Tokyo bound: Nilsen, South Dakota alum, wins US Olympic Trials in pole vault

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A lifelong dream is becoming a reality for Chris Nilsen. 

In roughly one month, the former South Dakota pole vault phenom will head for Tokyo and represent Team USA at the 2020 Olympics. For the Kansas City, Missouri native and 2020 Coyote graduate, becoming an Olympic athlete has “been in the works for a long, long time.” 

Chris Nilsen clears the bar during the finals of the men’s pole vault at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Monday, June 21, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In an interview from his hotel room in Eugene, Oregon, Nilsen compared his goal of becoming an Olympic athlete to any 5-year-old kid who wants to grow up and become the President of the United States. 

And Nilsen accomplished his latest goal in impressive fashion — winning the gold medal in the U.S. Olympic Trials by clearing a height of 19-4 ¼ (5.90m), clearing six different bars on his first attempt. 

“It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of good training and a lot of maturing over the last few years,” Nilsen told KELOLAND News.  

Throughout his years competing in pole vault, Nilsen has had his eyes on reaching the Olympic-level. When asked what he most looking forward to about his first Olympics, Nilsen said it’s about soaking in the competitive environment. 

“It’s finding out,” Nilsen said. “I wanted to be an Olympic athlete. I want to figure out what that means. I want to go to the Olympics and see what the big stage is like.” 

Part of his Olympic desire drew him to South Dakota coach Derek Miles, who himself is a three-time Olympian and a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist. 

Miles said the coach-athlete relationship is at the foundation of everything Nilsen and he work on. He highlighted the magnitude of the US Olympic Trials meet and the stout competition Nilsen defeated.  

“Watching him do that at the trials was special,” Miles said. “He literally doesn’t have a miss until he’s taking shots at 19-8; it’s pretty incredible.” 

The ingredients for an Olympic athlete are physical, said Miles, emphasizing the power, speed and technique needed to succeed at pole vaulting. But Miles said the mental side to pole vault has been where Nilsen shines brightest. 

“He can focus on what he needs to, when he needs to and he can execute to get through the challenge,” Miles said. “He’s always had the mental intensity. When it comes time to compete, he’s always been able to step up and compete hard. I think that’s probably one of the biggest attributes that has propelled him forward in the years, is just his ability to do that.” 

2020 Olympic pole vault competitions set for Aug. 3 and Aug. 5

A seven-time All-American, Nilsen saw his senior season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the ups and the downs, Nilsen said coach Miles has helped keep his focus on the day-to-day goals. 

“I’m sure I gave him a few more gray hairs than I should have over the last four, five years,” Nilsen said about Miles. “That’s the process of going through college and growing up.” 

Nilsen said Miles continues to do a good job of keeping him humble and keeping his “head small.”  

“I made the Olympic team, but that doesn’t mean I’m such a big hot-shot right now,” Nilsen said. “He still made two more (Olympic teams) than me. He’s still got that on me.” 

Joining Nilsen on the USA pole vaulting team will be Sam Kendricks, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, and KC Lightfoot, a 2021 NCAA indoor champion.

But Nilsen said Miles’ knowledge and experience will continue to benefit him as he counts down the days until the Olympics begin on July 23. Pole vault competitions are set for Aug. 3 and Aug. 5. 

“Derek has already made three olympic teams and he’s a bronze medalist from the 2008 Beijing Olympics,” Nilsen said. “Having that experience that he can push on to me has been valuable.” 

Nilsen said he’ll by leaving for the Olympics on July 24. In the month leading up to the games, he’ll plan to jump in some meets in Europe for money. 

“Just training and trying to stay healthy,” Nilsen said. “When the Olympics come around, give it our best shot and whatever happens, happens.”

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