Breaking barriers: Pole vault’s four 6m-men on reaching for the sky

Armand Duplantis, Renaud Lavillenie, Sam Kendricks and Piotr Lisek

24 Nov 2020

In the first of a new three-part series, four of the six pole vaulters competing today to have broken the magical 6m mark – Armand Duplantis, Renaud Lavillenie, Sam Kendricks and Piotr Lisek – come together to reveal just how they are jumping higher than many thought possible.

Sweden’s Armand “Mondo” Duplantis, Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie, the USA’s Sam Kendricks and Poland’s Piotr Lisek represent a golden generation in men’s pole vaulting. Not until 1985 and the great Sergey Bubka had anyone cleared six metres. Yet in the space of the past five years, all four of these men have posted leaps of 6m and above.

The currently unbeatable Mondo Duplantis leads the way. The 20-year-old cleared an extraordinary 6.17m indoors in Poland in February this year before going 1cm higher in Glasgow soon after. He followed up those record-setting jumps by claiming the highest outdoor mark of all time in Rome in September, clearing 6.15m.

Meanwhile Lavillenie, whose indoor mark Duplantis surpassed, is targeting a third Olympic medal in Tokyo next year after winning gold at London 2012 and silver at Rio 2016. Double reigning world champion Sam Kendricks will undoubtedly have something to say about that, and Lisek, a three-time world championship medallist with a jump of 6.02m to his name in 2019, is a proven big-time performer.

The four of them are at the very pinnacle of their sport, and all seem to be loving the view…

What does it feel like to jump beyond 6m?

Mondo Duplantis [MD]: Six metres is just special. It just has the ring to it, like a golden barrier in pole vault… it hasn’t gotten old yet, not even close. It’s just special. I grew up watching everybody’s 6m jumps, hoping one day I would get my chance at it. To be here now and fortunate enough to have several 6m jumps, I mean I don’t know, but it almost gets better each time I do it.

Renaud Lavillenie [RL]: Obviously jumping 5.98m or 6.02m, it is not just 4cm difference. There is such a feeling inside, it’s just crazy. For most people, 6m is a national record. You know, it’s kind of a private club. When you go to 6m you know you get into a new club, a new area, and you know not so many people in the world have been able to achieve it. So, it’s something very special.

Sam Kendricks [SK]: Jumping really high, really stupid high, above 6m… it doesn’t make sense mathematically in your head. You have to believe so much about what you are doing in order to progress that far and you have to commit – commit to a level that not everyone is trained to commit to.

Pole vault Getty Images
Is there a different feel to an event when all four of you are competing?

MD: You want the whole gang; you want everyone there jumping well so it can really motivate you to get higher and higher. But in Lausanne [for September 2020’s Diamond League meeting] from 5.87m on it was just me and Sam [Kendricks], and we just pushed each other height after height. We would have loved to have had more people there, but just having someone alongside you is super fun, no matter who it is.

When we are together it is very good fun, even if when we are on the track it is very hard to jump and to win. Renaud Lavillenie

SK: Absolutely. The main feeling you have is that you want to jump high because you don’t want to let those guys down. When you are all coming together to jump, I don’t come for an easy day; I come for a tough day. I want to be challenged. I want those guys to jump high because I want to jump higher in turn… Every time I go to a meet with Mondo and I don’t jump my best, that hurts. I want to challenge him, and I know that’s what he wants too. And that’s what makes me like him so much.

Piotr Lisek [PL]: This is how we motivate ourselves, when we see the form of others. There is nothing to hide currently. You must always give your best. Each one of us has to look for his motivation and his imagination because we must be mentally strong to stay competitive with the others. I try my best to let pole vault bring me as much joy as it did when I started the adventure. For me it was never a job; it is still my passion.

Renaud Lavillenie, Sam Kendricks Getty Images
Sam, you came out on top at the last World Championships, in Doha in 2019. How did that feel?

SK: Every two years we are going to come together for a championship and, even though Mondo may be the world record holder now, you cannot call in and say, ‘Mail me my gold medal’. You have to go jump for it; you have to go earn it.

There have been so many dominant pole vaulters of the past. They may have a world record, they may have a championship under their belt, and they will tell you the same: nothing is guaranteed in the future; you don’t own a victory. There is an honour to it and it pervades everything we do as competitors, and that’s cool. You are kind of part of a fraternity – a fraternity of guys who respect the paramount nature of a championship. Going towards Doha, that was probably the hardest meet I ever had to jump at. It was certainly one of the most fun.

What are the most important factors in jumping high?

MD: There are several; it’s a pretty complicated event. Technique aside, I think the real important thing is mentality. The good jumpers separated from the great jumpers is mainly just mental. When I am jumping my best, Sam is jumping his best, Piotr, Renaud… we are just confident in ourselves. We are confident and comfortable on the runway, which is really important. You really have to be confident in what you are doing and comfortable, especially when you are flinging yourself 6m high into the air. You have to trust yourself, and you can’t have any hesitation. Any bit of hesitation can just throw off all the timing in the jump.

RL: There are two things. The first is about speed. Generally in track and field, speed is the key for high performance. I know speed is one of my best abilities. Second, [it is] to be able to have the best technique on the day, which is hard to understand some days. Some days it’s not working because the weather is different or you feel physically different, but you have to be able to adjust every time. That is why I am able to save a lot of jumps, because I have a very good feeling on the pole, and I know if I can keep that I will be able to jump high for a long time.

PL: As a pole vaulter, you learn for a lifetime. Speed, technique and how to bring all things together into a jump always creates new challenges.

To be continued in Part 2 Matching Mondo: pole vault’s chasing pack reveal how they plan to catch the flying Swede

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