By Ole Miss
Two-time reigning world champion Sam Kendricks didn't have an easy path, but he survived a dramatic pole vault final to book passage to Tokyo and make his second straight U.S. Olympic Team at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials conducted at Hayward Field on June 21.
At first, though, it looked like the six-time defending American champ was going to breeze his way onto Team USA. For only the second time in world history, 11 men cleared 5.70m/18-08.25, the only other time was in the 2007 World Championship final. Kendricks was clean over his first four bars through 5.75m/18-10.25 before missing on his first attempt at 5.80m/19-00.25 — his first miss of the entire meet after a perfect outing in qualifying on Saturday.
At that point, tactics started to play a large role for the entire field. Following Kendricks' miss, he opted to pass to the next bar at 5.85m/19-02.25, where he would have two more attempts. The risk paid off, as Kendricks sailed over on his first try and was one of three to clear at that height, moving from fourth place and back into Tokyo contention into a tie for second.
Those three — Kendricks, new U.S. champion Chris Nilsen and KC Lightfoot — wound up as the three members of Team USA's pole vault delegation to Tokyo after Matt Ludwig (fourth), Jacob Wooten (fifth) and Kyle Pater (10th) all opted to pass for the next bar at 5.90m/19-04.25, which all three of them were unable to master. Nilsen was actually the only competitor to clear — completing a perfect outing en route to the national title — while Kendricks and Lightfoot gladly accepted a tie for second place as the two remaining members of Team USA.
"Absolute pride is the word. I can't explain it but I'm gonna try," Kendricks said. "There were 12 men out there that brought the absolute best tools they had to offer, and they respected the game, and they knew going in that they couldn't all win. There's this culture in my event that I wish we could share with the whole sport. You just can't make a generation of guys come together like this. We all say going in that it's gonna be beautiful like this. This'll go down in history as the hardest team ever to make."
The win by Nilsen snapped Kendricks' streak of six straight U.S. titles that stretched back to 2014, but that was hardly an afterthought after securing his second consecutive bid to compete for Team USA. Kendricks is now the first athlete in Ole Miss men's track & field history to qualify for multiple Olympiads, and he is the first Rebel men's athlete regardless of sport to make the ultra-competitive Team USA twice. Additionally, he joins Ole Miss men's tennis legend Mahesh Bhupathi – who competed for Team India five times in 1996 (Atlanta), 2000 (Sydney), 2004 (Athens), 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) – as the lone Rebel men's athletes to ever compete in multiple Olympiads. The only other athlete in Ole Miss Athletics history to have done so is women's long jumper Brittney Reese, who has made Team USA three times in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and is looking for her fourth berth later this week in Eugene, OR.
Kendricks will be looking to return to the podium after earning bronze in 2016 at 5.85m/19-02.25 amid a historic final that was delayed for nearly an hour due to rain. He was the first American man to medal since 2008 (Derek Miles, bronze), finishing behind Olympic record holder Thiago Braz of Brazil (6.03m/19-09.25) and former world record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France (5.98m/19-07.50).
Kendricks has not lost a world final since, winning both the 2017 and 2019 World Championship titles as he ascended to one of the world's most recognizable pole vaulters — with his last win in 2019 coming over world record holder Mondo Duplantis. Kendricks took down the American record both outdoors (6.06m/19-10.50) and indoors (6.01m/19-08.50) across a seven-month span in 2019 and 2020 before the global COVID-19 pandemic brought the world's competition schedule to a grinding halt and postponed the Tokyo Olympic Games.
If he does indeed return to the medal stand, Kendricks would become the first American to repeat as a medalist in the men's pole vault since Bob Seagren, who won gold in Mexico City in 1968 and followed that up with silver in Munich in 1972.
Kendricks will now return to the international circuit to stay sharp heading into the Tokyo Olympics, which begin with the Opening Ceremonies on July 23.
"This is my eighth year as a professional, and I have been put in my place on three occasions," Kendricks said. "An understanding of future efforts is something that gives pole vaulters confidence. Confidence bends big poles. As soon as I go home, I'm packing my bag and going to Europe to play against my biggest rivals. There's nothing like a honing element, like competing against the guys you're gonna see in Tokyo, cause then you know what they're made of and what their weaknesses are. I had a critical miss and I had to pass, and that's something that I've done before and had done to me. There's gonna be five or six great players (in Tokyo), and I hope that three of them are gonna be American."
Two built-in rest days are up next at the U.S. Olympic Trials, with a busy day for the Rebels awaiting their return on Thursday. For a full meet schedule and event previews, read our in-depth look at the Olympic Trials HERE.
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