KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Two Kansas City natives are headed to the Olympics!
Park Hill graduate Chris Nilsen took first place in the pole vault Olympic Trials on Monday night with a 5.9-meter (or 19 feet, 4.25 inch) winning jump to punch his ticket to Tokyo.
Nilsen, ranked fifth in the world by World Athletics, didn’t miss a single jump in the finals, including the Olympic standard bar of 5.8 meters. Then with a solid lead, he completed 5.85 meters and was the only athlete to clear 5.9 meters, giving him the win.
He set his sights on clearing 6 meters, but failed to clear the height after three attempts.
Lee’s Summit native KC Lightfoot tied with six-time U.S. champion Sam Kendricks to take second place with 5.85-meter jumps. The top three finishers go on to Tokyo, so both Lightfoot and Kendricks also qualify.
Although he’s now one of the best in the world, Nilsen’s pole vaulting career actually started by chance at Park Hill High School.
He was playing soccer at Park Hill and needed a sport to stay in shape in the spring. He chose track and field because he knew his eighth grade teacher coached pole vault.
“I landed back on the runway the first three times, so I went to her — her name is Stephanie Yuen — and I looked to my coach, and I said, ‘Am I supposed to suck this bad?’” Nilsen said. “And she was like, ‘No, but you’ll get better at it.’”
And get better, he definitely did.
Nilsen finally accomplished 10 feet. Then started working with former USA pole vault coach Rick Attig. From there, he mastered 12 feet and soared to 17 feet — all within the span of 6 months.
He went on to compete at the University of South Dakota, where he earned three national titles before graduating in 2020.
With the trials now over, Nilsen will now set his sights on Tokyo and the Olympic Games. The Opening Ceremony is set for July 23, and track and field events begin July 30.