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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