Mondo Duplantis is setting the bar high, but can he really be the next Bolt?

At 20 he broke the world record twice in one week, now the sky's the limit for track and field's latest leading light
By Ken Browne

Mondo Duplantis is ushering in a new golden age in pole vault.

When he broke the world record by jumping 6.17m on 8 February 2020, the world sat up and took notice.

Seven days later he went and broke it again, beating his own mark in a 6.18m clearance, doubling down on the excitement around how high he can jump and how far he can push the sport.

The 20-year-old tried to curb the enthusiasm in Glasgow after his latest record-breaking jump saying “It's unfair to think I'll break it every time I compete,” but it was already too late.

The Usain Bolt succession conversation was already underway.

"I don't blame them for wanting me to have a crazy career like Usain Bolt," he told the BBC, "I am going to try and carry the sport as much as I can and I know the best way to do that is to jump really high."

Mondo hasn't just exploded onto world sport's A-List in an Olympic year, he's also put himself in the frame to become one of Tokyo 2020's transcendent stars.

But can he really be the next Bolt?

Born to fly

A bit like Bolt, Duplantis' talent was obvious from an early age.

Pole-vaulting since he was three years old in his back garden and breaking records since he was seven, his early start gave him a huge advantage.

His father Greg Duplantis was a pole vaulter, his mother Helena Hedlund a Swedish heptathlete, they now form the foundation of his coaching team.

Mondo grew up trying to keep up with his two older brothers Andreas and Antoine on the pole vault set-up in the back yard.

Andreas represented Sweden as a pole vaulter at youth and junior Worlds in 2009 and 2012, while Antoine traded the pole for a bat, smashing his way to Major League Baseball with the New York Mets.

But it wasn't long before the pesky little brother surpassed his older siblings on the runway, proving at a young age that he was special.

He set his first world-beating height at the age of 7 (3.86m), by 10 he had beaten the record for 11 and 12 year-olds too, in fact Mondo owns every single world leading mark from under-seven to under-12 and then from under-17 all the way to senior.

So what happened in the early teen years?

"14, 15, 16 - those were my little awkward ages. I was still short," he laughs.

When the Olympic Channel sat down with the winged Swede in 2017, the self-belief was clear to see.

Still only 18, Duplantis didn't have dreams, he had plans:

"The goal right now, talking about the Olympics in 2020, would be to win gold I guess, why not?" - Armand Duplantis

"I hope to break some more championships, I hope to break the world record," he continued, before setting out his long-term goal in the sport:

"To fulfill my legacy as the best pole-vaulter to ever live"

Some call it cocky, others just confidence, whatever it it is, it's working for Mondo.

Better than Bubka?

When Mondo jumped 6.17, then 6.18 in quick succession it was reminiscent of the great Sergey Bubka who broke the pole vault world record 17 times in the 1980s and 90s, usually in small increments of 1cm.

So is the Swedish-American superstar ready to follow his formula?

Right now he is setting no limits and no definitive answer to the obvious question: 'how high can he go?'

"I have been asked it so many times in the last week," he laughed when the BBC posed the question to him post-WR in Poland.

"It's the only thing I am asked now but I guess it makes sense, you break the world record they just want to know when the next one is going to be."

"I don't want to put a limit on myself. I feel good and I don't see why I would peak at 20 years old." - Duplantis

Others are not so hesitant to talk numbers, when London 2012 gold medallist Renaud Lavillenie was asked by French newspaper L'Equipe if Duplantis might one day clear 6.20m he called it "completely conceivable, there is no reason why it cannot be in the long term."

With the distance between him and the bar on his 6.18 jump, now even 6.30 doesn't seem out of the question.

Mondo has brought a new buzz of excitement to track and field, and everyone wants to see what he's going to do next.

What's different about Duplantis?

On top of the world at 20, what makes this pole vault prodigy different?

At 1.81m (5'11) tall and around 80kg, it isn't any one extraordinary physical attribute that sets Duplantis apart.

In this combination sport, it's all about a successful fusion of different talents.

To become a world class pole vaulter you need the speed of a top sprinter, the strength of an Olympic weightlifter, the agility of a gymnast, and the flexibility of a figure skater.

First off, he's fast. Very fast.

100m in 10.57 seconds fast, with ambitions to trim that to 10.4 seconds.

Then he's bulked up, put greater focus on targeted training, lifting and nutrition - the last part thanks to his mother, a qualified dietitian.

"I wouldn't be here without my mother"

It's obvious that his success is built on a bedrock of family support and strong relationships.

His father was the pole vaulter in the family and has been a huge influence, but his relationship with his mother is just as strong.

That was clearly obvious from the way he ran over to hug her after breaking the first record in Poland, and again in his words after the second world beating jump in Scotland:

"I wouldn't be in the situation that I'm in without my mother, she's been able to be with me over these past three meets and it's been a great time for us not only as my mother as my coach, but just as my mother, just kind of mother son bonding time."

"It started as a little dream that me and her had... It's just hard to process everything that's happening right now, but I'm glad that it's happening with the people that were with me from Day 1 like my mother."

Sitting proudly in the stands, Helena watched her son make breaking a world record look easy.

"When I was in the stadium and watching him I thought, this is scary," she said. "It just didn't seem that difficult to him. I don't know whether I should say this but with Bubka I don't know if it looked that easy."

She's helped him in many practical ways too, with the decision to get serious by turning pro, and getting into winning habits.

Better stronger faster fitter

Saying goodbye to college parties after a year studying at Louisiana State University, Mondo turned pro at the start of 2020 and had to change his lifestyle from one that left him with a self-admitted "fat college kid" physique, to that of a professional world-beater.

He's had to give up the fried food so beloved of the USA's deep south, "I'm from Louisiana, it's pretty tough not to," he mourns, now taking a leaner, greener path.

"Mondo has never really enjoyed vegetables," his mother Helena says.

"He would just move them to the side of the plate. We're taking it one vegetable at a time."

Speed, training, diet have all contributed, but above all, what Mondo does so well is blend all the different elements of a jump into one single motion.

An LSU Professor deconstructs the physics of it here:

Mondo breaks it down

To listen to him talking about the different phases of the jump: the run - the plant - the takeoff - clearing the bar - the freefall - is like listening to someone describe a near-mystical experience.

"You have to put a lot of energy into a jump but my best jumps that I've taken always feel effortless, one nice fluid motion where no energy was lost in the process," he explains in this excellent video produced by one of his sponsors Red Bull.

Putting rhythm, feel, and things that lie deep in the muscle memory into words isn't easy, but the result is a cadence all of its own.

"The whole jump is set up from the first step," he begins, methodically.

"I'm trying to have a really explosive and powerful push... It's hard to explain everything after that but it's really just this rhythm. And I have it in my head and I can feel it on the runway when it's right."

To watch him run with the pole falling in perfect arc and hitting the box exactly at the moment when he's reached top speed, you see what he means by one fluid motion.

"The whole jump is set up by the plant of the pole. It hits the back of the box and I can feel that impact, I kind of just react...

"You know pretty soon if you're gonna get over the bar and if it's gonna be a make and if it is then you kind of just get to relax and enjoy the freefall.

"I live for those tiny little moments, I can train for five years just for that one half a second."

He has already had two of those tiny moments knowing that he's gone higher than anyone else ever has in history.

And it's obvious he wants more.

Bigger than Bolt?

But can Mondo really pick up the torch from the great man who reigned supreme over the world of athletics for 12 years?

All that personality, charisma, Jamaican flair and talent, delivering in style time and time again on the greatest sporting stage there is.

That's a big ask, and Duplantis knows it.

"The position I am in, I never really imagined, people talking to me about leading the whole sport of track and field? I am just a pole vaulter, it is such a strange and unique event," he says.

"I love all the attention it is getting because I love pole vaulting. To put pole vaulting on the map just for a second is a dream come true. The best way to continue to do that is to jump really high.

"But as far as carrying the sport I can't say too much about that - I've got too many opponents to worry about."