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High School Record For "Dead Beetle" Chris Nilsen

by Jeff Hollobaugh

When Chris Nilsen first started vaulting as a high school freshman, they called him “Dead Beetle.” Today, with an 18-4¾ leap, he is the national prep record holder.

chris nilsen high school record

At first it was all about staying in shape for soccer, the sport he had competed in since age 3. He decided he need to do a spring sport in order to stay in shape. “Track was the only thing that really interested me, and when I saw my 8th grade English teacher coaching the pole vault, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go with someone familiar.’ Everything kind of started there.”

As for the nickname, it had to do with the interesting form he mastered as a 9th-grader: “I would kind of go up on the pole and ball up and fly over. So that happened quite a bit,” he explains.

That first year he cleared 10-0 for Park Hill High School in Kansas City, Missouri. Nonetheless, Stephanie Yuen, his first vault coach, found it in her heart to encourage him.



In the fall, he continued to play soccer, clearly still his better sport at that time. He says, “I was all right. I think I was good for high school. But past that, no. I was no Ronaldo.”

As a sophomore, Nilsen managed to clear 12-3, still a little bit short of the national soph record of 17-6. Nevertheless, he decided he liked to the vault enough to sign on with Rick Attig, a pole vault instructor who runs a training facility about 15 minutes away in Shawnee, Kansas.

Says Attig, “He was pretty typical of most kids. I think he just felt like he had a real need to pull himself off the ground and to pull it on top. Of course, when kids go to my camps, the first thing I tell them is there is no pulling in the pole vault—relative to pulling with your arms like most people think of it. At times actually he was a little scary. When kids take off like that you never know where they’re going to land. At first when I would talk to him about those types of things, I don’t know if he really quite understood what I was trying to get across.”

But Nilsen proved a fast study and his improvement from the time he started working with Attig is nothing short of stunning. In less than a month he went from 12-3 to workout jumps at 15-feet. By the next spring, he vaulted 17-0 and was tied for 10th on the national lists.

At his sectinoal meet as a junior, he made headlines for clearing 16-0. He had hoped to try for something higher, but the standards couldn’t go any higher. Today, at the same meet, the organizers wisely thought to borrow the standards from Nilsen’s school, and thus were able to accommodate the HSR.

As for his rapid improvement, Nilsen credits Attig, among others. “I think everybody’s got potential to do great things, but it takes someone really great to bring out that potential,” he says.

Nilsen adds, “He brought me to where I am today. Just constantly getting support, and I think constantly practicing four times a week up until this point just really showed off the hard work.”

Attig notes that Nilsen’s incredible work ethic is also his biggest challenge. “He would never miss a session and he would be the last guy vaulting,” he says. “We would have to run him off the runway. In the summer during the camps he would go to the sessions and he would want to jump more. After jumping in one session he would be jumping another session on his own. And maybe with one or two of our coaches going till 11 o’clock at night.

“One of his great strengths is also his great weakness. He likes to jump a lot and sometimes that’s not always the best when you’re substituting quantity for quality. But that’s the way it is with a lot of really good vaulters.”

Technically, like all masters of the event, Nilsen has strengths as well as challenges that he works on regularly. Uncomfortable with listing his own skills, he finally says, “One thing that has helped me has been my approach. Rick has helped me put together a very fast and powerful approach on the poles. And then my plant and my takeoff; Rick stresses that a lot. I do think those two things are my strong points in the vault. I still have a lot of work to do on top when it comes to invert and pushing off, but today was definitely good day for everything.”

The wind was still when the competition started. “When I started getting up in height, it started turning into more of a tailwind,” explains Nilsen. “That was a lot better for me. It helped me get on the big pole.”

Nilsen opened the day with a miss at 16-0. He made it on his second. At 16-6 he again needed 2 attempts. Then he vaulted cleanly through 17-0 and 17-6.

Attig knew he was in good form. “As soon as he jumped 17-0, someone said, ‘How high do you think he’ll jump?’ and I said, ‘I think he’ll jump 18-4 today’.”

As per high school rules, the bar was set on longer pegs than are allowed in international or collegiate competition. On his third attempt at the record, he brushed the bar and it took a bounce before settling.

Now that he’s less than two inches away from the Olympic Trials standard of 18-6½ (5.65), the peg length could be an issue in later meets. However, after his state finals next weekend, it’s likely that he will be on shorter pegs the rest of the summer.

Says Nilsen of his plans, “I reached my goal of a national record. So I think it’s now just going for bigger heights that will qualify me for bigger meets. I’m just trying to finish out the year on top in the nation and see where we go from there.”

As for a shot at the Trials, he says, “It’s definitely a motivator. And it really shows me that it’s possible that I could get it but it’s not going to come easy. It’s just going to be a lot of hard work and motivation. And I’ve got people to push me to do that.”

Not that he isn’t passionate enough about the event to make it happen. He says, “I think it’s the fall that I enjoy most. Because as pole vaulters we strive to fall longer, so when we get the fall longer that’s when we get super excited. Plus, it feels like you’re freefalling. Everybody loves that.”

Where will it all lead? After the summer, Nilsen will be off to the University of South Dakota. And beyond? “I’ve been told by people that they could see me in the top five in the world in the next three years. But you know, I’m kind of just taking it day-by-day right now. I’m not really going to predict, ‘I’ll be in the Olympics this year’ or ‘I will win something big in the next few years’. I think I’m just going to take it day-by-day and see how practice and competition goes, but I definitely see myself getting higher than I am right now.”

Nilsen has the psychological tools to go far, says Attig, who coached for years at Kansas and Nebraska and worked with past stars Pat Manson and Scott Huffman. “He’s a tough kid. I’ve never seen him be afraid of getting on bigger poles. He is on some monster poles for a high school kid.

“He’s very fearless. It’s very rare that I ever see him run through…And he’s been a lot of fun to work with.”

May 21, 2016