on the podium there and I did. I tied for 3rd place by jumping 5.83 [19-1½]. So I really like to take advantage of the pressure or the excitement.”
And this winter? “Obviously the two meets indoors that I jumped 19 feet again, they were over-the-top meets,” Walsh says. First a 3rd in Rouen, Kendricks winning again. Then “All-Star Perche [in Clermont-Ferrand, France], that’s the all-star meet of pole vault and I wanted to perform there.” And he did, 6th as only the all-world trio of Duplantis, Kendricks and Renaud Lavillenie soared higher. “So when it comes to performing under pressure, if it helps me or not I absolutely love it. I love competing at big meets and I’m really sad that some of those big meets might not happen this year. I think that excitement is one of my favorite things about the sport so I hope that we can compete.”
While NCAA titles eluded him, Walsh’s collegiate stint laid groundwork. “I’m lucky to have worked with a lot of really smart guys at Oregon,” he says. “You know, they gave us absolutely everything we needed up there and I gained a lot of strength. I was able to work with Jamie Cook [now head coach at Navy], he was my event coach, and Jim Radcliffe. He’s a genius when it comes to the weights. Both of them got me a lot stronger and I was able to go back to Nick—who was my coach all through high school, I’m from Phoenix—whom I think most everyone would consider an expert in the vault.
“He really helped me use that strength that I found that maybe was a little bit misdirected. Working back with him and training in the heat I think had a lot to do with it too. There’s a lot to being able to train outside and jump a lot more outdoors. But I think coming back to Phoenix has helped me a lot in that I’ve sharpened my tools that I gained at Oregon, if you will.”
Walsh is fortunate that Hysong operates a fully-equipped private vault facility, Risen Performance, that remains available during the Covid-19 crisis. Throughout their coach/athlete relationship, Hysong—who hit his lifetime best, 19-4¼ (5.90), to triumph at the Sydney Olympics—has excelled at communicating. “Nick is a teacher,” Walsh says, “and in every aspect of training he’s not afraid to explain to you exactly how it’s going to help you in the vault. I mean I know for a fact that every exercise I’ve done, every sprint I’ve run has added to my ability, and little by little, I’m becoming the best that I can and I don’t think a lot of people [get that chance] to be the best that they can.”
For whenever vault competition resumes, Walsh is applying himself to a particular skill to reach higher heights. “It sounds kind of goofy,” he says, “but right now technically I am working on looking at where I am going. If I look up above the bar and see where I’m going, I know where to aim and I can aim higher. I’ve been working on that myself.” And with the high school vaulters he coaches at his alma mater: “I do coach at my high school, Brophy, but they have unfortunately closed down and they’ve canceled practices. But I’ve been telling my kids to look where they’re going and it’s working really well for both myself and the kids too.”