"It was a good start."
That was Armand Duplantis's initial assessment of his 2020 debut. It came just minutes after he came tantalizingly close to breaking the world record in the pole vault last night at the PSD Meeting in Dusseldorf with an oh-so-close second attempt at 6.17m. The miss was literally by "this much" - roughly the space that those two words occupy on this screen.
And his delivery was almost deadpan. But his performance at the Dusseldorf Athletics Hall Tuesday night was anything but.
Opening with easy clearances at 5.40m and 5.55m, he had a minor hiccup at the next height, 5.70m, before sailing well clear on his second try. Massive clearances at 5.80m, 5.90m and 5.95 followed. Social media coverage of the event burst to life.
After another massive clearance at 6.00m on his second try, whispers of world record possibilities became raucous cheers, both inside the arena and in fan circles around the world.
Hoping to build on that momentum, Duplantis had the bar raised to 6.17m, a centimetre better than the record Renaud Lavillenie has held since 2014. Then he broke a cardinal rule.
"I try not to look at the bar, but it's really hard because I never attempted the world record - and I'm looking up there.”
Vaulters are taught not to look at the cross bar as they prepare their approach. Doing so, Duplantis said, can lead to technical miscues. But avoiding eye contact with a cross bar 48 metres down the runway isn’t always easy. Last night especially.
“It's almost like a sentimental moment, it almost brought a tear to my eye, because you're looking at it and you think, 'this is it, this is the world record'.
“My whole life, since I was four years old, I wanted to be the world record-holder. I didn't make it of course. Just to be attempting it, you're like, ‘this is a really cool moment’. So I really enjoyed that brief second of looking up at the bar, knowing you're attempting the world record."
Ultimately the bar came down to earth but it took with it any doubts that the record is not fully within the young Swede’s capabilities. If anything, he illustrated that it’s nearly in his grasp. To those who have followed Duplantis’s career, from the age group records he had set nearly every year to his true coming out party at the 2018 European Championships when he topped 6.05m at age 18 to win the title, that the record would be one day be his seems all but an inevitability.
“I guess the sky is the limit,” he told an on-air journalist from Swedish TV. “I thought (the record) was possible. That second attempt at 6.17 was as good as I could have expected. I had my eyes closed, and I felt my elbow touch it.”
Pressed on whether it was the finest vault he’d ever produced, Duplantis briefly paused, then nodded. “I would say that's probably my best.”
At 20, he’s a bit more mature and visibly more fit than he was as recently as last October’s World Championships in Doha. There, he finished second on countback at 5.97m after an epic battle with Sam Kendricks. Four months later he re-emerged in Dusseldorf a little lighter, but stronger, too.
"Training's been going really well. I feel very fit, very in shape,” he said. That added fitness and endurance showed last night.
The best pole vault competitions are long. Jumpers feed off of each other’s energy and adrenaline, pushing each other to higher bars. Duplantis didn't top 6.00m until his ninth jump. He nearly broke the world record on his 11th. There is no time to feel tired.
“When you're competing against good competitors and they're putting the bar higher and higher, it always keeps you locked, and keeps you motivated to keep trying to do your best at the next height. Whether that's 30 minutes from now or an hour - sometimes it could be either/or. I'm really tired right now, but you don’t feel it during a competition.”
Most remarkable is that his first indoor six-metre clearance - and the fourth of his career - came in just his first competition of the season. It took him by surprise, too.
“You don't think that everything's going to be put together in your first meet just because you're physically fit. But it came together. It came together nicely, it came together at a good time. I'm excited about the rest of the season."
He was especially pleased that his mother, Helena, was in Dusseldorf to witness in person his first stab at a world record height.
“Obviously I'm not taking any credit away from my father but I think my mom deserves a lot more respect than she gets,” said Duplantis, who is coached by his father Greg, a former world class vaulter himself.
"It almost brought a tear to my eye 'cause you're looking at it and you think 'this is it, this is the world record'. My whole life I wanted to be the world record-holder. I didn't make it of course, but just to be attempting it is a cool moment." – @mondohoss600#WorldIndoorTour pic.twitter.com/tKrhM3qk2c— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) February 4, 2020
“I think a lot of people think it’s just my father that does all the behind-the-scenes work. My mother does just as much. My father couldn’t make it here, unfortunately, but the fact that my mother was here makes it absolutely, absolutely special. She's the reason why I'm even in the position that I’m in today.”
Duplantis said on Monday that the postponement of the World Indoor Championships wouldn’t alter his approach to the indoor season, but, it would change the intensity with which he'll compete.
“These meets that I do have I will go one hundred percent because I have to collect a lot of data for the outdoor season."
He's off to a good start on that count, too. The next data dump will come in Torun, Poland, after the Orlen Copernicus Cup, the fourth stop of the World Athletics Indoor Tour, on Saturday (8).
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics