Chris Nilsen has never been one for partying.
While an adrenaline rush for many college students is heading out to the local bars and parties on the weekends, Nilsen gets his adrenaline by flying 19 feet in the air while clasping a long fiberglass pole.
“My definition of fun is a little different than that of the average college student,” Nilsen said with a laugh on Thursday, a day after claiming his second NCAA DI pole vaulting title.
Nilsen, a sophomore at South Dakota and a Park Hill High grad, broke a 22-year-old NCAA Division I Championship meet record on Wednesday, when he vaulted 5.83 meters on his way to gold.
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Nilsen’s second national championship of his two-year collegiate career was just the third DI title in SD Track & Field history. His first was an indoor championship in 2017.
But Nilsen didn’t reach the peak of college athletics by slacking off and spending his evenings like the majority of other track athletes he’s come across. He was courted by a large number of collegiate programs when he was in high school.
“South Dakota was the only (school), actually, that didn’t take me out to parties or try and get me to go to a party or anything like that (during recruiting). And I was like, ‘OK, wow, this team is really dedicated,’” Nilsen said.
Having started pole vaulting his freshman year of high school because he wanted a spring workout program when not playing soccer, Nilsen joined the Park Hill track and field squad. His English teacher in eighth grade at Congress Middle School, Stephanie Yuen, was the vertical jumps coach at Park Hill, so it was an easy choice when it came to deciding which event he would pick up.
After success in his first two years, Nilsen joined up with Washburn vaulting coach Rick Attig, using Attig as a private coach outside of his high school vaulting.
Clearing 5.18 meters by his junior year, some of the top schools in the nation began to circle around Nilsen, vying for his commitment and future national championship aspirations.
But it was South Dakota's dedication, and experience on the coaching staff, that took Nilsen from Kansas City to the small college town of Vermillion, S.D. Along with the high academic standards of the school, Nilsen said he was also impressed by the caliber of coaches the Coyotes had, including Olympic pole vaulting bronze medalist Derek Miles.
“The man was a professional pole vaulter for such a long time — he’s been in my shoes, and he’s been even further than my shoes, because he’s been on the pro circuit for such a long time and was successful at that level,” Nilsen explained. “So after learning all that, and learning how dedicated the coaches are, it was a very easy pick.”
All of Nilsen’s hard work culminated on Wednesday, when he achieved his goal of earning both an indoor and outdoor national championship.
Despite an early slip-up in which Nilsen missed a vault at 5.55 meters, he went on to clear his next five attempts and finish 11 inches ahead of his nearest competitor.
Eventually failing all three attempts at 5.90 meters — a would-be personal record — Nilsen settled with the meet record of 5.83, just 0.03 meters shy of his nation-leading personal best.
“I came in with the number one mark, which means I kind of had a target on my back — of people kind of being like, ‘OK, if we want to win, we have to beat Chris Nilsen, and we’ve got to beat (Southeast Louisiana's) Devin King,’ and all these other guys who are highly ranked in the meet,” Nilsen said.
“So it was a bit of a confidence boost, but it was also kind of intimidating having the biggest target on my back in the entire field."
With two national titles under his belt, Nilsen still isn’t done. Despite holding the best mark in NCAA and the seventh-best in the world this year, he now wants to vault 6 meters before he finishes college.
“I would love to continue pole vaulting post-collegiately. That would be my dream,” Nilsen said. “And if I was in a way able to set myself up in college to do so, that would be the goal.”