“This Competition Was Nuts,” Says Chris Nilsen

“Whoa! OK, it stayed,” said surprise NCAA vault winner Chris Nilsen. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

WHAT STRUCK Chris Nilsen on the greatest pole vaulting day of his life wasn’t the stunning upset that was his successful defense of his national title. And it wasn’t his takedown of heavily favored Mondo Duplantis. And it also wasn’t getting back-to-back PRs at 19-4¼ (5.90) and 19-6¼ (5.95) after so many near misses.

What sent his spirits soaring as high as his body was how much fun he was having on his afternoon romp in Austin. “I was just thinking, ‘This competition was nuts,’” says the South Dakota junior, who at this point is completely committed to returning to the Coyotes for his senior season. “I love that I get to come out here and compete against all of my friends. It makes it even better that I’m friends with all the guys. If I had been overseas at a meet in Europe and I had jumped high, it would have been, ‘OK, that’s kind of cool.’ But I get to share this with a bunch of college guys. It might be the best NCAA comp in the world, the best pole vault in the world in a very long time.”

Of everyone in Austin for national championship weekend, the 21-year-old Nilsen may have the best appreciation of spending a day with his college buddies because he’s such an atypical collegian. He has been married to Kelly Vogel for 2 years, he has a 1-year-old son (Roman), he scrapes together a living by working with his wife as a barista at Café Brulé on Vermillion’s Main Street. After taking down track’s Boy Wonder, the only piece of smack Nilsen talked was to point out, “I make a pretty good latte.” As for everything else, “My boss has an idea I’m pretty good at track, but I don’t know if he knows to what extent.”

To quite an extent, actually. In the way these matters often work, Nilsen had been laying siege to that 5.90 setting for quite a while before championship day, and his clearance there easily could have been a near miss, as he did make contact with the bar. Get enough moments like that, though, and sooner or later the bar doesn’t fall. That happened at the right time for Nilsen, who with that jump suddenly grabbed the lead over Mondo.

“Surprised,” Nilsen admits. “I think some people take for granted how high those bars are: 5.90 is not an easy bar to jump, and neither are 5.95, 6.00, 6.05 [19-6¼, 19-8¼, 19-10¼]. They’re ridiculously hard to jump. I knew I was ready to because I’ve been jumping at it every meet for the past 5–6 meets, taking shots at it. I knew eventually it would stay up, whether luck or a good jump. It turned out it was a little bit of both. It was a good jump, I tapped it, I looked up and it was there. ‘Whoa! OK, it stayed!’ Surprise, happiness, joy, then motivation because there was no way I could win this at 5.90 [19-4¼]. I had to go higher if I wanted to win.”

So he nailed 5.95 (19-6¼) on his first attempt to close out his title before taking three shots at a Collegiate Record 6.01 (19-8½). The key to his day, Nilsen felt, was narrowing his attention to himself, the runway and the bar rather than the enormity of taking on Duplantis. “Coming in I wasn’t, ‘I have to beat Mondo.’ I was more focused on, I wanted to jump high, I wanted to jump 5.90 or higher and I completed my goal,” Nilsen says. “I didn’t think about it as coming in and wanting to beat Mondo. Competing against him is just fun.”

He hopes to have more fun competing against Duplantis, who represents Sweden internationally, in Doha later this summer, though first there is the always-competitive USATF meet to contend with. Between now and then, Nilsen will get back to his busy routine that juggles so many roles, explaining, “It’s all about priorities. When I started, it was pole vault and school. Then Roman was born and in 5 seconds all your priorities change. Then it was Kelly and Roman, then school, then pole vault. Balancing all those things one at a time, that’s the key. I’m 21, I’m still learning to be a dad.”

In his post-competition interviews, Nilsen was asked what he was going to do with his latest national championship trophy. “I’ll drop it off with my parents,” he said. “It’ll give us a little more room for things like books for the kiddo, toys.” Such is the life of the man who on this spectacular day, against all expectations, was again the best college vaulter in America.