Chris Nilsen continues to celebrate each clearance of a new height with a joyous celebration while gravity reminds him of its existence.
“Clearing a bar and knowing you've made it is always fantastic, but doing it high enough to celebrate on the way down is amazing,” said the Park Hill senior who recently became the nation’s most prolific high school pole vaulter. “You realize you're falling, but in a good way, and it's really special. As pole vaulters, we strive to fall longer, so every record becomes a longer fall.”
The most recent longest fall came in front of a home crowd at Park Hill District Stadium.
Able to finish a competition for just the third time this season, Nilsen cleared a personal-best 18 feet even in the Suburban Conference Red Division Meet held Tuesday, May 3 in Kansas City, Mo. He’s very familiar with the feeling of setting a new record at this point, but the feeling doesn’t get old, especially with this latest performance helping the Trojans win a second straight league title.
“18 feet was such a special moment,” Nilsen said. “It really proved to me that having your team, family, friends, and closest supporters there, you can do literally anything, including jump your age. The fact that it was at my last home meet and conference made it even better.”
The longest fall of an already iconic high school career could be still to come.
There were no indications of Nilsen’s impending trajectory after he cleared 12-3 as a sophomore but finished eighth out of eight competitors in the Class 4 Sectional 4 competition. He came back and broke Park Hill’s previous school record set in 1989 as a junior and then continued to up the bar – quite, literally – throughout the season.
15-7 at Class 5 District 8. 16-0 at Class 5 Sectional 4. 17-0 in the Class 5 Missouri State Track and Field Championships.
The latter of the three ended up the wining height of a monumental effort that erased the state meet record Mount Vernon’s Bruce Dial held for the previous 22 years at 16-9. Afterward, Nilsen said he wanted to keep going higher and higher, and he’s made good on that promise already as a senior.
Each time out this year, Nilsen set a new school and personal record.
First, he cleared 17-1 at the Darwin Rold Invitational in April. He followed that with a 17-6½ effort at the KU Relays, breaking that prestigious meet’s 36-year-old record in the process. Inclement weather canceled at least three other chances to perform this year, but the limited opportunities have been no issue, as evidenced by the 18-0 vault earlier this week – the best in the nation for a high schooler this season and one that would rank 7th in the NCAA right now.
“Consistency is something that my coaches and I have been working on for a while, so when I get put into a meet setting, things just end up working,” he said. “There's also the adrenaline and emotions that go through every meet, especially when I have competition. I just try to have fun.”
At this point, Nilsen draws focus on almost every attempt. Competition occasionally stops all together to watch his record-setting exploits, which isn’t a bother to his focus.
Nilsen wants to go higher with eyes on clearing 18-4, which would be a national high school record. He already added poles to his collection with a new shipment arriving Thursday, May 5 that will be necessary to keep him going higher.
Not much can stop Nilsen, except for the occasional delay while officials find a way to adjust the equipment to set the bar higher.
“Focus has never really been a problem for me,” Nilsen said. “I've always been kind of dead set on what I'm doing in the moment, so when I'm running down the runway or in the process of vaulting, I zone out completely.”
Throughout all the accomplishments, Nilsen displays a very real sense of humility, a trait apparent in how his competitors enjoy vaulting alongside him.
Nilsen often sits in a camping chair, University of South Dakota hat on backward, waiting for his turn to vault. He will now pass taking attempts until the bar reaches 16-0, or more often after every other vaulter has been eliminated from the competition.
That doesn’t stop Nilsen from celebrating the accomplishments of others, just as he did at the eventually weather-canceled Gary Parker Invitational when a Park Hill teammate set a new personal best at 11-0.
Nilsen’s current best of 18-0 came on a short run without his newest pole. That leaves him confident of getting to 18-4 – or maybe even higher – during the postseason, which starts Saturday, May 14 in Class 5 District 8 competition.
A vault of 18-8 or better would meet the United States’ Olympic Trial qualifying standard, an achievement within reach less than two years after Nilsen went into the offseason after his sophomore year not fully realizing his potential.
“I had no clue how much would happen. I thought that after 12-3 I was done,” Nilsen said. “I knew deep down that I could be successful. How successful, however, was determined by how humble I stayed. My friends, family, girlfriend, coaches, and everybody else have gotten me to this point and they're what improve me the most.
“Sure I have the potential and the determination, but I couldn't do it without them.”