Chris Nilsen, the University of South Dakota junior and three-time NCAA title pole vaulting champ, reached new heights in the 2018-19 track and field season.
In April, Nilsen beat the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 World Champion Sam Kendricks to win the pole vault at the 110th Drake Relays. He cleared the bar with a season-best 19 feet, 2.25 inches, breaking the Drake Relays record. Nilsen then became the first pole vaulter to garner the Maury White Award since 1991, presented to the Drake Relays Most Outstanding Performer on the men’s side.
Other eyebrow-raising accomplishments from the Kansas City native include winning a pair of NCAA titles for both indoor and outdoor track, in addition to six All-American honors. After winning the 2019 NCAA Track & Field Championships in a meet record of 19 feet, 6.25 inches, he’s ranked as No. 3 in NCAA history, and No. 25 in world history. He’s cleared the Olympic standard of 19 feet, 0.25 inches five times in 2019.
Off the track? He’s a husband, father and part-time barista. 2aDays had the opportunity to sit down with the Nilsen, who provided high school athletes with advice and insight on the recruiting process.
2aDays: What age did you start pole- vaulting?
Chris: I started pole-vaulting the spring of my freshman year of high school.
2aDays: How did having Derek Miles as a coach affect your recruiting decision?
Chris: Derek Miles is a South Dakota alum, three-time Olympian, and coached 11 all Americans at the division one level. Prior to Chris’s national title, he had coached Bethany Buell. Derek has also coached five-time All-American Emily Grove, who swept the indoor and outdoor pole vault titles for the Coyotes. Coach Miles told me at the end of my visit, and this is what got me, “You can go to whatever school you want, and have whatever training program you want. You can do all of that, that’s your choice. But I can guarantee you, while you might have someone who wants you more or will train you harder. You will never find someone who will care about you more than I will.” And that was the deal maker right there.
2aDays: How important was it for a high school athlete to find the right college coach?
Chris: It was very important because you need to have that kind of coaching and a solid relationship with your coach; this will make your performance better. The solid relationship with my coach was the reason for my success in high school. I can say the same about my relationship and success when it comes to coach Miles.
2aDays: What was the biggest adjustment that you had to make when you came to USD? Meaning transitioning from high school to college?
Chris: The biggest adjustment was when I found out I had to study rather than just skim through the material. Unfortunately, that was a big surprise lol.
2aDays: What is the key to your success as an athlete and can help other athletes?
Chris: Derek’s coaching and training. I’ve never lifted weights in my entire life before college, and I gained 15 pounds of muscle. We all gained muscle mass, and we were all like” WOAH” because I went from string bean to having muscle mass in about seven months.
2aDays: Did you ever feel overwhelmed when competing at the collegiate level?
Chris: I was a bit surprised because a lot of D1 athletes (Especially Freshman) are just getting their feet wet in the traveling and competing deal, but I had experience for two years before college, so it felt the same.
2aDays: How do you feel playing a sport can help when looking for a job after college?
Chris: Being a student-athlete will give me an advantage over others in my future career. Being a part of college athletics teaches time management, hard work, determination, and networking, all of these skills will be used in my as well as all other athlete’s future.
Edited by Caroline Kurdej
* Originally published on November 25, 2019, by Kathleen Juffer