A Coyote goes to the Olympics: Inside Chris Nilsen’s mentality

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The Tokyo Olympics will have their Opening Ceremony in a little over two weeks, and competing in the games will be pole vaulter Chris Nilsen who graduated from the University of South Dakota last summer. The 23-year-old Nilsen recently became the 2021 US Olympic Trials pole vaulting champion. He was also a three-time NCAA pole vaulting champion.

“It’s hit me that I am an Olympian, but it hasn’t really hit that I’m going to be fulfilling that kind of childhood dream, and at the same time it’s satisfying and fulfilling,” Nilsen said.

Derek Miles, associate director of track and field at USD, coached Nilsen for his entire tenure at the school. Miles is coaching him up to the Olympics, too.

“As far as a pole vaulter is concerned, he’s always been a freak,” Miles said. “He could run fast, he was strong, he was powerful.”

Miles also highlights Nilsen’s mental prowess.

“Probably his mentality during competing has always been one of his biggest attributes, his ability to kind of fire up, bring the intensity every single time in a meet situation, never any doubt,” Miles said. “Those kinds of things I think are hard to find sometimes, I think it takes a very particular mindset, an intensity level when you compete to be able to do that.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Nilsen says he is trying to not obsess over what will soon have the world’s attention and his participation.

“I’m trying not really think about it too much,” Nilsen said. “I made the mistake of thinking about the Olympic trials all day, every day before the trials came up, and I was way too nervous about it, and now we’ve just kind of gone into kind of like a work mode kind of thing. I’m not really nervous anymore about it.”

Miles himself is an Olympic bronze medalist; he won it for pole vaulting at the 2008 Games.

Dan Santella: “Do you talk about the Olympics and the prospect of medaling with him? Does that come up specifically, the idea of medaling in the Olympics?

“No, I think probably every conversation we’ve had is actually done the opposite of that,” Miles said. “I think there are things that when you’re an athlete, you can go in and you can control. And you can control your preparation, you can control your mindset, you control your focus, you can control your physiology and things of that nature and your technical ability at the moment. But things that you can’t control is deciding, ‘Hey I’m going to be in the top three.'”

Nilsen pole vaults professionally; he was in Sweden doing just that when we caught up with him for this interview.

“I think right now we’re just kind of focusing on the training and seeing what we can do in the meantime, and then when we get to the Olympics there’s nothing else we can really do besides try our best,” Nilsen said.

Nilsen’s coming leaps in Japan might be consequential for other athletes, too.

“It’s special for our program at USD because someone has now forged a path to accomplish a goal that a lot of people in the program have, and so once they see someone do that, they think, ‘Well if he can do it, I’m just going to put my head down, I’m going to focus and I’m going to do it,'” Miles said.

“The ultimate goal would be when we get to the Olympics is to actually prove myself and see if you kind of have the merit that your fellow man does when you get on the runway in a big competition to see if you do well,” Nilsen said.

Nilsen is set to go to Japan in less than three weeks.

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