Nilsen chooses to finish USD degree before vaulting onto world stage
VERMILLION -- One year from today, Chris Nilsen expects to march into New National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan for opening ceremonies as part of the United States Olympic team.
The three-time NCAA Division I pole vault champion -- one indoor and two outdoor -- could have left the University of South Dakota to turn pro, but Nilsen made the decision to return for his final collegiate season in 2019-2020 -- and he claims it was an easy one.
Nilsen takes his first step toward reaching the Olympics on Thursday at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. The path to Tokyo will be grueling, but he believes staying at USD offers the most on and off the track.
“At the time when I considered (turning pro), it was almost like a flash-in-the-pan sort of thing,” Nilsen said. “It didn’t feel like it was the right decision to do right now. I can definitely jump higher in college. I can do it next year and make sure I have my degree coming out of college.”
While many NBA and NFL players depart college early with hopes of supporting their families with multi-million dollar contracts, Nilsen opted to help his family -- wife Kelly and son Roman -- by staying in college.
Life professional track and field is not as stable or lucrative as more mainstream sports, even for someone like Nilsen whose national championship-winning vault of 19 feet, 6 1/4 inches is the third best in the world this year. The highest-paid track athletes earn most of their income through sponsorships, but those -- like professional track meets -- are often performance-based.
Travel, food and lodging are out-of-pocket expenses, while the Diamond League -- the world’s top professional track and field league -- pays a total of $1.6 million for each event.
So instead, the Kansas City native can finish his degree in kinesiology and sport science, while also training with USD pole vault coach and three-time Olympian Derek Miles.
“Having that financial security was priority, because (my wife and son) are my priority,” Nilsen said. “Pole vault is fun and I enjoy doing it, but it’s kind of up and down financially. Also getting to compete with USD for another year because they’ve done so much for me. Just repaying them by doing all four of my years and hopefully coming back as an assistant coach would be great.”
The decision to remain in college and obtain his degree may be the best for Nilsen, but it also potentially sets up an elongated season.
Should Nilsen finish in the top-three while hitting the world qualifying standard of 18 feet, 7 inches at nationals this weekend, he advances to the IAAF World Championships -- something he did in 2017 -- on Sept. 28 in Doha, Qatar.
When the World Championships conclude on Oct. 6, Nilsen returns for the college indoor season, which kicks into gear in January. The indoor season flows into the NCAA outdoor season, which concludes June 13, six days before the U.S. Olympic trials begin in Eugene, Oregon.
“Most of the time, the World Championships are in August,” said Miles, a Tea native who also coaches former World Championship qualifier and former Coyote All-American Emily Grove. “We would have already had the U.S. Championships by now. Things are just a little bit different this year, and because they are different, determining what we want to try to do this year without jeopardizing next year is a tricky situation.”
Although Nilsen could be facing a long season, maintaining his home base in Vermillion provides a less hectic environment than if he were to pursue a professional career in the Diamond League.
Nilsen’s top competition last season, current world leader and NCAA runner-up Armand Duplantis opted to turn pro after one season at LSU. Duplantis is Swedish, though, which is more conducive to the Diamond League slate, which often three meets in a month, located in three different countries across Europe and Asia.
Conversely, only one Diamond League meet was held in the United States in 2019, so rather than hopping from country to country, Nilsen can continue to stay on a routine developed over the previous three years.
“When you are on your own and you’re doing it professionally, things change,” Miles said. “You’re on an island by yourself and you have to be strong enough, confident enough and wise enough to be able to negotiate all these things that happen. Going into an Olympic year, giving your best chance to be successful is going to be completely subject his environment is good.”
Once Nilsen completes his degree, he would like to pursue a professional career, but for now he is focusing on qualifying for the World Championships before setting his sights on Duplantis’ NCAA record of 19 feet, 8 1/4 inches and another national championship ahead of attempting to be one of three Americans to reach the Olympics.
“I kind of like to keep my feet in the current pool that I’m standing in,” Nilsen said. “Right now it’s just training for USA’s and then hopefully make the team for Doha later this summer. Next we’ll set our sights on the Olympic trials, but during the time of the NCAA season, I’m just going to focus on that.”