KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Once Chris Nilsen completed the fall, the record appeared to have been set at 18 feet, 4 inches.
The bar had bounced but settled back snugly on the standards at North Kansas City District Activities Complex. Instead of immediate relief, the Park Hill senior endured a lengthy – and somewhat unexpected – verification process for his record-setting pole vault attempt from the head official of the Class 5 Sectional 4 meet.
In the end, the tape showed Nilsen had vaulted 18-4 3/4 – the highest mark ever cleared by a high school athlete in United States history. Family, friends and spectators all hung on the measurement process before celebrating all over again after the official record declaration.
"I had all of the people I really, truly care about here," Nilsen said. "I had my coaches and friends watching me. It was just really a spectacular moment. I think that's what motivates everybody. When they have the people they love most around them, that's when they do the best."
Nilsen won another title and set another record Saturday, continuing an incredibly rapid rise from sectional qualifier as sophomore to the most prolific vaulter in high school history.
Next week, Nilsen will compete in the Missouri State Track and Field Championships for just the second time, looking for a second Class 5 title with a chance to set the bar even higher. He set a personal record last season in District 8 and Sectional 4 compeitition before going 17-0 at state to break the 22-year-old record of Mount Vernon's Bruce Dial.
Nilsen came back even better this year.
Committed to vault at South Dakota, Nilsen went up to 17-1, a record-setting 17-6 1/2 in the prestigious Kansas Relays and 18-0 in the Suburban Conference Red Division championships. That effort made him just the ninth in high school history to clear 18 feet or better.
After an "off day" last weekend in District 8 competition, winning at 16-9, Nilsen won the Sectional 4 title at 16-6 before going up to 17-0 and 17-6. He then asked for 18-4, taking aim at the national record.
Nilsen missed on his first two attempts, and he grazed the bar as he went over on possibly his last try, only to receive a clean bounce. After landing on the mat, Nilsen received a huge hug from jubilant girlfriend Kelly Vogel before starting to celebrate.
"Right now, I'm just going for the win, like I was here," Nilsen said, "and after that, it's just having fun, which is what I was doing. I think it's just having from here on out."
Turned out to be a bit premature.
An official came over to verify the process, and thankfully, no one had started to adjust the bar for an even higher attempt. Requiring a ladder, large measuring stick and tape measure, the verification process required measurements at three points along the bar.
Nilsen watched the entire scene unfold, clearly nervous about having the record taken away on a technicality.
"I'm about to be super heartbroken if this isn't good," Nilsen said of his thoughts. "Everything worked out. I was just praying to God, begging for some mercy. He came through."
Nilsen's next goal could be to reach the U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying mark of 5.65 meters or about 18 feet, 5 3/4 inches. He considered going higher Saturday, but after the long delay, he ended the competition and proceeded on to compete in the high jump.
After a media interview and a few selfies with awestruck fellow athletes, Nilsen won his second sectional title, clearing 6-6 in the high jump.
All season, Nilsen came in at 16-0 with most competitions over when he started vaulting. The somewhat risky strategy continues to pay off, keeping him fresh. He doesn't plan to change the process at state when he will look to first win another title before also looking to break his own meet record and possibly take one last shot at the Olympic Trials qualifying height while wearing a Park Hill uniform.
"I think I'm just going to stay constant, stay consistent," Nilsen said. "That's the most important thing in pole vault. You have to stay consistent all the time, and if you do, that's when you start improving. I'm just going to stay where I am right now – 18 4 3/4. I might have made it, but it still bounced. It was a close jump.
"I think I'm going to just do what I've been doing the past couple of weeks and hope for the best."