How Chris Nilsen became an improbable medalist

POLE VAULTER: USA's Christopher Nilsen competes in the men's pole vault final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Aug. 3. Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images/Tribune News Service

Chris Nilsen was an accidental pole vaulter, and, really, in more ways than one.

For starters, he inadvertently became acquainted with the event by process of elimination and fluke: Looking to stay in shape for soccer as a freshman at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, he checked out track and field knowing only that he didn’t want to run far and wasn’t strong enough to throw anything.

So he approached the one person with whom he was familiar, vertical jumps coach Stephanie Yuen, who had been his English teacher at Congress Middle School. She steered him towards pole vault, and he somehow stayed interested after an inauspicious debut that included getting “spit out” (landing back on the runway) on his first three attempts.

Fearless before he should have been, Nilsen then became an accident waiting to happen when he turned to pole vault guru Rick Attig after his sophomore year. At the first practice, his mother, Karen, recalled, Attig leaned over to Nilsen’s father, Mark, and said, “He’s going to kill himself” doing this.

“He had to break Chris down like you break a horse and build him back up with a new technique … or Rick’s technique, I should say,” Karen Nilsen said on Tuesday.

Then there were the other hazards along the way, like storing the poles too long to fit anywhere else in what she called “their little ranch home,” often sprawling from the dining room into the kitchen area and a tripping threat at any time. At one point, Karen Nilsen remembered telling him, “Can’t you be a sprinter? All they have to do is wear their shoes.”

But for all that, it turns out Nilsen’s improbable story also is one of those that vouches for the idea there are no accidents of fate:

Because on Tuesday, he won a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics by jumping a personal-best 5.97 meters (19.59 feet).

KC Lightfoot of Lee’s Summit finished tied for fourth (5.80/19.03) in the event won by a friend to both, the sublime world record-holder Mondo Duplantis (6.02/19.75) representing Sweden.

When Nilsen cleared the clinching jump, Karen turned to Mark and subtly said, “That’s silver.” Then he nodded, their daughter caught on and all of a sudden their watch party erupted into a lot of people jumping around the house.

“Oh, gosh, we were out of our minds here,” she said, calling it almost impossible to describe all that went into the joy and pride and tears of happiness.

As much because of the journey as the destination, really, which was part of why she had been awake 36 hours and counting late Tuesday morning after being unable to sleep before the event that began at 5 a.m. Kansas City time.

In a surreal blur, she thought about how it was all worth it for her son, who rose to national prominence in high school (including setting a since-broken national high school record) and became a three-time NCAA champion and collegiate record-holder at the University of South Dakota.

It also was emotional for Attig, whose distinguished career included serving as the USA Track & Field pole vault coach from 1990-96 and as a longtime assistant at Kansas and coaching at Washburn the last five years.

He laughed Tuesday, thinking of Nilsen’s trajectory from his memory of how he was “going to hurt himself bad unless we got him under control.”

“My wife was actually in tears talking about where he came from and where he is now,” Attig said Tuesday, reiterating Nilsen’s grit, determination and coachability and adding, “It’s been fun to have been a little part of it.”

Another part of the story is the camaraderie of the sport, evident, for instance, in the reverence Nilsen and Lightfoot have for Duplantis and their sadness about the absence of teammate Sam Kendricks, the U.S. record-holder who was not allowed to compete per pandemic protocols after testing positive for COVID-19.

Nilsen has long idolized Kendricks, the two-time reigning world champion who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. And Nilsen said at a post-event news conference he was “heartbroken” Kendricks couldn’t compete.

To what degree that might have distracted or distressed Nilsen or Lightfoot isn’t clear. But the development certainly had added a layer of stress back home, from where the families of each were watching the spectator-free Olympics.

“We were worried that the American team was going to be wiped out,” Karen Nilsen said, adding that she didn’t want to see any of the competitors miss out, either.

Meanwhile, though, the Nilsen and Lightfoot families also shared in something else: wanting to see not only their own children succeed but also rooting on the other local guy. In fact, the Nilsens attended the watch party at the Lightfoot home for the preliminary round the other day, and the Lightfoot entourage went on rooting for Nilsen even after KC went out on Tuesday.

KC’s father, Anthony, was thrilled for Nilsen. But he also was elated about his son’s performance … and particularly how his son felt about it. Thinking of KC’s stated intention to get an Olympic rings tattoo after the Games, he texted him afterward and told him how proud he was and said, “That was tattoo-worthy.”

Worried that KC might be disappointed at the result, the father was delighted when he responded, “I jumped well, and I’m still really pumped.”

So was Chris, of course, as you could see in everything from his reaction on the mat to his emphatic hug of Duplantis after the medal ceremony.

When he knew he’d won the silver, his mother said after speaking with him, it all felt ecstatic and unreal.

Whether it was conscious or not, surely that was all the more so for not just all the work it took but for his ascension from where it started: with a series of apparent accidents, and near-accidents, that now seems entirely explainable.