Updated: Dec 25, 2020
By Tyler Mayforth, USTFCCCA May 10, 2019
Transcendent talents don’t come through the collegiate ranks often.
But when they do, their impacts reverberate through the annals of history for a long time after.
What do Quincy Watts, Jim Ryun, Sydney Maree, Henry Rono, Gabriel Kamau, Renaldo Nehemiah, Hollis Conway, Lawrence Johnson, Erick Walder, Keith Connor, John Godina, Balazs Kiss and Patrik Boden all have in common? They all held – or hold – collegiate outdoor records that stood – or have stood – for more than 20 years.
Records, as they say, though, are meant to be broken.
Marks once deemed untouchable – like those established by Watts, Ryun, Maree and Kamau – have all been felled in recent years. And not even three of those records were safe for longer than three years, as collegians, in turn, continued to push the limits of what we think was possible.
Whose record is next on the chopping block? Johnson’s 23-year-old pole vault standard of 5.98m (19-7½), if you ask the current collegiate record holder himself.
“I’ll be honest with you: I never felt as if my record was ever in danger in the past,” Johnson said. “But now I see what Mondo is doing and I’m like, ‘Yeah. It’s over. I had a good run at the top.’
“It can’t be overlooked or understated what he’s doing, especially at the age he’s doing it. Someone told me recently that he wasn’t born for another three years after I set my record. That’s crazy.”
Mondo, in case you don’t know, is Mondo Duplantis, the freshman phenom at LSU.
Just two weeks ago at the LSU Invitational, Mondo went over 5.94m (19-5¾), the second highest bar in collegiate history behind Johnson’s all-timer. That clearance – on the first attempt, mind you – put the Swedish-American a full inch ahead of Shawn Barber, who previously held that spot for the past four years.
Mondo then asked the bar to be raised to 6.01m (19-8½), so that, with a clearance, he could unify the collegiate records (He holds the indoor version) and take down Johnson’s record one month before its 23rd anniversary. He took three cracks at it, but fell agonizingly short with each passing attempt.
“The margin of error is pretty slim when the bar is that high,” said Washington assistant coach Toby Stevenson, who is an accomplished vaulter in his own right. “Everything has to be just about perfect. Jumping six meters or higher isn’t easy for anybody in the sport.”
Let’s put that in perspective: There are only 24 men in world history who have cleared the six-meter bar indoors or outdoors. Two of those men have been mentioned in this article: Stevenson became just the second American to join the exclusive fraternity back in 2004, the same year he’d win the silver medal at the Athens Summer Olympics; Mondo was the 23rd man to walk through the door on his way to winning the gold medal at the 2018 European Championships, a meet in which he tied as the second best performer in world history at 6.05m (19-10¼).
Johnson, who won the world indoor title in 2001 and an Olympic silver medal the year before, topped out at his collegiate record.
“The difference between 19-6, 19-7 and 19-8 is pretty significant,” Johnson said. “It might not seem that much different to anybody watching, but once you start moving into the mid-19s, your technique really comes into play more than your physical gifts. You have to be perfect. I would have to point to individuals, like myself, who were able to negotiate a 19-7 jump, but trying to reach that next level became rather challenging.”
Stevenson believes that since Mondo already broke through that ceiling, the question is when, not if, he can do it again. And once that happens, the floodgates will open for good and propel contemporaries like Zach Bradford of Kansas, KC Lightfoot of Baylor, Matt Ludwig of Akron and Chris Nilsen of South Dakota to new heights.
“That’s why the men’s pole vault is going off these days,” Stevenson said of the athletes seeing what each other are doing. “When someone goes over six meters, it shows the other guys that, ‘Hey! It’s not impossible. We can do that.’ That would be great for the future of the vault.”