One track and field athlete is just getting started in a career already full of milestones.
In just his first year of competition, freshman pole vaulter Chris Nilsen holds the nation-leading pole vault mark and has already won the Summit League Men’s Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the week five times.
Nilsen set the nation’s leading pole vault mark on Jan. 28 with a jump over 18-2 1/2.
He then went on to break the record again with a jump of 18-8 1/4 on Feb. 10 at the Tyson Invitational on Randal Tyson Track at the University of Arkansas.
An unexpected start
Nilsen said his career has come a long way since he started track & field his freshman year at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, MO.
“I actually started originally because I wanted to stay in shape for soccer,” Nilsen said. “It motivated me and inspired me to do this in my off season.”
Now, four and half years down the road, he’s making a huge improvements in pole vaulting, and just plays soccer as a recreational sport.
Not all has come easy for the national record-holder, however.
“I thought about giving up this in my first year. It was really hard,” Nilsen said. “I didn’t think I was hitting it right… I was kind of bored first year.”
Nilsen credits his parents with supporting and keeping him on the right track.
“They were very supportive. They were the ones who paid for all my pole vault lessons,” Nilsen said. “If I ever wanted to give up and go to them, they would hold me up and put me back on the right path.”
Behind the scenes
Nilsen said it can be complicated to balance academics and athletics.
“Being a multi-sport athlete was difficult sometimes (in high school), but to be a student-athlete you have to be smart in time management,” he said.
Nilsen said another big factor in his decision to attend USD was the track & field coaching staff.
“This school is one of those that thinks of you more as a person rather than as a point for nationals. They want you as a person,” Nilsen said. “You can jump however high, however far, run however fast, they still care about just who you are. They want you to be as good you want to be and if you don’t want to be, they’re not going to throw you out and be unsupportive. USD is a fantastic support to me.”
Nilsen said his current focus is to compete well in the national conference this season.
“The Olympics are once every four years, but the world championships is dream I’m looking at in near future,” Nilsen said. “I want to take one thing at a time and coach Derek helps a lot to focus more on the present.”
Associate director of track & field jumps Derek Miles is a three-time Olympian and three-time U.S. National Champion.
“He’s been amazing. He’s gotten me to do better than ever before,” Nilsen said. “Some advice that he has given me that I will always use is, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You want to take it slow as a process. Then life will be a lot easier for you. You can’t just improve instantly.’”
Miles said he’s ecstatic about the way Nilsen has been performing.
“We have tweaked a few little things. The trick is keep him connected to what has worked but trying to refine a few small things,” Miles said. “The more time I spend with him then I’ll know more what big things I can change down the road. With small changes, we’ve made it made a big impact.”
Miles said there’s no limit to Nilsen’s potential.
“He’s really good right now. It’s just a matter of time to realize what his ultimate potential is. He’s doing something that not many people in the history of college athletes have done as a freshman,” Miles said. “To be jumping the size he’s jumping at this young of age, it’s now just a matter of taking our time and doing things the right way so we can get up the highest bar he can down the road.”
Miles’ advice for Nilsen is the same as his advice for any athlete.
“Stay passionate and have fun. If you are passionate and you bring some intensity and have fun with it, good things are bound to happen,” Miles said.