By Karen Rosen | May 02, 2019, 12:25 p.m. (ET)

Sam Kendricks competes at the IAAF Continental Cup on Sept. 9, 2018 in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

 

The timing couldn’t have been better for Sam Kendricks if he’d planned it himself.

For the past three years, the first Diamond League men’s pole vault competition of the season has been in Shanghai while Doha, Qatar, staged the women’s event.

This year they switched, allowing Kendricks to finally get a feel for Doha before it hosts the IAAF World Championships in late September and early October. He vaults Friday night in Khalifa International Stadium, which makes its Diamond League debut, against an international field that also includes Team USA’s Andrew Irwin.

“I’ll let you in on a little bit about me: I jump better in places I’ve jumped at before,” said Kendricks, 26. “Every stadium, every big meet has its own stressors that come along with it.”

The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist will do research on and off the runway so he can be worry-free when it’s time to defend the world title he captured in London in 2017. (Like all gold medalists, he receives a bye into the next world championships).

“I can see how Doha works, I can meet the people that are there and understand how to get the things I need,” Kendricks said, “so I don’t have to do that the next time I go when it’s really, really important.

“As a military man, planning is everything and plans are nothing. You want to always be thinking about what’s going to give you an edge.”

Kendricks, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, will attempt to win a record sixth straight outdoor pole vault title at the USATF Outdoor Championships this July in Des Moines, Iowa, a place he already knows well.

Ranked No. 1 in the world, Kendricks technically opened his outdoor season Saturday at the Drake Relays in Des Moines. However, the competition was moved indoors due to bad weather and he placed second behind University of South Dakota junior Chris Nilsen, 5.85 (19 feet, 2 ¼ inches) to 5.80 (19-0 ¼). 

The unrelentingly cheerful Kendricks took the loss in stride, crediting Nilsen, his teammate at the 2017 worlds, for a clutch clearance.


Carrying Momentum Into The Season
Kendricks is coming off a successful indoor campaign, with five victories in seven meets and a best of 5.93 (19-5 ½).

“I feel immaculate,” said Kendricks who is coached by his father Scott. “Coach K really structured what we’ve been doing to allow me to jump high often. I get my best training and my best preparation by competing.

“That’s exhausting,” he added, “but it’s when you get better.”

And Kendricks knows he can’t let up. Renaud Lavillenie of France, the 32-year-old Olympic gold and silver medalist, and 19-year-old phenom Armand “Mondo” Duplantis of Sweden are among those itching to topple him and become the frontrunner for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“Defense of victory is the hardest thing,” Kendricks said. “Returning champions often may have a harder time of it because everybody knows what you have to offer. Everyone in London saw the best day Sam had. Now I’ve got to do it again. Anybody else coming up doesn’t have to worry about the stressors of saying, ‘If I don’t defend the title, am I lesser of a competitor?’”

Kendricks said his father asked him a similar question when they were on horseback “out in the middle of nowhere” last fall.

“He said, ‘Sam, if you don’t defend your title, what do you think that means for your career?’” Kendricks said. “I said, ‘I don’t think it changes the meaning of my career so much as that it allows me to be more myself.’

“I often tell people that after winning a world championships, when you go into the next year you’re kind of wearing golden handcuffs. They’re really pretty, they’re really nice to look at, but it’s a little bit of expectation that follows you everywhere you go and makes it a little bit harder to be just Sam, just the competitor. That’s because they expect you to bring the world champion with you, and I’m one and the same.

“I won’t say that I don’t enjoy that, but it’s just different.”

Last season those handcuffs chafed a bit because they followed one of the best years imaginable: In 2017, Kendricks didn’t just win the world title. He was undefeated in 17 meets, joined the prestigious 6-meter club (19-8 ¼) and also won the Diamond Trophy.

“You cannot expect yourself to attain that level of excellence every time,” he said, “so it was a pleasant surprise in 2017 having all those great performances lumped all into one year.”

 

Sam Kendricks celebrates at the IAAF World Athletics Championships on Aug. 8, 2017 in London.


Home Life Also Hits A High
To cap it off, Kendricks got married on Dec. 29, 2017, to Leanne Zimmer, a former runner at the University of Mississippi, which is also her husband’s alma mater.

“I told my wife Leanne as soon as I asked her to marry me and she said yes, ‘You’ve got to marry me before next season because I’ve got work to do,’” he said.

Kendricks went straight from his honeymoon in Hawaii into the 2018 indoor season, culminating in a silver medal at the world indoor championships.

He placed second at the Diamond League final in Brussels and was the world leader for most of the year.

“That is still a sterling season,” Kendricks said. “Anybody in any other walk of track and field would say, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing year you had.’ It’s just when you look at it in the perspective of the 2017 lens, you want to think, ‘Oh well, Sam, do you feel like you fell short if you didn’t catch up to that?

“But that’s not how this game works. Victory is never assured. You can only try to attain it time and time again.”

His best clearance of 2018 was 5.96 (19-6 ¾) in Paris. Yet Kendricks said his statistics are deceiving. Several times he put the bar at 6.06, “for the sake of jumping higher than 6 meters,” and was unsuccessful in his attempts to jump a new American record. “I probably gave up quite a few 6-meter jumps.”

Duplantis set the American record of 6.05 (19-10 ¼) last August, eclipsing Brad Walker’s 11-year-old mark by a centimeter. Duplantis has dual U.S. and Swedish citizenship. While the LSU freshman has chosen to compete for Sweden, he is still eligible to hold the American record.

Kendricks told RunnerSpace.com that during the Drake Relays, “I couldn’t even get through my own competition without someone telling me how high (Duplantis) had jumped (5.94/19-5 ¾ at an LSU meet).”

Kendricks hopes to make many more attempts at the American record this season, noting that he cleared 6 meters on his 13th try at the height.

“Every chance I have to go for a record I cherish,” Kendricks said. “I certainly see the American record in my wheelhouse, but I have to be honest, it’s all about circumstance. You have to be a hero and you have to be a hero on the right day.”

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Humble Beginnings
Looking at him now, it’s hard to believe his father, then the track coach at Oxford (Mississippi) High School, pegged him as “the worst pole vaulter that I ever started coaching.”

The elder Kendricks said usually he “skipped over the short, slow kids and went with the taller, faster kids, but he was my son, so we just got to work.”

They had modest goals as Sam improved month after month. “There is a championships for every level in this sport,” he said. “And that’s why I love track and field so much. There is a mountain for everyone to climb, and it’s not something that’s unattainable.

“If I had been looking towards the Olympics when I was 13, 14, I doubt I would have made it the whole way.”

When Kendricks went to Ole Miss, his father crossed town with him, leaving his job at the high school so he could continue coaching him.

On their first trip to compete in Europe, they realized that Sam was keeping up with the world’s best vaulters. So, they set more ambitious goals, although Scott made it clear that “the main goal is to enjoy the sport and be the best you can.”

Before the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Sam asked his dad what he thought it would be like to represent Team USA.

Scott told him, “Here’s the deal: Americans turn on the TV at night and they want to know, ‘Who’s our guy and does he have a chance?’ You get to be the guy and you’ve got a chance.”

But Sam first impressed the folks back home without even clearing the bar. During qualifying, he stopped mid-run, dropping his pole to stand at attention while the national anthem played for Team USA shot putter Michelle Carter.

Then Kendricks went on to win the bronze medal, making the first Olympic podium for an American in the men’s event since 2004 when Tim Mack and Toby Stevenson went 1-2.

 

Sam Kendricks competes at the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships on June 23, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.



Unconventional, Yet Unstoppable
And like the Frank Sinatra song goes, Kendricks does it his way. His poles aren’t as long as those used by his competitors, but they suited him when he was starting out and he stuck with them.

“He’ll always be known as the guy on the shortest poles, but if it works, it works,” said his father.

Kendricks said that it’s a misconception that the vaulter who grips the highest has an advantage.

“If you talk to any other elite competitor, they would say, ‘Hey, Sam does things a little differently, but no one can say he does it wrongly,’” he said. “My friend Renaud often tells me, ‘Sam, it does not matter how you high you hold, it matters how high you jump.’”

Lavillenie is just one of the friends Kendricks has made in a sport that can be cutthroat. He is gregarious, but he also works at it. Kendricks said when he first arrived at Ole Miss, and then later when he joined the track circuit as a professional, “They probably thought I was a goober in the beginning.”

But his friendliness eventually won over his rivals.

“Imagine if you went into work every day and you weren’t friends with anybody there,” Kendricks said. “I’d bet that would be a pretty bleak existence. A lot of times people see athletes at odds with each other all the time because that makes competition interesting when there’s a true fight to be had.

“But that’s not the way I really intend to live my life. I spend so much time on the road with these men and women that if I put myself at odds with them I would not be putting myself in a good work environment.”

He said his father helped him understand that rivals can also have camaraderie.

“He said, ‘Sam if you think you’re giving something away to be a true friend to somebody in competition, if you think that’s going to harm your competitiveness, then you miss the whole point of what you’ve been training for.’

“Just because I’m friendly to somebody on the track doesn’t mean I’m giving away the championship. It doesn’t mean I’m taking any less serious the situation that I’m in. I’m just building up my work environment. I’m making myself happy to be where I am. When they turn around and do the same thing for me, that’s when you really start to get a boost. That’s when you really reap the rewards of your labors for sure.”

Kendricks also is something of an anomaly in that he doesn’t shy away from lower heights. He considers that part of his warmup.

“In almost 300 competitions, from 7th grade until now, he never failed to clear a height,” Scott said. “He’s the only pole vaulter in history that never no-heighted. He clears a bar every time. That’s being a coach’s kid. You gotta score for the team.”

And while Kendricks tries to keep his international competition at bay, he’s also looking over his shoulder at his little brother, John Scott.

“In eighth grade, John Scott is better than he was,” said their dad, noting that Sam went 10-6 while his brother has cleared 12 feet. “There’s some smack talking at the dinner table.”

But the family wish is that down the road, if Sam is still in the sport and John Scott continues to improve, then both could wear the red, white and blue and represent Team USA.

“I can look at him,” said Kendricks, “and almost see myself.”