Going for gold
Kendricks favored in pole vault at world championships in London
When he was cleaning up his father’s barn as a teenager, Sam Kendricks daydreamed about how cool it would be to travel the world and compete in the pole vault at the Olympics.
A decade later, the globe-trotting Mississippi native still calls himself “a small-town boy who loves to have big adventures”.
Kendricks, 24, competes in the world championships in London starting this week and will be one of the favorites after nine consecutive victories and the outdoor season’s highest jump, a US title-winning six meters.
Somehow it has all worked out even after an offseason that was anything but regular.
For five months during key fall and winter training, the US Army Reserve first lieutenant picked up his pole maybe three times while on active duty for classroom and field exercises.
Since February, though, he has been dominant, defeating French world record holder Renaud Lavillenie four times.
The multiple US champion earned his first Olympic medal, a bronze, at the Rio Games — along with added attention.
On the runway in a qualifying round, he stopped, dropped his pole and stood to attention while the US anthem played for another athlete during a medal presentation.
“I didn’t want to be THAT lieutenant that didn’t stop for the national anthem,” Kendricks said.
Now he seeks the only global honor missing — a world outdoor championship medal.
“Am I the favorite to win? I am not sure,” said the personable Kendricks. “Am I a favorite to medal? I can believe that because on any given day I’m just as strong as anybody.”
The telling stat is that of the seven highest jumps in the world this outdoor season, Kendricks has four of them.
Yet the 2016 world indoor silver medalist insisted there is a group of favorites, including Lavillenie.
“There is something to be said for Renaud having won seven Diamond League championships, and that he has been the best seven years in a row,” Kendricks said.
“There’s no one in the sport who should say he has not achieved enough. That would be disrespectful.”
Kendricks made that clear when talk at a Paris media conference centered on his first and only six-meter jump.
Turning to Lavillenie, Kendricks asked: “How many times have you cleared six meters?” The answer was 17. Each athlete has his own strengths.
“Renaud’s are his speed and expe- rience,” said Kendricks. “I think I am the most technically efficient. I think (Canadian world champion) Shawn Barber has the most gusto.”
Kendricks also grips the pole the lowest of any major competitor, making technically sound jumps important.
“Six meters is almost a flawless jump for me,” he said.
Not that he does not entertain jumping higher. There is no push, however, to break Lavillenie’s world record of 6.16m.
“I don’t see myself there,” Kendricks said.
The son of a high school coach who is also his trainer, Kendricks turned to pole vaulting after unsuccessful tries at other sports.
“The technical aspects of sports always enthralled me,” he said.
“I figured if I could get good enough technically at something I could bridge the gap I didn’t have in athletic ability.”
His first pole was a broken highjump bar with a tennis ball at the end.
“I started jumping with the girls team because we didn’t have equipment for small guys,” said Kendricks, who now stands 6-foot-1. “We had girls’ poles.
“I also got beat by a lot by girls in high school.”
By 2013 he had become the first US collegian in 14 years to clear 5.79m and with his dad “a strong handler of the reins” Kendricks has taken the time to learn the event rather than shoot for the moon.
Sam Kendricks clears the pole vault bar at the Diamond League meet in Lausanne, Switzerland on July 6. The 24-year-old American is one of the favorites for gold at the World Athletics Championships, which open in London this week.
Sam Kendricks holds the Stars and Stripes aloft after winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.