At 17, ‘the Tiger Woods of Pole Vaulting’ Soars Ahead of His Time


Casey Carrigan, a pole-vaulter from Orting, Wash., made the Olympic team for the 1968 Mexico City Games as a 17-year-old and later set a national high school record of 17 feet, 4 3/4 inches, but his jumping career settled into anticlimax. He found satisfaction as a fireman.

Bell, the former world-record holder and a friend of the Duplantis family, said that Mondo Duplantis was fortunate to have parents who understand the patience and training needed to sustain a career.

“There’s no big red flag,” Bell said. “He’s in a good place with a lot of good help.”

At first glance, Duplantis, thin and rangy at 5 feet 10 inches and 145 pounds, does not appear to be a world-class vaulter. Many are taller than 6 feet and heavier. But he can dunk a basketball, his father said, and has long-jumped 23 feet 3 inches. He also runs the anchor leg on Lafayette High’s 4×100-meter relay; his split has been hand-timed at 10.55 seconds.

He has developed strength specific to his event, in part, by hanging upside down, like a bat, in the backyard and doing inverted pull-ups, using a device fashioned from a rope, foot straps, weights and a pulley.

“He’s fearless,” said Gavin Nettles, 18, a senior at Barbe High in Lake Charles, La., who competes regularly against Duplantis. “He looks at the bar and says: ‘I’m flying over that. I’m taking it.’”

Photo

Duplantis at home. “He’s fearless,” said Gavin Nettles, a high school competitor.

Credit
Edmund D. Fountain for The New York Times

There is perhaps no event in track and field more technically demanding than the pole vault, which requires a jolting, gymnastic transition from horizontal speed to vertical lift.

“Mondo does probably the best job of anybody in the world right now in maximizing the energy he brings down the runway and transitioning into the air,” said Jeff Hartwig, a former American record holder and an agent who represents elite pro vaulters.

A technique favored by many vaulters is to drive the front knee high and let the trail leg swing upward like a pendulum. But Duplantis believes he generates more momentum by swinging both legs in a retro style employed by vaulters who once used rigid poles made of bamboo and aluminum.

Duplantis uses fiberglass poles that are longer and stiffer, and held with a higher grip, than other high school vaulters. And he has the speed, strength and technique to bend and control the recoil of poles designed for vaulters as heavy as 195 pounds — 50 above his own weight. The result, in his father’s description, is to fling upward like a projectile in a cafeteria food fight.

“Think about a pea on a plastic spoon that’s shooting across a cafeteria,” Greg Duplantis said. “The spoon is elastic. You pull back the plastic, and the stiffer it is, the harder it springs back and the farther the pea goes.”

Last year, Mondo Duplantis became the first high school vaulter to surpass 18 feet indoors. That height has now become routine for him. He is jumping more than a foot higher outdoors. Last month, in response to an online challenge issued by Kendricks, Andreas Duplantis posted a video showing his brother clearing 18 feet 1/2 inch 10 times in 28 minutes, a remarkable display of endurance and consistency.

The bar figures to keep getting higher and higher.

“He’s come out of his cocoon this year,” Kendricks said. “Now he’s a freakin’ butterfly.”

Correction: April 23, 2017

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the world record held by the French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie. It is 20 feet 2 1/2 inches, not 20 feet 1/2 inch.

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