Chris Nilsen Soaring to Greater Heights With World Championships in Sight
by Brian Pinelli
U.S. pole vaulter Chris Nilsen emphasizes that when he steps onto the runway for competition, his primary goal is to defy gravity, solely focused on leaping the highest bar achievable.
While he certainly wishes them well, the 25-year-old Nilsen says he isn’t overly concerned with how high his friendly opponents jump.
However, when stars align in the thrilling world of the pole vault and on the infrequent occasion that he out-jumps the seemingly invincible Armand “Mondo” Duplantis, he’ll surely relish the moment.
That was the case at the Monaco Diamond League meet on July 21, as Nilsen soared to victory with a season-best height of 5.92 meters (19 feet 5 inches).
Duplantis, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 champion and current world record holder at 6.21 meters, had an uncharacteristic showing, unable to match Nilsen’s winning height. He finished fourth.
“It’s one of those things where it’s a momentary happiness – as much as it’s like yeah, I beat Mondo on this one occasion, there are usually 20-25 meets in a year where he’ll be dominant,” Nilsen tells Team USA, in an interview upon his return home to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“I think his stats are that he’s lost three or four in his last 46 competitions and there’s a few Olympics and world championships in there,” he notes about Duplantis.
“It’s cool to say that I’ve been a couple of those, but I don’t really see it as I beat Mondo, I see it as he beat himself jumping 5.70 meters.”
After the competition, Duplantis said: “I think it was just a bad day and I will be back in full shape in Budapest [at world championships].”
Nilsen’s winning performance in Monaco was his second career Diamond League victory. The meet also marked Duplantis’ first loss of the 2023 outdoor season, as the 23-year-old track and field superstar’s streak of six consecutive triumphs was snapped.
For Nilsen, the Tokyo 2020 silver medalist, it was a timely performance and satisfying result with the 2023 World Athletics Championships now less than one month away.
“I think we’re getting close to our peak – I’d say we’re about 85-90 percent ready to go,” Nilsen said. “I’d like to get a medal, absolutely that is always the goal.
There are no more Diamond League meets scheduled between now and worlds, which open in the Hungarian capital Aug. 19. Nilsen informs that he will take the next four weeks relatively easy. He admits that he was banged up and burnt out last year after taking on a grueling schedule of 31 competitions between January and September.
“Trying to preserve the body a little bit and really feel ready to go for the world championships,” Nilsen says. “I’d also like to stay healthy all season, that’s the most I can hope for.”
Having ascended to a silver medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Nilsen also finished runner-up to the Swedish American pole vaulting phenom at last summer’s world championships in Eugene, Oregon. The South Dakota resident watched as Mondo skyrocketed to a new world record in dramatic fashion at the first world championships contested in the U.S.
Topping Mondo in Monaco – as he also managed to do while winning an NCAA title in 2019 – Nilsen now knows that finishing higher than the Swedish Olympic champion is possible. However, he also emphasizes that it is not his ultimate priority.
“I’m not necessarily looking to beat Mondo and everyone else whenever I go to a meet – I would just like to jump high,” says Nilsen, who competes on a 17-foot pole, and like Duplantis, who despite being six-inches shorter and significantly lighter, also jumps on a similar sized pole, although one made of fiberglass.
“I can’t say that it’s not a confident booster [beating Mondo], but at the same time I want to go into every championship thinking I want to be hard to beat and my competitors having to jump six meters to beat me,” Nilsen says.
Nilsen remains ranked as the world’s No. 2 pole vaulter, only behind Mondo.
Duplantis, who competed at Louisiana State University, before joining the elite Diamond League circuit, is the son of former U.S. pole vaulter Greg Duplantis and Swedish mother Helena, a former heptathlete and volleyball player. Mondo has chosen to represent Sweden in international competition.
As was evidenced in Monaco, the tight-knit pole vault fraternity observed that Mondo is indeed human and not some futuristic robot designed to blast into uncharted layers of the Ozone. Nilsen believes that when the bar is raised at his second world championships next month, anything, in his friendly and often unpredictable sport, is possible.
“He’s still Mondo Duplantis, the world record holder, and he’s looking to get another gold in Budapest – I’m just trying to challenge that a little bit,” Nilsen says.
“The goal is simply to get a medal and if I have a great time with my friends, then I’ll say it’s a successful day.”
At the upcoming world championships, Nilsen will be joined by U.S. teammates Zach McWhorter and Zach Bradford, who finished second and third behind him at USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene, on July 9.
Quite unexpectedly, two-time world champion Sam Kendricks and the new American record holder KC Lightfoot finished tied for fourth. Based upon the U.S. qualification criteria, both will most likely miss the marquee competition.
“It’s the most unfortunate thing – I love both Sam and KC, they’re my best friends and will be in my wedding,” Nilsen says.
“Why would you leave two-time world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Sam Kendricks off the team, but at the end of the day with the U.S. Championships standards, we want it be fair and equal for everyone. If Zach McWhorter jumps a PR of 5.86 and gets second place, then he deserves to go.
“We’re the land of the free, home of the brave and land of opportunities. It’s the way it has to be,” he says.
While Nilsen is certainly focused on the approaching world championships, with the men’s pole vault final slated for Aug. 21, he also seeks to eclipse Lightfoot’s American record. The 23-year-old Missouri vaulter recently set the new mark in Nashville on June 2, flying 6.07 meters (19 feet 11 inches).
“The goal this whole season has been trying to jump that American record,” Nilsen says. “I’m super happy for KC, but I’d like to jump higher and claim the record for myself.
“For me to be to jump 6.08 meters and get that American record, everything has to be perfect. I don’t know if it will happen at world championships, or at all, but I definitely feel I have the ability to do it pretty soon.”
Nilsen’s personal best stands at 6.05 meters (19 feet 10-1/4 inches).
As the Olympic Games Paris 2024 are now just one year away, Nilsen informs that it definitely isn’t too soon for his team, including coach Derek Miles – a bronze medalist at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 – to start formulating a game plan to prepare both physically and mentally. However, punching a ticket to Paris is contingent upon success at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials.
“We have to focus on being top three at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which in my opinion is the second hardest meet in the world compared to the world championships,” Nilsen said.
“Mentally, you have to prepare for it and I’m getting with my coach Derek Miles to chat about how the indoor and outdoor training season is going to look and how much we want to treat it like a normal year.”