When it comes to commanding attention to track and field’s most daring event, Sam Kendricks is raising the bar.
Kendricks, a 25-year-old pole-vaulter from Oxford, Miss., has impressed on the international circuit, not only with consistent performances and near-flawless technique, but in the cutthroat world that is international track and field, he has also managed to approach his craft with magnanimity.
His is an individual sport that demands intense focus, a zero-sum game where there is a winner and then everyone else. Kendricks, though, is not afraid to forge close friendships with competitors and assist foreign rivals, even in the midst of competition.
“They probably thought I seemed a little strange. I really pushed on these other guys that I wanted to be their friend and help them,” Kendricks said. “I had an undefeated season last year, but what good is victory if you can’t share it?”
Kendricks made his mark on the international stage when he jumped 5.85 meters (19 feet 2¼ inches) to win a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He has been difficult to beat since.
Last year, he won the world championship in London. On Saturday night at a Diamond League meet in Paris, Kendricks overtook the field with a vault of 5.96 meters, or 19 feet 6¾ inches, the world’s best this year. In victory, he defeated the world-record holder, Renaud Lavillenie of France, on his home turf.
But on Wednesday, at a street event in Lausanne, Switzerland, ahead of a Diamond League event, Lavillenie bested Kendricks — and everyone else — with a vault of 5.91 meters. Kendricks tied for third with a vault of 5.77 meters.
This season, Kendricks has claimed seven of 11 outdoor events, including Diamond League meets in Eugene, Ore., and Rome. He earned his fifth consecutive national title in June. Only Lavillenie, the 18-year-old Swedish-American Mondo Duplantis and Pawel Wojciechowski of Poland have beaten Kendricks outdoors this season.
Kendricks said he was rooting for them when they did.
“He wants everybody to do great. He doesn’t want to beat you when you’re struggling; he only wants to beat you when you’re at your best,” said Duplantis, the world junior record-holder.
Kendricks could be mistaken for a coach rather than competitor by the way he interacts with opponents. During a recent meet in the Czech Republic, he gave tips to Ivan Horvat of Croatia and Shawn Barber of Canada. He encouraged his American teammate Scott Houston and cheered on his friendly rival Wojciekowski as the duo battled for the highest bar.
“I want to go to the next competition not just to jump, but to see this guy,” Wojciechowski said.
Kendricks explained that camaraderie mitigates the high risks of the pole vault, which requires athletes to be upside down, approaching 20 feet in the air. “It helps us all stay on the path. No amount of 10,000 in prize money is worth my friend getting hurt.”
The camaraderie between the elite group of about 10 pole-vaulters has never been more evident, thanks in part to Kendricks’s lead. He is also happy to take selfies with teenage fans and high-five volunteers just 15 minutes before the start of his event, as he did ahead of the pole vault in the Czech Republic.
Kendricks, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, describes track and field as a “gentleman’s sport.”
“We have to move the sport to greater heights together,” he said, “knowing that when we falter, another man will take the mantle of the victor.”
During the Rio Olympics, Kendricks attracted attention when he abruptly halted a qualifying vault midway down the runway to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which had begun playing to honor the shot-put gold medalist Michelle Carter of the United States.
Kendricks sees his role as someone who can earn victories for the United States in track and field, a sport that needs new faces to stay relevant after the retirement of its biggest star, Usain Bolt.
Upon takeoff, Kendricks is a virtuoso in flight, maximizing the kinetic energy of his 16-foot pole and rocketing skyward toward crossbars nearly four feet above.
His personal best is 6 meters, or 19 feet 8¼ inches, established at the 2017 United States Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Sacramento. That is 16 centimeters below Lavillenie’s world record of 6.16 meters, or 20 feet 2½ inches, set in 2014.
The renowned Ukrainian coach Vitaly Petrov, whose athletes included the Olympic champions Sergey Bubka and Yelena Isinbayeva, said Kendricks could go higher using a slightly longer pole with a higher hand grip.
“It is incredible that he is jumping six meters from this grip, but it is possible for this boy to jump more,” Petrov said, adding, “he is fast with good potential.”
Besting Lavillenie’s mark is not Kendrick’s primary motive.
“That may not be my destiny, but my 2017 showing says that a pole-vaulter who is not the best in anything can still be pretty damn good,” he said. “The goal is to represent the U.S.A. in as many international competitions and to stay in the sport as long as I can.”