AS OLYMPIC SEASONS GO, Chris Nilsen’s was terrific. The 23-year-old Missouri native, who won consecutive NCAA vault titles for South Dakota in ’18 & ’19, leapt from highlight to highlight in his pandemic-delayed first real season as a pro.
At the Olympic Trials, Nilsen vaulted without a miss through five heights including 19-2¼ (5.85), at which height three went over at an OT for the first time in meet history. Then he sprang over 19-4¼ (5.90) at first time of asking and, thus knowing his place on Team USA was secure, enjoyed the luxury of watching friendly rivals Sam Kendricks and KC Lightfoot vie to join him over that altitude. Neither did, and Nilsen was Tokyo-bound as the U.S. champion.
The Games themselves went swimmingly also for Nilsen, as a clutch second-try make at 19-5 (5.92) in the final ensured at least a silver medal finish.
Nilsen may not have upset Mondo Duplantis, but he did manage to add 2cm to the PR he set upsetting Mondo for the NCAA win in ’19. Nilsen launched over 19-7 (5.97) — a height that before Rio was the Olympic Record — on first go, ticked the crossbar with a knee though it stayed on the pegs and landed smiling in the pit. The WR holder got Nilsen in the end yet the American’s Tokyo performance had to be viewed as a triumph. Goes without saying.
Nilsen’s silver added nicely to the bronze his coach Derek Miles, a former vault star himself, owns from the Games of 2008. (Continued below)
Following Tokyo, Nilsen came out on top at the Lausanne DL, where Mondo placed an atypical 4th, and vaulted always competitive in a flurry of late summer Diamond League, CT comps and wherever PVers met in Europe.
Nilsen gave this interview by phone from Paris a day after what was to be his last meet of the year, a town square clash in Toulouse, France. That comp didn’t come off exactly as planned but as Nilsen explained, he enjoyed his afternoon anyway.
T&FN: Thanks for doing this before you jet home tomorrow. How are you doing?
Nilsen: No worries at all. If I’m being honest, I’m pretty bored right now just ‘cause I’ve been sitting in this hotel for the last few hours. It’s really hard to get out of Toulouse back to the States on the same day so we had to kind of spread the travel out to two days. So that’s all right.
T&FN: So Toulouse, your last meet of the season? I found the meet website but no results. How did it go?
Nilsen: That’s because there weren’t really any results. It was a really interesting thing. The French like to do these things called exhibitions sometimes and yesterday the rain was — it just started coming down on us. So we waited for about an hour and then they put the bar up and then the rain got worse. So the meet director came over and looked at his radar on his phone and he was like, “I don’t think the rain’s going to get any better. I think we’re just going to turn this into kind of an exhibition thing.
”We’re going to put a bungee up, you jump it a couple times, give the crowd something to see, and then you get out of here.”
And I was like, ”OK, sure. Why not?” So we all just came from a short run and vaulted over bungees in the rain and it was a fun time.
T&FN: That’s kinda cool.
Nilsen: It was a very weird little end [to the season].
T&FN: From the photos, I gather that’s a town square site?
Nilsen: Yeah. Big town square, brick buildings everywhere. People were just losing their minds over you clearing even like a 16-5 bungee. It was crazy. It was a really fun time.
T&FN: So you closed out your Olympic silver medal season on a different sort of note. Fun. You’ve had quite a year and you cleared the highest bar of your life on first attempt in the Olympic final, having left everybody but the World Record holder behind at lower heights. Any reflections on that?
Nilsen: I appreciate it. Maybe the only reflection I have is how incredibly lucky I am. Not to say the entire year has been luck, but I think that at any point in time any pole vaulter could go to any meet and jump a personal best.
I think for whatever reason, I just got lucky enough for the timing of mine to be at the Olympics. That was kind of the best possible timing I could have wanted to have a personal best.
Everybody, all of my friends and my peers who I had been hanging out with or training with, they were “Don’t worry about 6 meters [19-8¼]. You’ll jump it when you get to the Olympics or you’ll get a personal best when you get to the Olympics. And when I actually did it, I was laughing. I was like, That’s stupid. That’s way too lucky for me.”
T&FN: You got in a few meets in Europe after you won the NCAA in 2019, and you got in three meets within about a week in September at the end of the lockdown summer. How has it been to finally get out on the elite circuit for real this season?
Nilsen: Yeah, it was weird. I think I never wanted to say, or never thought I would say, that COVID happening was a good thing for me, but it absolutely was because last year if we had the Olympic Trials and the Olympics, I don’t think there’s any shot in the world that I would’ve even made the team let alone gotten to medal.
I think that the past year that we spent just focusing solely on pole vault and the amount of physical and mental growth that I’ve done and the maturity I’ve gained throughout my training in the last year just kind of prepared us for doing that.
It was just kind of weird to see how far that actually went.
T&FN: That’s interesting. Not an entirely surprising comment but one could say you vaulted 5.95 [19-6¼] at the NCAA to upset Mondo in 2019, that’s a height that always earns a medal so why couldn’t you have made the team? Obviously reality is not that simple.
Nilsen: I don’t know. I think we went through a wholly, completely different training program in 2020 than we did in 2021, because we were just still coming out of that college life, and we had been training with all the college kids so training was maybe a slight bit different then. I wasn’t as technically efficient or proficient as I could have been, and as I was this year, and I think that the extra year kind of allowed us to mature. Besides just physically, I was able to mature mentally and we were able to learn things from mistakes that we made in 2020 and all those things.
So that gave us a year that was kind of like a trial run for the whole professional gig and when we figured out how to actually do it correctly, I think that made it much easier.
T&FN: Taking it in a more general direction, how did you discover pole vaulting, or how did it discover you?
Nilsen: It was a weird thing because I was originally a big soccer guy and this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a collegiate/professional soccer player. I wanted to make it my job. I had the Wizards jersey back when Sporting KC was the Wizards. Yeah, I was big into it and basically we had to do either one of two things: we had to do off-season conditioning, which was in the spring, which apparently sounded terrible, all the seniors were telling me it was just the worst thing ever.
Or you could go and do another sport; that was kind of like your out. So I said, “OK, I’ll do another sport,” and I went to track because that seemed the most similar or the most active besides soccer. And the only coach I knew was my eighth-grade English teacher. Her name was Stephanie Yuen and she was the pole vault coach. So I went over to her and I sucked for about 2 years at it. And then I finally went to a private coach. His name was Rick Attig.
T&FN: Oh, yes. Well-respected vault coach.
Nilsen: Oh, yeah, big guy [in the event]. Then after that, everything kind of took off and I started my career at South Dakota afterwards. And the rest is history.
T&FN: How old were you that first season you tried the vault?
Nilsen: I started when I was 14, so I was a freshman in high school. Those first two years were kind of a weird trial run system and then junior and senior year, I actually got serious about it with Rick.
T&FN: What was your physical stature at the time?
Nilsen: The normal awkward high school boys’ stature that doesn’t know how to actually use his body because he went through some random growth spurt in eighth grade. Maybe like 5-11, 6-foot [c1.83] my freshman year or sophomore year of high school and then I gradually got taller to like 6-3 [1.905] when I was a senior but I was still a beanpole. I was just extremely skinny.
T&FN: Was there anything about the pole vault that just grabbed you from the start?
Nilsen: I don’t really know, actually. I’m not really sure what about it grabbed me. Maybe the amount of adrenaline that I was put through the entire time. Even leading up to being a pole vaulter I loved having a rush of adrenaline and I think vaulting kind of gave me that. And I liked jumping around and flipping and doing all these other stupid things that kids do all the time. So maybe that, and one time my dad asked me, “Do you actually want to get serious about this pole vault thing?”
And I was like, “Yeah, sure, I’d love to. It seems like a fun thing and I want to see how far I can take it.”
The original plan was that I was going to go into the military. I was gonna enlist and do all that straight out of high school just ’cause college is very expensive. So we were like, “OK, either you get a scholarship or you go into the Air Force,” and at the time that was fine by me because I was also super big into [the option of] being a pararescue in the Air Force. Where they jump out of the airplane and they go behind enemy lines and search, evade detection…
T&FN: But then in 2016 you broke the High School Record. True confession, I almost forgot that important detail!
Nilsen: No, no, don’t worry about it. Trust me, when you’ve got kids like KC Lightfoot, and Mondo Duplantis breaking the High School Record by feet when I decided to break it by half an inch, trust me, I understand.
T&FN: From this spectator’s vantage point it felt like the Olympic final played out very quickly and it was down to you versus Mondo in a heartbeat. Four vaulters made it past the fourth height (19-3/5.87) and the height after that sealed the bronze medal. 19-5 (5.92) is not a bar to sneeze at but the reckoning came fast. Is my perception off?
Nilsen: Nope. I’m not really sure why. [Beforehand] me and a bunch of other people were making predictions about what it was going to take to medal — some of my friends, coaches like [Welsh coach] Scott Simpson and Thiago Braz’s coach Vitaliy Petrov. We were all having a conversation and taking guesses about what it would take to actually get a medal, and we all decided that it would probably take 5.87 [19-3] on a first attempt, and if not that then 5.92 [19-5] for sure.
So it was really weird to actually see only three people clear 5.87 [in fact, just two as Duplantis passed]. At that point, I was like, “5.87 got a medal? Really?”
Then thinking back, it was kind of the same thing back in 2016 and 2012 and 2008. I mean, high 5.80s was a normal bar to get a medal. So I’m not really sure why everyone was super-surprised.
T&FN: Fair point. More than three vaulters flying so high is a rare event. You nailed the new PR on first attempt, just as you’d PRed twice on firsts in your 2019 NCAA win against Mondo. Are we seeing a pattern here?
Nilsen: It’s kind of going back to that luck thing, I guess. I think it’s a little bit of wanting to do two things. It’s gotta be a little bit of luck with the training working out exactly how we wanted it to work out — and having it work out at the time that we needed it to — and at the same time, not buckling under the pressure.
And I think that it’s a really bad [comparison] to try to compare the pressure of the Olympic final to the NCAA final in college but…
T&FN: I’ll take your word on that because you’re the athlete, but at the same time an NCAA final is the culminating event for a collegian.
Nilsen: Yeah, exactly. At the time the NCAA final versus Mondo was kind of the biggest competition that I’d been to at that point. So the stakes were super high, and when the stakes are very high and we’re under a lot of pressure then I think that’s usually when people decide to actually show up when they need to.
T&FN: Sounds very much easier said than done, but you did it. Anyway, now your season has just concluded. Any plans as to how you’ll unwind this fall?
Nilsen: I get four weeks off and I’d love to just do absolutely nothing. So I’m going to go on kind of a little vacation thing. I think I’m going to… I don’t even know what I’m gonna do.
T&FN: No plans?
Nilsen: No. My girlfriend is trying to plan out a vacation kind of deal and I’m like, “Yeah, for sure. Let’s do it.” After that I’ll get back after like a week of vacation and then I’ll finish up some projects that I’ve got going at home and then hang out with some friends for a little bit and just enjoy not being an athlete for a little bit finally. And then right back to work in mid-October, I think.
T&FN: Now that you and Derek each have an Olympic medal, is there anything that you as a coach/athlete team feel particularly proud about having added to your game, as it were, in the last couple years?
Nilsen: I don’t know. I think that we’ve both matured and we kind of have this mutual respect for each other. I respect that he’s a university coach first and he respects that I’m a professional athlete and this is my job. He understands exactly what I’m going through because he’s been in it for so long. So I think that we just kind of have this mutual respect and mutual understanding for each other’s lives, and that kind of makes it all easier, I think, when you have respect for someone while also being close to them. He’s been my mentor for the last four or five years, and now he’s turning more into like a loving older brother kind of deal.
T&FN: Amid this competitive environment do you feel any need to try to pace yourself given that there’s an outdoor World Championships or Olympics in each of the next 4 seasons? I ask this understanding that at age 23 you’ve not yet gone through a normal Olympic cycle.
It’s a good and a bad thing. With every major championships, you kind of have to limit yourself, you have to pace yourself with the amount of meets you go to because you need to be ready for the big one. Whereas if you just have a World Indoor Championships and then the entire outdoor season doesn’t have some kind of big championship like the Olympics or Worlds, then you just get to pound as many possible meets as you can. That becomes your year. You just travel the entire year and you focus on getting into as many meets as you possibly can — because like I said earlier, that’s our job.
That’s how we make our money and that’s how we grow the popularity of the sport. But with a championship every single year for the next three years, I feel like the amount of meets are actually going to not necessarily die down, but they might not be as prominent because there’s going to have to be so much focus on these major championships over the next few years. Before COVID the average number of meets going on through a year was like 80. And this year we had like 45 or 46, I think, that were available to us.
That was mainly in part because we had the Olympics, and it’s probably going to be the same thing next year with a World Championships, and same the year after that. And after that we’ve got the Olympics again. So yeah, we’ll just kind of see how that goes, I guess.
T&FN: I’d like to ask after your first real pro season how you view your position in the current pantheon of U.S. vaulters? A cohort, by the way, in which camaraderie appears to be strong. Sam Kendricks won bronze at the Rio Olympics at age 23 and started a great run for himself that season. Now you have won Olympic silver at 23. Have you taken over Sam’s spot at the top among the Americans?
Nilsen: I wouldn’t really say I’ve taken over for Sam. I think I kind of like to look at it as a Big 3 kind of deal. Indoors KC Lightfoot was beating everyone. He was jumping 5.90 [19-4¼] every single week. And I was over in Europe with Sam and I was top American in all of my meets. Then we came to outdoors and Sam started winning and then I started winning. And then I went to the Olympics, I got a medal, KC got 4th. Unfortunately Sam wasn’t able to compete, but I guarantee if he had been competing, he would’ve got a medal.
Then we come over to Europe and I spent an entire month, almost a month and a half, with Sam and KC. We went to every single meet from the… I want to say the late part of August to September.
I won a couple over Sam and KC, Sam won a couple over me and KC, and KC ended up beating both of us out at the very end of the year at the last meet in Zagreb. So I don’t really think anybody is on top. When it comes to [WA] ranking points, I’m the highest but I think that’s just because the Olympic medal kind of gave me a little bit of an edge on everyone else. But I kinda like to look at it as a Big 3 kind of deal.
I think we’re kind of the top 3 Americans in the vault world, and I think it’s probably gonna stay that way for a few years.