Derek Miles was a world champion and three-time Olympian pole vaulter. But as a self-described late bloomer, he was “terrible” in high school and figures the only reason he was recruited by the University of South Dakota, his mother’s alma mater, was because his dad pleaded with coach Lucky Huber.

Safe to say Miles has perspective and currency when it comes to protégé Chris Nilsen, who came to USD from Park Hill after breaking the national prep record, has jumped higher (19-2 ¾) than Miles ever did, soon will be seeking his third straight NCAA title and has a legitimate claim to being America’s best pole vaulter (albeit with an asterisk we’ll get back to).

“He’s physically far more gifted than I ever was,” Miles, now the associate director of track and field at South Dakota, recently said in his Dakota Dome office.

For all his milestones along the way, though, Nilsen’s ascension in the sport still is best understood by the ridiculously inauspicious way it began … and the telling mindset that made him sign up for more and has come to define him as he seeks to stay on trajectory toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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