Pole vaulter Sandi Morris at the US Indoor Championships
Speaking to spectators at the close of last week’s World Athletics Indoor Tour meeting in Lievin, where he had narrowly failed to set a third consecutive world pole vault record, Mondo Duplantis celebrated the fact that they had just witnessed a hitherto unique sight in the event – simultaneous men’s and women’s record attempts.
Sandi Morris, standing alongside him, was also clearly still buzzing from a night when limits seemed there to be broken, having also had a serious although ultimately unsuccessful crack at breaking the world indoor record, currently held by US compatriot and 2012 Olympic champion Jenn Suhr at 5.02m.
Both vaulters took the short drive down to Clermont-Ferrand for Sunday’s Perche Elite Tour event, where Duplantis had another crack at 6.19m – close, but no cigar – and Morris, world indoor champion and world silver medallist, maintained her own winning streak with a 4.80m clearance.
With his exploits this indoor season, Duplantis has taken pole vault, literally, to another level. But Morris, with her natural vivacity and abundant talent, has also done masses for the event – and she has big plans to do more.
Speaking before her event in Lievin, she explained why her outstanding form so far this year has come as surprise, expressed her yearning to vault free of all limits – and offered an expert appreciation of her fellow pole vaulter Duplantis, with the following keynote assessment: “Mondo… the beast has come out.”
Morris – who is the only woman other than world record-holder Yelena Isinbayeva to have jumped 5.00m outdoors – said she had been “struggling a little bit” with her pre-season conditioning after suffering with shin splints in her take-off leg.
“I had surgery about a year and a half ago on my ankle, and that’s changed up how my ankle functions,” she explained. “You know how it goes up the kinetic chain – as a result my shin has been kind of hurting and my knee a little bit.
“But we have modified training – I’ve been doing more cross training, swimming in the pool, doing as much as I can without the impact of jumping every single day. So when I started this season I was not worried, but a little surprised that I was able to jump 4.90m at two meets in a row.
“It’s proven to me and my coach that with the current modified training to keep me healthy, that’s not going to diminish my ability to jump high.”
The latter 4.90m clearance was enough to beat Suhr to the title at the US Indoor Championships held the weekend before last in Albuquerque. Not untypically, for the athlete who describes herself as the Queen of Third Attempts, it came after two previous failures at that height.
“By the third attempt usually the two previous attempts were me figuring out what adjustments I need to make to not only make this bar, but to make the next bar, and the next bar…” she said.
“One little tweak can get you over the current height, and much higher. I went from getting 4.75m on my third attempt, and it was just because I didn’t have the right pole in my hand. And once I got the right pole in my hand, I went on to make 4.85m and 4.90m.
“That’s the beauty of the pole vault: you can make a few little adjustments and – boom – you’re up a couple of more heights.”
If Morris is already flying high this season, so too is Duplantis. And while his first record of 6.17m in Torun came as something of a surprise to her, the follow-up in Glasgow did not.
“I wasn’t shocked at all that he did it again a week later,” Morris said.
“Because he was on a roll, he is obviously in great condition. He had probably learned things from that first world record that he applied to the second time that he broke it.
“Maybe it was exactly what pole to be on, where to put the standards – an inch or two on the runway can make a difference. But he must have just felt so confident and thought, ‘I just did this, I can do it again no problem’.
“Any vaulter, any athlete can relate to that on their own level. For me, I’m super confident in my goal this year, which is to get consistent at jumping 4.90m more frequently. Every time you do it, you learn more about how to do it. And those little details are what make the difference.”
Pictures of Duplantis’s world record clearance in Glasgow show him jack-knifed high over the bar, with apparently plenty of space to spare. How does Morris read those signs as far as his future is concerned?
“The term we use in the pole vault world is ‘hip height’ over the bar,” she said. “Which doesn’t necessarily mean you could clear exactly where your hip height is because you are turning, you are going over the bar.
“The ‘hip height’ is an indicator of how much clearance you have. But you also have to think about the athlete having to turn – they have arms and legs, parts of the vault that aren’t that high. That’s the peak of the jump.
“So I don’t know statistically, but I would guess maybe four inches lower than the hip height is about where an athlete could actually clear a bar completely.
“Just like Mondo said in his interview, I don’t want to say a number because numbers put limits on us. And I feel like, for me personally, I have focused too hard on numbers.
“I’ve been wanting to jump the world record indoors and outdoors. I’ve been like ‘I have to jump 5.07m, I have to jump 5.07m’. And honestly I feel that, if I can just let that number go, if I can let it go, the sky is the limit.
“You can apply that to any pole vaulter, any athlete. I remember back in high school when all I wanted to do was jump 13 feet, which was about four metres. And I was stuck at the bar lower than that for a year and a half. Because every time the bar would go to that height you would put limits on yourself.
“If it were down to me, in a competition, I would never want to know where the bar is. I would just want them to put the bar somewhere my coach knows, tell me what to do, and I just jump. Because that’s what it comes down to.
“Sometimes I wish there were a way to do it the way long jumpers can do it – just go and jump as far as you can. You know, just jump as high as you can. But basically that’s the nature of our event – it’s very different.
“As for Mondo, the beast has come out. He has been a talent that everyone has watched since he was a child. I remember watching him at the Pole Vault Summit however many years ago when he jumped 4.30m for the first time. And there was always the whisper of ‘Ok, is this kid going to continue to develop?’ It can be very hard to tell that at a young age.
“I feel like Mondo has always had a beautiful technical jump, but you don’t know how a kid is going to physically develop when they become a man or a woman. So I am personally just so excited that he did blossom, and his athletic ability continues to grow with him.
“And he is still developing –that’s the thing. He is still not at his peak yet. He’s still a kid. It’s scary to think about what he can do in five years, in six years.
“When he is in his late twenties, I think that is when we will see what his full capability is because he’ll be at his strongest at that point. So yes, I think we will see many more world records out of him. And I’m excited, and I wish him a healthy, long career because it is so, so amazing to bring attention to a new event.
“This is not anything against the sprints, but the highlights are always on the sprinting events, and the running events, and the field events – we kind of get tossed to the side. Now we’ve got someone who has come along to kind of renew the interest in the event.”
Meanwhile, Morris remains convinced that indoor seasons work for her – even if many of her rivals have yet to show their hand.
“Others don’t feel like they benefit from having an indoor season. They feel the opposite – like it wears them out. But for me personally, my big indoor jumps are going to give me confidence going into outdoor.
“When you are outdoors there’s so much lack of consistency because you are dealing with conditions. And that makes it very hard to execute a perfect technical jump or something you’ve been working on in training when you are fighting the wind, or whatever it is.
“That’s why I like the indoor season. It allows you to focus on the technique and focus on the jump and then when outdoor comes along it is hopefully ingrained in you. Then, when I’m fighting conditions, it’s still there.”
Mike Rowbottom for World Athletics