Armand Duplantis at the 2017 IAAF Diamond League in Eugene (© Getty)
It could be a massive few weeks for the hottest property in pole vaulting, Mondo Duplantis, but the Swedish star and his parents refuse to set limits.
“I don’t like to think what I’m doing is that crazy,” says Mondo Duplantis, the Swedish teenager who has made a habit of doing crazy things. “Maybe it’s because I’m the one doing it, but I feel like other people should be able to do it, too.”
He’s talking, of course, about the act of sprinting down a runway, fibreglass pole in hand, and sling-shotting himself up and over 5.90m, which he did in Austin, Texas earlier this year. That’s a height the world record holder (Renaud Lavillenie), the reigning Olympic champion (Thiago Braz) and the reigning world champion (Shawn Barber) have so far all been unable to clear this year. Oh, and by the way, he’s still just 17.
Armand (his actual name, though most know him as Mondo), will be the star attraction at the European Junior Championships, which get under way in Grosseto, Italy, today (20th July). But that’s just the latest step on his astonishing journey in 2017, one which will culminate at the IAAF World Championships in London next month.
To understand how he got here, though, it’s best to rewind to a day last summer when the kid first dared to dream.
His mother, Helena – a native of Sweden and an accomplished former heptathlete – had brought Mondo’s granddad along to one of his training sessions. “Mondo was like: ‘Grandpa, just watch. I’m going to qualify for the world championships and I’m going to get a medal,’” recalls Helena. “My Dad was like: ‘god, you’re so crazy’, but he wouldn’t say that if he didn’t feel like it was possible.”
Ever since he took up the event as a kid – vaulting around the living room with a broomstick – Duplantis had a fearless attitude.
“He has an incredible mental approach to the event and sport in general because he puts absolutely no limit on himself,” says Helena. “He’s very aware what he can do and he’s totally fearless, and confident in a good way. He’s a great competitor.”
That much was apparent when Duplantis took his first steps into global competition at the World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia, two years ago. Despite growing up in Lafayette in the US, Duplantis chose to represent his mother’s nation, Sweden, a country he has always felt a strong connection to.
In Cali he soared over a massive PB of 5.30m to take gold. “A huge moment for me,” says Mondo. “I got awarded my gold medal by Sergey Bubka and it was such a bigger stage than I’d ever been on before.”
It was a surprise to many, but not to his father, Greg, a former pole vaulter, who was watching proudly in the stands. It was he who built his son a landing pit in the backyard when Mondo was a child, and it’s him who has coached him every step of the way since, sitting back and smiling earlier this year when his son surpassed his own PB of 5.80m.
In Mondo, Greg has the perfect student, one who reads about his event and devours footage of the vaulting greats.
“I’ve always been a student of the event,” says Mondo. “You have to have something that’ll bring you up to a higher height and I’ve figured out a way to put enough energy into a bigger pole to get it back.”
His interest even sometimes overruns his academics. “I don’t work that hard in school,” he says. “I don’t try to make straight As, so if I have a test, it’s not like I’m going to do half a training session to study for it. It’s more pole vault that’s on my mind.”
His knowledge is such that his coach-athlete relationship with his dad is not a dictatorship, but a collaboration. “I don’t so much tell him what to do as guide him along,” says Greg. “We discuss stuff. Ninety percent of the time we agree on stuff – sometimes I’m right, sometimes he is, but I’m mostly right. He doesn’t need me to pole vault any more; he just needs me to keep him on the path.
Given the level of fame that has invaded the family’s life these past two years, that’s an obvious challenge, though Mondo’s feet have been kept firmly on the ground.
“We’re dealing with it and he’s been doing well,” says Greg. “I have another son that plays baseball at Louisiana State [University] and we go to the games every week in Baton Rouge. That is just as important as the pole vaulting, so Mondo doesn’t feel like he’s king of the world. When he walks into LSU, nobody knows who he is; he’s just a little brother.”
His mother – a personal trainer and dietician who trains with her son several times a week – says Sweden is suitably Mondo-mad about their latest star.
“He’s big,” she says. “The country is so small that when you have an athlete with such a great performance, everyone knows, especially in the track community. A lot of people want to interview him and come to practice.”
Heading into 2017, Duplantis’s goals were relatively modest, but both coach and athlete were aware he was developing at a swift rate. “He’d never done any physical training, but he was on a programme this year and he developed his body a lot,” says Greg. “I didn’t think it would help him 40cm, but a little more strength and speed translates into a lot bigger poles once your brain doesn’t have a limit and lets you do it.
“We were hoping he’d qualify for the world championships, which needed 5.70m, but obviously that’s not the goal any more. You always want to go higher. The goal now is to be able to jump really high with the best guys in the world.”
This week he’ll be busy taking on Europe’s finest U20s, and it will come as a huge surprise if anyone beats him to gold. After that it’s time for him to join the big leagues at the IAAF World Championships in London, where though it remains an outside bet, it wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world, if he did the impossible. Just one more crazy thing.
“Right now he has little inhibition, very few limits on his brain,” says Greg. “He just gets the poles and goes.”