Vahe Gregorian

How Park Hill pole vaulter Chris Nilsen went from ‘scary’ on runway to an Olympic path

Derek Miles was a world champion and three-time Olympian pole vaulter. But as a self-described late bloomer, he was “terrible” in high school and figures the only reason he was recruited by the University of South Dakota, his mother’s alma mater, was because his dad pleaded with coach Lucky Huber.

Safe to say Miles has perspective and currency when it comes to protégé Chris Nilsen, who came to USD from Park Hill after breaking the national prep record, has jumped higher (19-2 ¾) than Miles ever did, soon will be seeking his third straight NCAA title and has a legitimate claim to being America’s best pole vaulter (albeit with an asterisk we’ll get back to).

“He’s physically far more gifted than I ever was,” Miles, now the associate director of track and field at South Dakota, recently said in his Dakota Dome office.

For all his milestones along the way, though, Nilsen’s ascension in the sport still is best understood by the ridiculously inauspicious way it began … and the telling mindset that made him sign up for more and has come to define him as he seeks to stay on trajectory toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

So let’s look back before we look forward.

Why pole vault?

Seeking a way to stay in shape for soccer in the spring of his freshman year at Park Hill, Nilsen showed up for track and field practice with a notion only of what he didn’t want to do.

“Well, I didn’t want to do distance, because I didn’t want to run far,” he said recently, laughing as he prepared for a workout at USD. “I didn’t want to throw, because I wasn’t big or strong enough.”

So what become a calling — at least to this stage of his life — that also led the 21-year-old to his marriage and fatherhood was more a product of chance and process of elimination and perhaps fate than anything else:

He approached the one person he knew, vertical jumps coach Stephanie Yuen, who had been his English teacher at Congress Middle School. And she nudged him towards pole vault, which most people would regard with more trepidation than running or throwing.

Especially after what happened next.

“The first three times I tried (to jump) I got spit out; I came back down on the runway … Just didn’t run hard enough into it,” he said, more with appreciation than regret.

Despite landing on grass, he remembered thinking, “Is it supposed to hurt this much?”

All of which could have repelled him … and instead compelled him.

Even before he had real traction or showed true promise, something about the adrenalin rush and the sheer challenge seized Nilsen. When he turned to pole vault guru Rick Attig after his sophomore year of high school, his personal record was just over 12 feet. And, well …

“‘Holy cow, this guy’s going to hurt himself,’ ” Attig, now coaching Washburn, recalled thinking.

South Dakota junior pole vaulter Chris Nilsen Aaron C Packard University of South Dakota

What made Nilsen “scary,” he added, was that he was often “out of control on top” and tended to “spin around and do crazy stuff.”

Part of that reflected some raw technique, part of it was the aftermath of a growth spurt that Nilsen remembered as suddenly sprouting from about 5-foot-10 to 6-3 and having to “relearn my body completely.”

But Nilsen, who met his future wife, Kelly Vogel, through Attig’s pole vaulting program, was fortified with something that’s hard to coach.

“Probably more than anything else, he’s just a gutsy kid,” said Attig, who formerly coached at KU, with the U.S. national team and at Blue Valley North.

Through a long and illustrious career, Attig has enjoyed the fulfillment of working with pole vaulters such as Olympian and former American record-holder Scott Huffman at Kansas.

But he’s also coached others with similar physical attributes and talent who failed to launch because of what he frankly calls a “lack of a little bit of courage.”

Not necessarily literally up in the air, but in terms of being willing to accept coaching including everything from changes in grip and poles to acceleration into the vault.

He thought for a moment of someone starting down the runway at 90 mph and slowing to 80.

“Chris is always willing to run at 95 and accelerate to 100 at takeoff,” Attig said.

If 90% of baseball is half-mental, to borrow from Yogi Berra, pole vault is only all the more so. But Nilsen will tell you he sees it as more like 60% physical and 40% mental.

Why South Dakota?

Which brings us to what has brought Nilsen this far. And why he’s here with Miles, who notes USD’s fine facilities and constant improvements but acknowledges a track program that became Division I only about a decade ago doesn’t have the resources of a Southeastern Conference school.

But … so what?

Miles recalled his own growth here, a welcoming place where he says five people will stop if you’re pulled over on the side of the road. By way of further example, he alluded to his later development under Earl Bell in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Many of the best trained there post-collegiately, as Miles put it, in a metal building in the middle of a bean field heated by an old fire stove.

USD isn’t remotely as Spartan. But Miles’ point is that “all the wow factor and the glitz and the glamour” of the facilities arm’s race ultimately is “white noise.”

In the end, he added, it’s about the basics.

“When a coach knows what he’s doing and cares about the athletes and can provide an environment that allows you to flourish, that’s the recipe for success,” said Miles, who as of April ratings was coaching the No. 1-rated men’s pole vaulting group in the nation and the No. 2 groups in women’s pole vault and men’s high jump. “And when kids figure that out, that’s how they end up here.”

In fact, that speaks exactly to why Nilsen ended up here. He was intrigued by Miles’ background but also seeking a school not too far away (about a five-hour drive), not too large (enrollment of just over 10,000) and mostly a sense of fit.

He felt that tug during his recruiting visit after spending time with the team. Then one moment with Miles crystallized it.

“He said, ‘You can go anywhere in this country for pole vault, and you can become a better pole vaulter,’ ” Nilsen remembered. “ ‘But you’re never going to find a coach who cares more about you than I do.’ ”

Their relationship has made for a terrific complement to the analytical Attig, with Nilsen saying, “They’ll tell you the same things in different languages.”

Which has translated thusly: Among his achievements here, Nilsen broke a 20-year-old NCAA record, competed in the 2017 World Championships in London and had the best vault in the world this year (19 feet, 1 inch).

Though he went higher in late April, 19-2 1/4 to set a Drake Relays record, LSU freshman phenom Mondo Duplantis went 19-5¾ the same day at the LSU Invitational and has since set the American collegiate outdoor record at 19-8¼.

But Nilsen continues to be the leading U.S. vaulter this year in this sense: In terms of international competitions ahead, Duplantis chooses to vault for Sweden, the native country of his mother.

“The sport has never seen someone like (Duplantis),” Miles said, adding, “No one knows what he’s capable of doing.”

A new incentive

As for what Nilsen is capable of doing as a consistent 19-footer now, Miles reckons in part it will be about how he finds balance in his life as a husband and full-time student who also has to work to help provide as the father of a 1-year-old.

To hear Nilsen tell it, fatherhood has only given him more incentive since the day son Roman was born and he fainted in the delivery room.

“As soon as I saw him everything changed,” he said. “I had infinite love for him immediately. I didn’t know what I’d do without him after holding him for five seconds.”

Still, life can be hectic and stressful for two young working parents. In April, a disagreement between them led to a neighbor calling local police that was dismissed by Vogel-Nilsen in a statement through USD as “an argument that got too loud.”

With the matter not known to The Star at the time of the visit, Nilsen spoke adoringly of his wife and raved about her support even as he acknowledged the challenges of their lives.

“You go to a circus and see them balancing plates on sticks, you know,” he said. “You only have so many hands and you have to try to keep every plate spinning. Sometimes you need a little help with that.”

Miles has seldom, if ever, coached an elite athlete this age with a family, but he believes the circumstances can provide important perspective.

Elite pole vaulters, he said, need balance. In his case, it was building things and paragliding. Those outlets helped keep Miles from overanalyzing and overdramatizing the bad days in competition, he said.

And Nilsen spoke of a similar feeling in his family life. Among other aspects he appreciates, Nilsen is grateful to know that when he goes home his wife, a former Johnson County Community College pole vaulter, and son won’t care what he jumped.

Meanwhile, Attig and Miles and Nilsen all believe his best jumps are ahead.

Honed by experience, he’s past being star-struck like he was at the 2017 Worlds.

Yet he still feels the same hunger that he did when he randomly discovered the sport and was being spit back on the runway and just wanted to keep getting better.

Like something that was meant to be.

“It never mentally gets to me,” he said. “It’s pole vault; I don’t understand why people run through (instead of vaulting) or have so many mental issues with it. Hit it and have fun with it. I don’t really understand any other part of it.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.