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Chris Nilson tops competitive pole vault field at USATF Indoor Championships

Feb. 26, 2022 Updated Sat., Feb. 26, 2022 at 7:52 p.m.

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

What is the pole vault other than the ultimate game of one-upmanship?

The bar goes higher and each vaulter gets a turn to raise the stakes. And a case can be made that Saturday’s vault final at the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships topped any on American soil – even with American record-holder Sam Kendricks being a late scratch.

In the end, the best one-upper was Chris Nilsen, who made the leap from college to pro to Tokyo Olympics silver medalist in the space of a year. On Saturday, the three-time NCAA champ at South Dakota won his first U.S. indoor title with a clearance at 19 feet, 4¾ inches – battling through some hiccups at 19-2¾ and flipping the script on KC Lightfoot, who’d had a clean sheet through that height.

Nilsen then set his sights higher – missing three cracks at boosting the U.S. indoor record to 19-9½ – but frankly seemed more jazzed about what was going on beneath him.

And around him.

For the more than 300 athletes in town for the championships, the 2022 indoor season is their first chance to compete in front of audiences in nearly two years because of COVID-19 restrictions – and near-capacity crowd at the Podium was loud and engaged.

“I can’t put into words how amazing it is to have a crowd again,” Nilsen said. “Myself, KC, all of us have been going over to Europe the last couple of years to compete and they were just as strict as the U.S. when it came to COVID protocols – no fans, no nothing. Same in Tokyo. We had to make our own energy.

“Now we have a whole stands full of people. It was awesome. It fuels you more, gives you more adrenaline – and makes you want to do well not just for yourself but for the people watching. You don’t want them to be bored.”

Fat chance.

Last year’s Olympic Trials in Eugene saw all 12 finalists top 5.70 meters – 18-8¼ – and five over 5.80, or 19-¼, in the battle for three spots to Tokyo.

“This’ll go down in history as the hardest team ever to make, Kendricks said at the time.

Well, until Saturday. For one thing, there were only two berths to next month’s World Athletics indoor championships in Belgrade available. And for another, this time five vaulters took it up a notch to 19-¾ – Brigham Young sophomore Zach McWhorter, Matt Ludwig and Jacob Wooten following the two qualifiers at the world qualifying standard.

“The depth right now in the U.S. is incredible,” Lightfoot said. “Always a good motivator.”

Lightfoot and Nilsen grew up about 20 minutes apart in Missouri, so their friendly rivalry goes back at least eight years “and we have fun out there,” Lightfoot said. “I think that’s something you need to jump high.”

Depth in the event helps, too.

Nilsen pointed out the aside from the veteran Kendricks, “Everyone is coming into their prime – we’re all like 23, 24, 25, just out of college. We just grew up, got more experience and more time on the runway.”

They also have someone to chase in Denmark wonder Mondo Duplantis, whose forays over 20 feet could normally be seen as pretty daunting for a competitor.

“Mondo is Mondo,” Nilsen shrugged. “We’re just kind of chasing on his coattails right now. But the times we might get him on an off day or the times we can actually catch up to him, for whatever reason, then you can take a shot at Mondo. But you have to go through so much to get to him.

“It’s good that they’re limiting us to only two people for the team, because otherwise we’d have five guys at the world championships.”

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