Two USD pole vaulters have sprung to the top of the program.
Sophomores Chris Nilsen and Helen Falda garnered multiple Summit League honors this year, including the Summit League Indoor Track and Field Athletes of the Year award.
First season success
In her first season at USD after transferring from University of Texas Arlington, Falda became the third woman pole vaulter to jump over 14 feet at USD. She also claimed the first place spot at the Summit League Championships.
Originally from Torino, Italy, Falda said she knew she wanted to come to USD because of the big names.
“I picked this (school) because that’s where I wanted to be since the beginning,” she said. “And knowing that names like Emily Grove or Bethany (Buell) or Chris are here, were here and jumped that high, helped me to make this choice.”
Falda said she was thankful for being recognized as Summit League Indoor Athlete of the Year.
“I think it just represents how good we are doing as a team and especially in the pole vault crew,” she said.
Falda said she attributes her success this year to her coach, Derek Miles.
“I’m really thankful because when I got here I didn’t even have any poles to jump on and just Derek just provided me with what I needed,” she said. “He just helped me a lot, he follows me through every detail and that’s what it takes to jump higher.”
Along with her successful season, Falda also participated in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Indoor Championships, placing in 14th and earning All-American second team honors.
“For me, probably the meet didn’t go like I wanted, but I think we’re figuring out what I missed to perform well,” she said. “It was awesome because when I was there, I realized I was with the best in the nation and I was there. Being there this year was really awesome because it’s something that I couldn’t do last year (missed going to NCAA last year by an inch). And I made it this year with Derek.”
Falda said she reflects on advice from Miles when preparing for a meet.
“As Derek says during a meet, ‘Instead of jumping because you have expectations, you need to jump because you have goals,'” she said. “So, to reach my goals, I just think, ‘What makes my jump work and what I do during practice to make the jump work?’ And it usually works.”
Falda said she hopes to work on breaking her personal record (PR) in upcoming seasons at USD.
“(I want to try) solving some technical things that I’ve been working on,” she said. “I know that if I do this, I’m going to PR and I’m gonna jump high.”
Setting the bar high
Nilsen currently remains the top male pole vaulter in USD history, and became USD’s first NCAA Division I men’s champion last year.
Along with being an indoor athlete of the year, Nilsen was named the Summit March Athlete of the Month and the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s Athlete of the Week on April 3.
Nilsen said the award reminds him that he’s representing USD and the track and field team.
“It’s fun to be recognized as Summit League Athletes of the Year,” he said.
Nilsen said Miles and the team members were the main reasons he decided to pole vault at USD.
“I went to four other schools on official visits during my senior year when they were recruiting athletes, and he was kind of the coach that stood out and also the team were the people that stood out,” he said. “They were the only ones that didn’t ask me or try to take me out to parties, so when I got here I realized this was the most dedicated team I could be part of. So, if I wanted to be successful, this was the place where I needed to come.”
Nilsen placed second at the NCAA Championships this year, vaulting 18 feet 4 1/2 inches on his first attempt.
The championships made Nilsen want to work harder to place in first.
“Going to the NCAA Championships, that’s where all the big dogs come to play,” he said. “You go there and you have a bunch of people you have to compete against.”
Nilsen said there’s a lot of professionalism that goes into his mind when competing.
“Not that I’m trying to be a professional, but that I’m representing not only myself but the people that I’m wearing on my chest—South Dakota,” he said. “When I’m in practice I can goof off, mess around and just have fun, but when I’m in a competition I have to remember, ‘I’m here to compete, I’m here to do my job and if I don’t do my job, I’m doing something wrong.'”
Consistency is something Nilsen said he wants to work on the rest of the season and years to come.
“Right now I’m consistent in a certain area but maybe if I can raise that consistency up six or eight inches and start shooting at higher bars I haven’t jumped at yet, I think that’ll be a goal,” he said. “And just being a good teammate, being a good person, always increasing on that.”