Kendricks, Duplantis and Lisek take things to new heights

Sam Kendricks, Armand Duplantis and Piotr Lisek have been the stars of the pole vault season, each surpassing the fabled 6m mark at least once and delivering spectacular performances in the final of the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, in which Kendricks emerged victorious. We can’t wait to see them back in action in Tokyo next year, and they’re not the only ones: the performances of reigning Olympic champion Thiago Braz da Silva from Brazil and world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie from France are also hotly anticipated. 

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In chronological order, the first cleared 6m on 11 May in Fayetteville (Arkansas), the second negotiated 6.02m in Monaco on 12 July, and the third sailed over the bar at 6.06m in the American trials for the 2019 World Championships in Des Moines (Iowa) on 27 July. The first of the three to clear the mark this season was 19-year-old Swedish phenomenon Armand Duplantis. Poland’s Piotr Lisek did likewise in Monaco, and the now double reigning world champion Sam Kendricks achieved the feat at the American trials. Both Lisek and Kendricks are 27. In the IAAF Diamond League, there were only three pole vault winners in six competitions: Kendricks, Lisek and Duplantis. Kendricks won the Diamond League 2019 final in Zurich on 29 August with a jump of 5.93m, beating Duplantis and Lisek (who both reached 5.83m).

Kendricks: “We weren’t duelling as enemies, but as rivals and friends”

On 1 October, in the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, the pole vault competition at the 2019 World Athletics Championships ended with the same top three in the same order: gold for Kendricks, silver for Duplantis and bronze for Lisek. The three athletes celebrated their achievements together on the landing mat afterwards with an impressive synchronised backwards somersault.

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The final itself was magnificent. With the bar at 5.80m, the trio were the only three still in contention, having cleared each bar they had negotiated until then at the first time of asking. Duplantis and Lisek needed two attempts at 5.87m, while Kendricks required three. The defending champion then cleared 5.92m on his first attempt and Duplantis managed it on his third, while Lisek chose to pass to the next height, 5.97m, after a miss. The Pole bowed out at that height, whereas Kendricks and Duplantis both succeeded with their second jumps, roared on by a vociferous crowd. Neither athlete was able to clear 6.02m, and as Kendricks, the 2017 world champion and Rio 2016 bronze medallist, had required one attempt fewer than Duplantis at 5.97m, it was the American who retained his title. Duplantis took silver and Lisek ended with bronze on 5.87m.

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“I am elated, stunned and excited, all at the same time. It’s almost hard to take it in,” said Kendricks after the high-calibre final. “To have three men over six metres all going for it – the titans of the event this year – made it such a memorable night. We weren’t duelling as enemies, but as rivals and friends.” The prospect of seeing them battle it out again at the Tokyo Games next year – along with reigning Olympic champion Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil and the current world record-holder, 2012 Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie of France – is a mouth-watering one.  

The Duplantis phenomenon and the new golden age of pole vaulting

Nicknamed “Mondo”, Duplantis practically grew up with a pole in his hands. Born on 10 November 1999 in Lafayette (Louisiana), he is the son of American pole vaulter Greg Duplantis and Swedish heptathlete and volleyball player Helena Hedlund. From the age of 6, in 2006, he was setting new world records across the age categories, clearing 3.90m when he was 10. He chose to represent the nation of his mother, Sweden, and made a name for himself at elite level on the international stage in 2018 by becoming European champion in Berlin on 12 August with a jump of 6.05m – a junior world record, a Swedish national record, a championship record, a season’s best and the joint second-best outdoor jump of all time, behind the 6.14m achieved by Sergey Bubka. Duplantis says that he grew up admiring Lavillenie, and that his ambition is not only to win more championships and Olympic gold in 2020, but also to break the world record and leave a legacy as the greatest pole vaulter who has ever lived.

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Kendricks, meanwhile, also has his sights set on gold at the Tokyo Games. A bronze medallist at Rio 2016 with 5.85m, he watched on as Lavillenie and Da Silva faced off in an enthralling duel, which ended with the latter setting a new Olympic record of 6.03m. Kendricks’ jump this summer in Des Moines, which was 3cm higher than that gold medal-winning effort, is the second-best outdoor jump of all time. He believes that it is thanks to his rivals that pole vaulting is scaling increasingly stratospheric heights. “Because of the environment that we’ve built for ourselves in this event, it only builds a bright future,” he said in Doha. “Mondo Duplantis, after winning the European Championships, said he is ready for the next level. 6.05m is not to be taken lightly. This year, my friend Piotr Lisek has built [on his performances] ever since the beginning of the outdoor season and kept improving throughout the summer. He became a double 6-metre jumper in one year – that doesn’t happen very often. When you put those kinds of guys together, they forge each other, they make each other hard, and make each other really good under pressure. And so if we hadn’t had each other all year since the European Championships last year, I don’t think we would have seen the Championship that we [have] had now. You never win playing defensive in pole vault; you have to win playing offensive.”

Unprecedented heights to be reached at Tokyo 2020?

The tireless Lisek, who said that he has taken part in 42 competitions in 2019, has also played a starring role this season, and is the only pole vaulter to have topped the 6m mark twice this year (6.01m in Lausanne on 5 July and 6.02m in Monaco one week later). He claimed the silver medal at the London 2017 World Championships, finishing second to Kendricks, and became the indoor European champion that same year in Belgrade, with a jump of 5.85m. “Every time I compete with [Kendricks and Duplantis], it’s not easy,” he explained in Doha. “The season was so long and so hard. I’m a young father, I [just] want to go home and hug my daughter. And I’m glad to be here today with these two guys.” And when asked if the national record or a major medal was more important to him, he replied: “Both, but being a young father is [even] more important right now.” 

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Each member of the trio that thrilled the crowds at the Doha 2019 World Championships will now recharge their batteries and come back even stronger in the season leading up to the Tokyo Games. Given the collective ambition and competitive nature of this crop of pole vaulters, you could be forgiven for thinking that the current world records – Lavillenie’s indoor record of 6.16m, set in 2014, and Bubka’s outdoor record of 6.14m, set in 1994 – might not stand for much longer. The competition in the Japanese capital next summer could, potentially, reach unprecedented heights. That, at any rate, is what we’re all hoping for!