Sam Kendricks Finds Ways To Beat The Best

Sam Kendricks and his coach/father Scott got to celebrate an American Record at the USATF Championships last year. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

NO. 6 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. Look for an event analysis to wrap our PV coverage next. Wrap until meets return, that is.

As he surveys the current vault landscape from his position as 2-time reigning world champion and No. 1 World Ranker the past 3 years, Sam Kendricks is witness to an unprecedented number of young Americans clambering to higher heights. On the international front he contends with a certain 20-year-old World Record holder who at the World Championships last October led him on the countback at the elevated fourth height of 19-3 (5.87) and kept fighting on through a pair of third-attempt clearances to stay in the contest.

The 27-year-old Mississippi alum loves it all. The rising heat of competition has brought out in him American Records indoors and out in the past year. First his 19-10½ (6.06) second-try make at the USATF Champs in Des Moines last July, and then indoors this February his undercover 19-8½ (6.01) in Rouen, France.

“Generally an American Record is a little bit more of everything,” he says, “and I can only say that the perspective in the sport rises when you have competition. So honestly, I thank guys like Mondo and Piotr Lisek and Renaud Lavillenie for continuing to challenge the sport. They never make any day easy and that just forges you into quite a different competitor than you might have been five years prior.”

Speaking of charting a path with coach/father Scott through the COVID-19 competition pause, Kendricks says, “Everybody’s got a different situation but I’ve been blessed enough for the last couple years to put together the resources to have on me and my coach’s property a world-class vaulting runway put up by a friend, and a great company which built us a custom pit. We set that up prominent on our property so we could have private training and be able to offer that when times are like these.”

Not every amenity is at hand but Kendricks finds ways to improvise. “You know, inevitably you end up having to go back to more and more basic types of training,” he says. “I’m in the process of building a house right now that would be equipped with a training room and weightroom and things like that. But right now you just make use of what you have. You have flat roads, you have hills, you have crude weights and all kinds of stuff. It takes me back to an earlier time of when I was training for this event.” (Continued below)

He is also connecting with the vault community. “We’re actually hosting an online seminar night for pole vaulting coaches and athletes that are starving for some conversation about the sport,” he says. An important insight Kendricks likes to share is that successful vaulters understand the rhythm of peak performance.

“I can give you the number of 10 or so guys that have topped the sport, they’ve really mastered it,” he says. “But they understand where and when they can be truly all of the best of themselves. And you can’t do it every day. That’s what you end up discovering as you progress in the sport, that you can’t be Superman every day. But you work that peak, just as so many athletes wish to. You work to the peak and give yourself as many opportunities to have success. But the technical aspects of the event, they rarely change.”

While the laws of physics don’t change, eras, their casts of event stars and the levels those athletes operate at do. Kendricks agrees the dramatic Doha contest was emblematic of the current surge. “It was truly one of the finest competitions I’ve ever been a part of,” he says before laying out some context: ”A long time ago when I started in this sport, my dad told me a dream and it wasn’t his dream.

“He said, ‘I’ll help you plant the seed,’ and he coached me all these years and he still coaches me. He said, ‘I’ll tell you the truth Sam, you’re not the greatest athlete in the world,’ and he told me that a long time ago. I said, ‘Well, I’d really just love to be a part of this great endeavor and try to strive for that elite status and be among a group of guys that really care about the same kind of thing with the same kind of passion.’

“Truly, in the beginning it started as an exercise and became an obsession. You grow into that competitor that you want to be. And the culmination of that is every championship. But more so than any other [so far], this championship, Doha. Yeah, I’m the reigning champion but the last two times I’ve won it, I’ve only won it by a small margin. I’ve never blown anybody out of the water when it comes to championships on the international stage. You just are thankful for that moment and you understand, ’Man, this was truly a fun competition that you could write novels about.’ People, they don’t [often] get to just put themselves in that situation.

”Seeing the competition from that point, being in that singular moment, that’s a true art form in itself. It was something I look back on fondly and me and Mondo will always look back fondly on it. It could have gone either way, and it’d be the same story either way.

“You can’t expect yourself to do that all the time. And I’ll tell you the truth, now it seems like that’s requested of us every day since Mondo has even taken it to the next stage. We will have to be better than ourselves or even what we thought we ever could be in every single competition just in order to go for the win. And that’s a special time because no one’s ever had to think that way in the sport before. Not in this sport anyway. Now I have to beat the best there ever was just to win.”