LONDON – Last summer, pole vaulter Sam Kendricks stopped mid-run in the qualifying round at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, dropping his pole to stand at attention when he heard the national anthem playing for a Team USA gold medalist.
The show of respect by Kendricks, then a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, garnered admiration and was widely shared on social media.
Now “The Star-Spangled Banner” will play for him.
Kendricks won the gold medal at the IAAF World Championships on Tuesday night, clearing 5.95 meters (19 feet, 6 1/4 inches) on his third attempt. Piotr Lisek of Poland won the silver based on fewer misses and Renaud Lavillenie of France settled for the bronze after each cleared 5.89 (19-3 3/4).
“The anthem is something near and dear to my heart,” said Kendricks, who was promoted from second lieutenant to first lieutenant in March. “It’s probably one of the only songs I know word for word. Being able to stand up there on the top of the podium is something very special. I’ve never been there before. I’ve never heard the national anthem of the U.S. out there, so I don’t know how I’ll react.”
Because the event ended so late in London Stadium, the awards ceremony will be Wednesday night.
Kendricks, 24, won his 10th straight competition.
He is the first American to medal at the world championships in the men’s pole vault since Brad Walker won gold in 2007 in Osaka. He is only the fourth American to medal at the world championships in this event. Sandi Morris won the silver in the women’s pole vault two days prior.
“My goodness, I have never been in a competition like it,” said Kendricks. “I was running scared and jumping scared.”
But he added that the stellar competition inspired him. “A high tide raises all boats.”
Kendricks, whose bronze medal in Rio made him the first American man to medal in the pole vault at an Olympic Games in 12 years, was the favorite coming in. He was second at the 2016 world indoor championships in Portland, Oregon.
At the USATF Outdoor Championships, Kendricks became the 20th member of the 6-meter club, clearing a world-leading 19-8 1/4 (which sounds cooler in its metric measurement).
Before the crowd of 55,000 at London Stadium, Kendricks had a brilliant series. He was the only vaulter to clear the first five heights on his first attempt.
“Each bar is important at a championship like this,” he said. “It’s my goal to jump each of the lower bars flawlessly, because when it comes down to those misses at the end – which it did – if I had not made 5.95, I would still have been the victor because of no misses all the way up to 5.89.”
He credited his coach, his father Scott, for “driving me toward that good result. He’s my father always, but my coach today. We kind of work as shooter and sniper. He’s calling the shot and I’m the one shooting.”
After Kendricks made it over 5.95, he had a big smile on his face as he stepped off the mat and waved to the crowd.
There was only one other man left standing: Lavillenie, the Olympic gold medalist in 2012 and silver medalist in 2016. Lavillenie already had two misses at 5.95, but opted to make his third attempt at the next height 6.01 (19-8 1/2).
“I know that no one is more dangerous than Renaud in this competition at this time in history at 6 meters,” Kendricks said, “because he has over 17 jumps over it and I only have one!”
Because of the jumping order, Kendricks, who was ninth at the 2015 worlds, had to go first at a height he had never cleared before. Not so fast, though. Kendricks’ good manners took precedence. He stood on the runway and clapped for Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, who had just won the men’s 400-meter.
Then Kendricks took off, but he hit the bar. Unfazed, he chatted with Lavillenie, the world record holder at 6.16 (20- 2 1/2), before his turn.
“We’re all pretty chummy,” Kendricks said. “We’ve jumped together 10 times this year. My buddies from Poland, my buddies from France, we all eat, drink and have been merry together all year and in years past. We’re no strangers. We’ve been here before. I’ve won, I’ve lost. I’ve given victories away and I’ve jumped my best at some. But next time it may not be my turn.”
Lavillenie, who recently became a new father, missed and the competition was over. Kendricks ran down the runway – without a pole – and embraced the Frenchman in the middle of the mat.
Though Kendricks could take two more cracks at the height, he opted not to vault again and embraced his family in the stands.
“I once watched Renaud jump a world record and then try to jump higher and he got extremely hurt,” Kendricks said. “I saw my limits today. My coach said, ‘I don’t think you can make 6.01. I don’t think it’ll be worth it.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not an American record.’ Next time I’m healthy I’m going to go for 6.05 (19-10 1/4).”
Kendricks had a close call in the qualifying round Sunday morning. He needed three tries to clear 5.60 (18-4 1/2), then went over the automatic qualifying height of 5.70 (18-8 1/4) on his first attempt.
“I struggled a little in the prelims, I’m not going to lie about that,” Kendricks said. “Each jump, I had to get better tonight because I’m very limited on my poles.
“I’m being the best jumper I can on a shorter pole than everyone else, but tonight it ended in my victory because I was able to come up with my best jump.”
Kendricks said that because his poles are shorter, “It takes me less time to get to the bar so I have less time for errors.”
Still the proper military man, he took his victory lap with the American flag draped over his left shoulder instead of wearing it like a cape as some athletes do. Kendricks said that as an Army officer, he represents his country, his unit and his family.
“This flag means a lot to me,” said Kendricks, who plans to give it to his girlfriend after giving his Rio flag to his twin brother. “I put it over my shoulder to show it proudly. I did my victory lap probably too fast -- I actually cramped up at the end of it -- but I was so happy. I said I needed to really show respect for the flag and say it means something to me.
“It covers up the little flag here (on his uniform), but sometimes the bigger flag is nicer.”