KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Chris Nilsen never thought it would come to this when he was a kid at Park Hill High School.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “When I was in high school, I though I was cool, and I was one of those dumb kids that was flipping off fences and doing parkour things.”
These days, Nilsen is one of the best pole vaulters in the world. But it started by chance.
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.
Up next, he took on college at the University of South Dakota.
“‘You won’t find a coach anywhere else that cares about you more than I do,'” Nilsen recalls his former coach and former Olympic medalist Derek Miles saying. “As soon as he said that, I looked at the coaches and said give me the papers. I’m signing right now.”
That led to an illustrious career, including three national titles.
“I ended up telling myself around my sophomore year, right after I jumped 19 feet, I said, ‘I can probably make a gig out of this,'” Nilsen said. “The next year I had jumped 19 (feet), 6 (inches) and moved to first in the world. I was like, we can do this.”
After college, he took his talents to the pro level. He’s been focused, hiring an agent while competing across the country and training in South Dakota. At the Golden Games in California, he vaulted the world-leading height.
But it’s all leading up to an even bigger stage: the Olympic Trials.
Nilsen competed in the trials in 2016 as a high schooler, but now he expects much more of himself.
“I wasn’t really focusing on pole vaulting,” he said. “I was focusing on a picture with the American record holder and the last NCAA champion because I thought it was cool. I didn’t do well. I think now, it’s less of a, ‘I’m going to have fun.’ It’s more like, I going to get a job done.”
Olympic Trials for pole vault start June 19.
Anything can happen, but Nilsen has his eyes on a top 3 finish to earn a spot on Team USA — and a trip to Tokyo.
“The goal is just do exactly what we’ve been doing for the entire season and hope to God it lands us in the top 3.”