Step by step, Chris Nilsen has been climbing to the top of the pole vault world


VERMILLION, S.D.– Find and pursue what you love and you may never work a day in your life.

“I didn’t want to do something I didn’t love doing. So, I wanted to figure out how to do this professionally because this is what I love doing,” Nilsen said.

Nilsen first burst onto the pole vaulting scene a prep star in Kansas City.

“Junior year I won the state championship in Missouri. I jumped 17 feet to win and that’s when I got a call from Derek Miles,” Nilsen said.

Miles, the associate director of track and field at USD, and a 3-time olympian himself, knew Nilsen had all the physcal tools necessary to be special.

“The first time I ever saw him was on a home visit. I went in the home and he was 6’4, 6’5 as a junior in high school. So, pretty tall kid and he had the build most coaches are looking for,” Miles said.

But Nilsen’s mental side of the craft was still developing.

“If I’m going to make a job out of this, I’m going to actually have to try and make a job out of this and not just do it 2-5 at the track when I come out for practice everyday,” Nilson stated. “So, the work ethic probably didn’t come until junior year of college. Where as freshman year I was still working hard, sophomore year I was still working hard, but, I was more focused on having fun than actually doing a job and now I’d say I’m more focused on doing the job.”

“It’s been my goal to guide him through those challenges and help him kind of get to the other side where he has opportunities and options and creates a pathway for himself to be successful,” Miles said.

Success would come, and it would come often. A 6-time All-american while at USD, a 3-time national champion in the pole vault and now an olympian, Nilsen’s had to adjust his mind.

“There’s still some pride but it’s turned from more like a bad, negative pride like hubris; to pride in my country, pride in my family and pride in my sport and in my fellow man,” Nilsen said.

No matter how Nilsen fares later this month in Tokoyo, or what he accomplishes the rest of his career, he just wants to be viewed as anyone else would be.

“At the end of the day, I don’t really think anyone on the USD team sees me as a national champion, an olympian, they all just see me as ‘hey, thats Chris.’ They can text me or snapchat me at any time and I’ll respond and go hangout with them,” Nilsen stated. “I would think we we’re friends before anything really cool or big happened and I kind of want to keep it that way. I dont want to be seen as Chris Nilsen olympian, I want to be seen as Chris Nilsen the guy who’s going to D.D. for us or something,” Nilsen said with a laugh.

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