Focus On The U.S. Men’s Pole Vault Scene

Highlighting the camaraderie that runs rampant in the U.S. vault corps, Sam Kendricks was mobbed by his fellow competitors following his AR at last year’s USATF meet. (MIKE SCOTT)

THIS SURGE WON’T STOP. That’s our guess and the men of the U.S. vault corps have signaled it’s also their determination. The vaulters got on a record roll this winter before C-19 halted track meets in their tracks along with everything else. Ten Americans went over 19 feet indoors—more specifically over 19-¼ (5.80) or higher. Then at an outdoor meet in Mexico City, Texas A&M alum Audie Wyatt’s PR 19-1 (5.82) brought the absolute total to 11 (see sidebar).

The highest total in any previous full calendar year was 8—in ’96 for the first time and again in ’04. Olympic seasons, as this one was expected to be and ’21 is planned to be, have a way of prompting vaulters to pull out the stops, and a great cause for optimism this go-round is the youth of these high-flyers. At the time of this writing their average age is 22.9 years. One of them, Stephen F. Austin soph Branson Ellis, is still just 19. The other college sophs in the group, Zach Bradford of Kansas and KC Lightfoot of Baylor, competed in the World Championships last fall before they turned 20.

T&FN’s World Rankings have a tale to tell, as well. Last year 3 Americans rated in the top 10: World champion/AR-setter Sam Kendricks at No. 1 for a third straight season; NCAA champion Chris Nilsen, 22, who placed among the top 6 at two summer DL meets; and World Championships finalist Cole Walsh, 24, whose six DL appearances included an =3rd finish in the Final. ’19 was the first season with more than one U.S. vaulter Ranked since ’08 and the first with 3 since ’05. The first man in the world to produce a 19-footer in ’20 was 27-year-old U.S. vet Andrew Irwin.

U.S. men’s vaulting is on a high, and its practitioners have theories about the reason. More than one whom we spoke with quoted their exemplar, Kendricks: “A high tide raises all boats.” Several acknowledged a Mondo Effect, the influence exerted by young Mr. Duplantis, ex of Louisiana prepdom and LSU, now the World Record holder.

“I think it’s kind of like the 4:00 mile situation, so to speak,” opines 22-year-old Jacob Wooten. “Mondo came along and started breaking all these barriers and everyone just saw that he was doing it so they figured they could to.”

23-year-old Matt Ludwig, winner in February’s gripping USATF Indoor comp, believes a significant number explains a lot. “I think personally what has driven this year is the fact that the Olympic standard was set to 5.80 [19-¼],” says the Akron grad. “That set the new bar that you had to jump if you wanted a chance for the Games. So that’s what everybody started working towards. It used to be the Worlds standard at 5.70 [18-8¼] and that’s how we measured things. I think by raising that standard to 5.80 we’re forcing people to respond. And I think the U.S. has been a great example of that.”

Says Kendricks, whom his juniors enthusiastically gang-tackled after he broke the American Record at last summer’s Nationals, “This sport always comes in waves. And every wave leaves something on top of the rocks. I was certainly a part of that in my time and it comes again now. A high tide raises all boats. I would have to say Renaud Lavillenie was the tide of 2010–2015, and then perhaps myself in 2016, ’17, ’18 and ’19. So now Mondo will be the surge that brings even more youth.

“I will tell you the secret is knowledge—it’s not necessarily talent, ’cause talent is always there, the generations are full of it. It’s knowledge, and I can tell you that’s the toughest thing that we’ve had to come by in the past. Me and my coach have learned so much just through having to do and to see firsthand what so many young people—and this is not to their discredit, it’s to their credit—can now learn from afar.”

The 27-year-old Kendricks, of course, is talking about internet video: “You know, being an early-’90s baby I didn’t have access to all the same resources to just be able to simply see somebody do it well all the time. When I’m talking about the use of the internet and social media in collegiate sports, in high school sports, in track & field becoming more prevalent all the time, it’s really just a gift to these people that they can learn faster and they can match that athleticism and that focus quicker. You know as well as I do that pole vaulting has formerly been a mature man’s event. It’s always been the older guys on the team that were shot putters and pole vaulters. Now it’s the young guys, it’s a crazy thing. I was the oldest guy at the USA Championships besides my buddy Scott Houston [who will turn 30 in June]. It’s a sport of attrition like any other.”

A Quick Look At Other Major Players

KC Lightfoot, 20: As a prep senior in ’18 (Lees Summit, Missouri) he rose up to No. 3 on the all-time prep list behind only Duplantis and Norwegian citizen Sondre Guttormsen. He only got better as a Baylor frosh in ’19, placing 3rd at USATF with an 18-10¾ (5.76) PR. Coached by Bears assistant Brandon Richards (himself a former HSR setter and son of PV great Bob Richards), Lightfoot never lost during the ’20 indoor campaign and hit a new best 19-1½ (5.83) on Valentine’s Day.

Zach Bradford, 20: Another from the Mondo-led HS class of ’18, the Bloomington, Illinois, product’s 18-½ (5.50) that year made him the third indoor 18-footer in prep history. After matriculation at Kansas last year, he PRed thrice in one day at the Kansas Relays topped by 18-11 (5.77). An NCAA 6th, USATF 4th and experience at the World Champs followed for the teen. Undefeated this winter except for a 2nd to Lightfoot at the Big 12. PRed at 19-¼ (5.80). “Knowing the outdoor season was canceled hit harder than the NCAA Indoor being canceled,” he told “Indoors is just one meet. It’s OK. They were taking a precaution. Having the outdoor season canceled, that’s a whole season and a bunch of meets. Having the Olympics added on to that… it’s just knowing it’s more time to prepare for next year and get ready for it. There’s nothing else in my control.”

Branson Ellis, 19: An 18-foot prep (18-3¼/5.57 for Lee of Tyler, Texas), he grabbed the USATF Junior (U20) title last year and won at the Pan-Am Juniors. On a 3-PR day, placed 2nd at this winter’s USATF Indoor (19-¼/5.80).

’19 USATF Junior champ Branson Ellis is the only teenager among this year’s record class of 19-footers. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

Kyle Pater, 25: Air Force serviceman essayed an eye-opening indoor season, first popping over 19-1 (5.82) in January, a 3½ (9cm) elevation of his best and then placing 3rd at the USATF Indoor.

Scott Houston, 30: Sidelined from the ’20 winter wars, he stayed deeply involved as a collegiate vault coach at High Point. U.S. Ranked No. 7 last year off his USATF placings (2nd indoors, 5th out). ’18 was a big year for the North Carolina native. He PRed at 19-1½i (5.83) to win the USATF Indoor title.

Clayton Fritsch, 21: Sam Houston collegian made the most of his soph season in ’19. 7th at the NCAA Indoor with a then-PR 18-5½i (5.63), he climbed higher still at the outdoor NCAA with his best 18-10¼ (5.75) good for 3rd behind Nilsen and Mondo. Best in the 7-week cutoff season of ’20: 18-2½i (5.55).

Audie Wyatt, 23: ’18 Texas A&M grad now training in Arizona, he raised his best to 18-6½ (5.65) this January, matched that for an =7th USATF Indoor placing and then reached the 19-foot echelon pushing over 19-1 (5.82) outdoors in Mexico on February’s third weekend. (Continued below)

The Rest Of The Picture

While the vault corps’ low average age promotes optimism for the future, the outlook is not entirely rosy. Young athletes making the college-to-elite transition always face off-the-field bars to get over. This year of unknown prospects for competition could erect more of them. “‘Professional athlete’ is such a skewed term nowadays,” notes South Dakota senior Nilsen. “Everybody thinks that if you go out of college you’re automatically professional. But that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

Nilsen has a point. Among the top 50 on the U.S. men’s vault list last year, only Kendricks and Walsh entered meets with corporate-sponsor affiliations—Nike for each of them.

Says Kendricks, “The true loss of this year is not necessarily the Olympics moving, but taking all the momentum that so many young athletes have been putting into this year. ’Cause you can’t hold onto it forever. It’s a perishable item. This force, this momentum, this buildup, it’ll be just as great or greater next year, but it won’t be the same for the people that were doing it this year, doing it to their best of their ability. Especially the people that haven’t met that level before. And I know you know this as well as I do. It’s their loss and I hate that.

”We’re going to have to try to preserve that talent and that momentum next year, the crowd and the crop of true harness talent that was offered in the NCAA. It doesn’t chap me hardly at all as a professional because they very well are likely to move our professional season back just to cope with all these delays and what not, and I’ll still have my competitions this year. But they won’t and they won’t be given that chance to prove themselves. And I know how critical that is to reach the next stage.”

While it’s now really early more than a year out to try to predict Olympic Trials outcomes, note that only twice in the meet’s history have more than two vaulted above 19 in the same meet; 3 in ’92, 4 in ’04. While conditions always have a say, dare we hope for more in ’21?