VERMILLION — Tokyo is already proving to be the site of one of the most unusual Summer Olympic Games.

Good for Chris Nilsen, who has thrived in unusual circumstances.

The former University of South Dakota national champion enters his first Olympics red-hot and a favorite to contend for a medal in the pole vault after winning the United States Olympic Trials on June 21. This year’s pole vault pool is as deep as it has ever been, headlined by Nilsen’s former LSU collegiate rival Mondo Duplantis, Sweden’s current world leader and holder of the indoor world record.

But as COVID-19 casts a pall over the Olympics, it is nothing new for Nilsen. The pandemic cut short his final outdoor season with the Coyotes in 2020 and his first professional season has been anything but normal.

Traveling to Brussels, France, Germany and Switzerland for pro meets as the pandemic raged in Europe, estimating he has been tested more than 70 times. He will be tested 96 hours before departing for Tokyo on Saturday. Upon arriving Sunday, Nilsen, 23, will undergo another test and will be tested daily for the duration of the Olympics.

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He will be limited to the airport, Olympic village, training center and the stadium, along with restrictions on who and how many people he can interact with in the village. Still, when Nilsen competes in the preliminaries on July 31, it will be business as usual. After all, he can always visit Japan another time.

“People go to work and they have deadlines and I would say we have the same thing as professional athletes,” said Nilsen, who still lives and trains in Vermillion. “We have to be ready for a meet on the Fourth of July or we have to be ready for a meet three days after the meet we just jumped at which was a big one and now we’re going to a bigger one. Covid made things a little bit difficult with training facilities and meets getting shut down and it made the business a little difficult for everyone and I think we’re better for it now.”

Nilsen’s schedule is already packed. When he is not jetting around the globe for a meet, his day starts with breakfast, Yoga and rehabilitation, before heading to one of two daily training sessions — which begin with one of nine different warmup workout options — with USD pole vault coach Derek Miles, who won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Since turning pro, the Kansas City native’s yearly competition schedule was altered, starting his season in October rather than the August start time when he was in school.

Miles designed a program for Nilsen to reach his best by the Olympic trials and then maintain it through the Olympics. By the time he arrives, most of the pre-competition workouts will center on ensuring Nilsen’s body feels right.

Although Nilsen’s athlete-coach relationship with Miles has been altered since leaving school, he still relies heavily on his expertise, acknowledging he is still a “baby” when it comes to training at a high level. Still, Nilsen rarely pesters Miles about stories about his Olympic experiences.

Chris Nilsen (left) looks to follow University of South Dakota coach and mentor Derek Miles in medaling at the Olympics in the pole vault. (Aaron Packard / University of South Dakota)
Chris Nilsen (left) looks to follow University of South Dakota coach and mentor Derek Miles in medaling at the Olympics in the pole vault. (Aaron Packard / University of South Dakota)

“To talk about it would be to change something we’ve been doing the whole time,” said Nilsen, who won three NCAA championships. “I would say this is my best year in pole vault. So to talk about it and change anything would not be a good idea.”

Instead of talking about the Olympics, Nilsen will ask Miles — who will be attending to coach Nilsen in Tokyo — about a variety of technical aspects. But Miles’ approach has changed in that he allows Nilsen to handle certain challenges himself.

“He’s had to grow as a person in terms of training hard on his own and not relying on me to hold his hand through sprint drills,” Miles said. “... I’ve never been bashful about telling him what I think. When you’re young, you need someone who is going to tell you, ‘This is what’s going to happen and this is what you’re going to do.’ Now, he’s had enough experiences that any wisdom I’ve had, he’s soaked up and he knows what he’s doing now.”

Settling in for a fight

Nilsen is coming off an Olympic trials effort in which he did not miss a vault until he won the event and took a crack at 6 meters (or 19 feet, 8 1/4 inches).

He has improved throughout 2021, to get to a point where he clears 19 feet consistently, including 19 feet, 4 1/4 inches to win the trials. Miles believes this year’s field is as deep as any in Olympic history, as Nilsen contends with Duplantis and fellow American Sam Kendricks, a nine-time national champion who holds the United States record (6.06 meters). Former Baylor standout KC Lightfoot also cleared 6 meters at an 2021 NCAA indoor meet.

University of South Dakota alum Chris Nilsen won the United States Olympic pole vault trials and will compete in the Olympics on July 31. (Aaron Packard / University of South Dakota)
University of South Dakota alum Chris Nilsen won the United States Olympic pole vault trials and will compete in the Olympics on July 31. (Aaron Packard / University of South Dakota)

Nilsen beat Kendricks and Lightfoot at the trials and topped Duplantis at the 2019 NCAA Division I outdoor championships. Despite acknowledging he can contend with the best, Nilsen won’t commit to admitting he is a favorite, especially knowing he will likely have to clear 6 meters to win, which is something he has never done.

“It’s like every other meet you’ve gone to in the past — you just try to win,” Nilsen said. “Obviously it’s going to be a little harder, because Mondo Duplantis has been on or over 6 meters at every meet for the last few months. So you expect him to break that and to expect him to not continue that would be a mistake on my part.”

Winning the Olympics could provide a variety of financial rewards for Nilsen in the future and even medaling will increase appearance fees for international meets in the aftermath of the Olympics, and while they rarely chat about the Olympic experience, Miles has attempted to ensure Nilsen takes time to consider the long-term internal gratitude that comes with an Olympic medal.

“I made a bunch of money in my career,” Miles said, “but when I walk into the lower level of my house and look into the cabinet at my Olympic medal, I don’t think about any of the money I made. That is the thing that matters. It’s a side that matters because you have to pay your bills next month, but down the road it doesn’t matter. Who cares? It’s about what you have that you can look at and enjoy for the rest of your life.”

Regardless of the outcome in Tokyo, Nilsen expects to be back on the pole vault runway a week later. Where that will be is still a mystery. His agent, Karen Locke, will inform him shortly before and Nilsen rarely balks at the chance to compete.

Still, he plans to call Vermillion home for the foreseeable future. That is until he decides otherwise. When or if that happens? Nilsen says, “I’ll just go where the wind blows me.”