Mondo Duplantis
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World’s best pole vaulter clears new bar: crossing Atlantic to return to competition

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Already this year, Mondo Duplantis cleared never-before-seen heights in the pole vault — world records at 20 feet, 3 inches on consecutive Saturdays in February.

He recently embarked on another unprecedented flight, becoming the first track and field superstar to cross the Atlantic Ocean for an international meet this spring.

Duplantis, a 20-year-old Swede who was raised in Louisiana, is among the main attractions for the Impossible Games in Oslo on Thursday (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app). The meet, traditionally called the Bislett Games on the annual Diamond League calendar, was repurposed given the coronavirus pandemic.

Fewer athletes, including some in solo races. No fans. Some competitors taking part virtually from different countries. It’s the closest thing resembling an international competition to be held anywhere in three months.

Duplantis is one of the athletes flying in to participate. Perhaps the only one coming from outside Europe, taking at least a minimal health risk.

“You don’t pole vault to be safe, either,” Duplantis’ father, Greg, a retired American pole vaulter, said in a recent interview. “He’s chomping at the bit to do something.

“I understand, there’s some risk level, but Norway has done one of the best jobs that there is as far as containing the virus. Very, very strict. So, we’re not as worried. We really don’t consider Norway any more of a risk than Louisiana.”

Duplantis typically trains at LSU, where he and both of his parents competed. Or in his mother’s hometown in Sweden during the season, when most meets are in Europe. His mom, Helena, was a volleyball player and heptathlete. His dad finished fifth in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials.

When LSU’s facilities shut two months ago, Duplantis had a back-up option: his family’s backyard in Lafayette.

Duplantis, who began pole vaulting at age 3, developed into a teenage sensation in the yard. But Greg couldn’t remember the last time his youngest of three sons (all pole vaulters at some point, along with daughter Johanna) had a jump session at home before the pandemic.

The setup is not the most ideal for a grown athlete. There’s a brick wall near the mat, but not dangerously close. The landing mat deteriorated from years weathering outdoor elements (and became frequented by mice and possums, according to The New York Times). The most limiting factor is the board runway made up of four-by-eight-foot plywood sheets, about seven of which had to be replaced due to water rot for Duplantis to jump there this spring. (Duplantis helped with the labor, though handiwork is not his forte.)

It’s a limited run-up. There is enough space for Duplantis to sprint about six steps before planting his pole. His typical full run is 20 steps.

“It’s not real safe for him to jump over 17 feet,” Greg said. The last time Duplantis made a competition jump with the bar shy of 17 feet was his junior year in high school, according to the track and field statistics website Tilastopaja. He supplemented his backyard vaulting this spring with training on gymnastics equipment — a high bar and rings.

There’s another family of pole vaulters in town: the Odinets. They transformed an open lot next to their house into a pole vault facility. “It’s a better mat,” Greg said. “It’s a better runway. Everything’s newer. It’s wide open. Everybody prefers to jump there.”

Duplantis has jumped there. But, “he actually prefers the backyard,” Greg said, “which is strange. I think it’s sentimental to him.”

On Friday, Duplantis took a car from Lafayette to New Orleans. He flew to Stockholm, an hour from his mom’s hometown of Uppsala, his summer base. He will drive six hours to Oslo, per meet regulations requiring electric cars to transport foreign athletes from the Swedish border and back.

“The big issue was to get poles there [Oslo], because there’s very limited flights coming out of the United States,” Greg said. “Nowadays there are fewer and fewer carriers that take poles at all. … We couldn’t find a flight out of New Orleans that could handle the poles.”

Duplantis will use an extra set of poles he left in France from the indoor season, when he broke those world records on consecutive Saturdays.

“Turned out to probably be the worst place to leave them because it’s the most locked-down place there is,” Greg said. “But we hired a driver to truck them from France to Sweden, and they have arrived in Sweden.”

The whole process conjures a story from 2015, when Duplantis was to fly to Cali, Colombia to compete in his first major international meet — the World Youth Championships. He had already decided to compete for Sweden rather than the U.S., but what transpired en route to South America confirmed the choice.

Greg had to coordinate flights that allowed poles from New Orleans to Miami, Miami to Bogota and Bogota to Cali. The second flight, with the most limited options, proved difficult.

“I looked on their website, and it says they don’t take poles, and it specifically said they don’t take pole vault poles,” Greg said. “I actually contacted the airline, and they said, ‘We don’t take pole vaulting poles.'”

The Swedish head coach took care of everything in about 24 hours. The coach contacted the Colombian federation, which contacted the airline, which made an exception. But once they got to the airport, a counter employee did not allow the poles. Greg was ready. He pulled up an email from a superior at the airline, and she let them through.

Duplantis took gold, breaking the championship record. The Americans’ poles didn’t arrive in time, Greg said.

“It was just a good story of the coach of the Swedish team really taking care of stuff, not that the Americans don’t,” Greg said. “Not long before that, they had the American trials. We were deciding right at the last minute to go to the American trials or compete for Sweden.

Andreas [seven-years-older brother] decided to compete for Sweden, and I think that was an influence on him.”

Greg also noted another pole vaulter, dual American-Canadian citizen Shawn Barber. Barber finished sixth at the 2012 U.S. Junior Championships, then decided to represent Canada at the world junior championships later that summer and took bronze.

“In the back of your mind, there’s always this risk that you don’t make the team, even if you’re one of the best in the world, in the United States, just because of the system,” Greg said.

In Oslo on Thursday, Duplantis is slated to compete against 19-year-old Norwegian Pal Haugen Lillefosse, whose personal-best clearance is more than two feet shy of Duplantis’ world record.

Also entered: former world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie, who will be jumping in his yard in France. One month ago, Duplantis and Lavillenie tied for the win in a virtual pole vault competition where Duplantis jumped from the Lafayette backyard, Lavillenie in France and world champion Sam Kendricks from Mississippi.

An Oslo meet official said there will not be coronavirus testing for athletes.

“But everyone attending the meet, athletes, officials, press and volunteers will have to fill out a pre-triage form for screening developed by our meeting doctor,” he wrote in an email last week. “She works in the covid-19 emergency group at Ullevål Hospital together with the head of Communicable Diseases in Oslo.”

Greg said his son would follow health policies, including wearing a mask on the transatlantic flight. Since Duplantis, who spoke with Swedish media outlets Tuesday, normally spends summers in Sweden, he could skip the round trip back to Louisiana.

“It is a limited competition, but it is a competition,” said Greg, who remembers competing at Bislett Stadium decades ago, in the middle of the Norwegian capital, surrounded by spectators holding watch parties on their balconies and roofs. “The organizers at Oslo went to a lot of trouble to get this done. They always put on a great show, even though they’re not going to have spectators [inside the stadium]. He wants to compete anyway. It’s going to be a little bit strange, but that’s what you do as an athlete, is you compete. That’s really thing the only thing we have to offer right now.”

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Coco Gauff upsets 9th seed to start French Open

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Coco Gauff notched yet another impressive Grand Slam match win, taking out ninth seed Jo Konta in her French Open main draw debut on Sunday.

Gauff, a 16-year-old American, upset the Brit Konta, a 2019 French Open semifinalist, 6-3, 6-3 on the first day of play at Roland Garros despite 12 double faults. Konta had 41 unforced errors to 22 winners.

“Every match is a great win,” said Gauff, the youngest player in either singles draw. “I don’t really take anything for granted because I’m just happy to be playing. I don’t think maybe winning Slams, matches at Slams is something I’m used to. Especially, this is my first main draw Roland Garros. When I’m on the court. I can act like I’m used to it. When I’m off the court, I’m just happy to be here.”

The clay-court Slam was postponed from May due to the coronavirus pandemic, is being held with damp temperatures in the 50s and has limited spectators to 1,000 per day.

“I’m pretty sure this is my first ever pro tournament, maybe even tournament in general, playing in weather like this,” said Gauff, noting she warmed up for 20 minutes before going on court so she could walk in with a sweat.

Gauff, the 2018 French Open junior champion, gets Italian qualifier Martina Trevisan in the second round after playing a match in leggings for the first time in about six years.

She’s coming off an impressive last year-plus, reaching the fourth round at the most recent Wimbledon and Australian Open. In between, she became the youngest WTA tournament champion since 2004. She recorded wins over Venus Williams and Naomi Osaka.

Gauff will bid over the next nine months to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team outright by being among the top four Americans in WTA rankings after the 2021 French Open. Therefore, her result at this French Open will not count toward Olympic qualifying.

She is currently ranked 51st overall and eighth among Americans.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Sunday, Williams finished her 2020 with a third first-round loss in as many Grand Slam tournaments — 6-4, 6-4 to Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.

With the WTA’s autumn Asian swing canceled, Williams said she won’t play before next season starts in Australia.

Williams, 40 years old and ranked 76th, will need a scintillating start to 2021 to make the U.S. Olympic team in singles. She is currently the 14th-highest-ranked American. If she doesn’t make it in singles, Williams (or Gauff) could be chosen as a doubles-only player for the Tokyo Games.

Top seed Simona Halep took the last 10 games of her 6-4, 6-0 win over Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo. Halep, who is on a 15-match win streak dating to February, could play Gauff in the quarterfinals.

On the men’s side, Stan Wawrinka swept Andy Murray 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 in a battle of three-time major champions and a rematch of their life-changing 2017 semifinal in Paris.

“I need to have a long, hard think about it,” Murray said. “I don’t feel like the conditions are an excuse for it.”

It marked Murray’s first match on clay since that semi, won by Wawrinka in five sets. After that match three years ago, Wawrinka underwent two knee surgeries and Murray had two hip surgeries. Neither has made a Grand Slam semifinal since, and Murray nearly retired due to hip problems.

U.S. men went 3-0 on Sunday after winning one match total at the 2019 French Open.

The most notable victor: Sebastian Korda, the 20-year-old son of Czech 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda and brother of Nelly Korda, the world’s second-ranked female golfer.

Korda beat Italian veteran Andreas Seppi 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to become the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since 18-year-old Andy Roddick defeated Michael Chang in 2001.

Korda, after his first tour-level win, gets John Isner in the second round.

Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, each trying to tie Grand Slam singles titles records, play first-round matches on Monday.

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Julian Alaphilippe wins world road race title with late attack

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Julian Alaphilippe became the first Frenchman to win a road cycling world title in 23 years, attacking late and holding on to prevail by 24 seconds in Imola, Italy, on Sunday.

Alaphilippe, who wore the Tour de France yellow jersey for 16 stages between the last two years, went clear from a star-filled group at the top of the last climb with about eight miles left of a 160-mile day.

“It was a dream of my career, you know,” said Alaphilippe, whose best previous worlds finish was eighth. “I came here with, for sure, a lot of ambition. It’s just a dream day for me.”

Belgian Wout van Aert took silver, followed by Swiss Marc Hirschi in a five-man bunch sprint for the last two medals. Van Aert also earned silver in the time trial on Friday.

Slovenian Primoz Roglic, who was second in the Tour de France, finished sixth in the same time as the silver and bronze medalists after more than six and a half hours of racing.

The top American was Sepp Kuss in 52nd place, 12:35 behind.

Full results are here.

The last Frenchmen to win world titles were Laurent Brochard (road race) and Laurent Jalabert (time trial) in 1997.

Slovenian Tadej Pogacar, who won the Tour de France last Sunday, attacked with 26 miles left. He led by as much as 25 seconds before being reeled back in with about 13 miles to go.

The cycling season continues with the last two Grand Tours, each starting later than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Giro d’Italia begins Oct. 3, and the Vuelta a Espana starts Oct. 20, before the Giro finishes.

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