Pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, who has soared higher than any American Olympian ever, was asked recently what it feels like at the apex of his vault and knows he has cleared the bar more than 19 feet off the ground.
Kendricks, from Oxford, didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“It feels,” he said, “like you are suspended on top of the world. Literally, like you are on top of the world. And you enjoy that feeling all the way down, which takes a split second but seems longer.”
Kendricks, 24, will be among the favorites in the pole vault at the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He and his coach, his father Scott Kendricks, will leave for Rio in early August. He competes on August 13.
“As an athlete in my first Olympics, I am not worried about winning,” Kendricks said. “What I am worried about is doing my best. If I do that – if I do my best – I’ll be OK.”
But how, Kendricks is asked, do you like your chances for gold?
“Realistically, there are quite a few men in contention for that top spot,” Kendricks answered. “So long as I compete as I train to, I see my odds to be competitive for that top spot as very high. Anything can happen though, and I’d be a fool to go in thinking that top spot is mine without a fight.”
Flash back now 11 years. Sam was 13, hanging around his father’s track team practices at Oxford High, competing in cross country for his middle school team. He was a little guy, 5 feet, 4 inches short, all of 95 pounds, and by his own admission “not very fast.”
His father was looking for a technical event that Sam, whose work ethic was obvious, might grow into. Scott Kendricks took a broken high jump bar, wrapped it with some tape and made it into a makeshift vault pole, just the right size for Sam.
“I told Sam to try it, that this might be something that he’d be good at,” Scott Kendrick said. “I never imagined he would reach 13 or 14 feet.”
In his first event, competing for the high school team as a 13-year-old, Sam cleared 10 feet, 6 inches and earned points for the Oxford team as a fourth place finisher. He was hooked.
“Sam has always been a late bloomer,” Scott Kendricks said. “He kept growing, got faster, got stronger and really, really worked at it.”
Sam Kendricks rocketed up over 13, 14, 15 and eventually 19 feet. Father and son figure Sam Kendricks has vaulted at least 20,000 times in the 11 years since he first picked up that broken high jump bar. With each he has been focused on improving at one of the most difficult tasks in all of sports.
The pole vault requires a rare blend of speed, strength, agility, technique and intellect. It is a thinking athlete’s event, as Ukrainian Sergey Bubka, the greatest vaulter ever, believed.
“I love the pole vault because it is a professor’s sport,” Bubka once said. “One must not only run and jump, but one must think. Which pole to use, which height to jump, which strategy to use. I love it because the results are immediate and the strongest is the winner.”
Team Kendricks does it differently than most. Sam, now 6 feet, 1 inch and 175 pounds, uses a pole that is nearly a foot shorter than the poles used by most world-class vaulters.
Maybe it goes back to that broken high jump bar. Other pole vault experts have told Team Kendricks Sam needs to go to a longer pole. He hasn’t. And, yes, there was some vindication when he vaulted a fraction over 19 feet 4 inches to win the U.S. Olympic Trials.
For those 20,000 vaults over 11 years, Sam has had the same coach, the same philosophy. Sam puts in eight hours a day at his craft with his father usually watching, advising.
Said Scott Kendricks, “We believe in consistency. We believe in out-working everybody.”
Sam Kendricks, the late bloomer, is now ahead of schedule. A pole vaulter’s prime is said to come in his or her late 20s.
“Olympics-wise, we really had been pointing toward 2020,” Scott Kendricks said.
2020 will have to wait.
Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org.