By Gene Cherry
(Reuters) – As he cleaned up after horses in his father’s barn, a teenaged Sam Kendricks thought how cool it would be to travel the world and pole vault in the Olympics.
A decade later, the globe-trotting Mississippi native still calls himself “a small-town boy who loves to have big adventures”.
Kendricks, 24, competes in the world championships in London starting this week and he will be one of the favourites after nine consecutive victories and the outdoor season’s highest jump, a U.S. title-winning six metres.
Somehow it has all worked out even after an off-season that was anything but regular.
For five months during key fall and winter training time the U.S. Army Reserve first lieutenant picked up his pole maybe three times while on active duty for classroom and field exercises.
Since February, though, he has been dominant, defeating French world record holder Renaud Lavillenie four times.
The multiple U.S. champion earned his first Olympic medal, a bronze, at the Rio Games – along with added attention.
On the runway in a qualifying round, he stopped, dropped his pole and stood to attention while the U.S. anthem played for another athlete.
“I didn’t want to be THAT lieutenant that didn’t stop for the national anthem,” Kendricks said.
Now he seeks the only global honour missing – a world outdoor championship medal.
“Am I the favorite to win? I am not sure,” the personable Kendricks told Reuters. “Am I a favourite to medal, I can believe that, because on any given day I am just as strong as anybody.”
The telling stat is that of the seven highest jumps in the world this outdoor season, Kendricks has four of them.
Yet the 2016 world indoor silver medallist insisted there were a group of favourites, including Lavillenie.
“There is something to be said for Renaud having won seven Diamond League championships. That he has been the best seven years in a row,” Kendricks said.
“There’s no one in the sport who should say he has not achieved enough. That would be disrespectful.”
Kendricks made that clear when talk at a Paris news conference centered on his first and only six-metre jump.
Turning to Lavillenie, Kendricks asked: “How many times have you cleared six metres?”
The answer was 17.
Each athlete has his own strengths.
“Renaud’s is his speed, experience,” said Kendricks. “I think I am the most technically efficient. I think (Canadian world champion) Shawn Barber has the most gusto.”
Kendricks also grips the pole the lowest of any major competitor, making technically sound jumps important.
“Six metres is almost a flawless jump for me,” he said.
Not that he does not entertain jumping higher.
There is no push, though, to break Lavillenie’s world record of 6.16 metres.
“I don’t see myself there,” Kendricks said.
The son of a high school coach who is his trainer, Kendricks turned to pole vaulting after unsuccessful tries at other sports.
“The technical aspects of sports always enthralled me,” he said. “I figured if I could get good enough technically at something I could bridge the gap I didn’t have in athletic ability.”
His first pole was a broken high jump bar with a tennis ball at the end.
“I started jumping with the girls team because we didn’t have equipment for small guys,” he said. “We had girls poles.
“I also got beat by a lot by girls in high school.”
By 2013 he had become the first U.S collegian in 14 years to clear 19 feet (5.79m) and with his dad “a strong handler of the reins” Kendricks has taken the time to learn the event rather than shoot for the moon.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)