EUGENE, Ore. — Army reservist Sam Kendricks now gets to represent his country in a whole new way.
On the Fourth of July, the second lieutenant captured the pole vault crown with a U.S. track and field trials record jump that earned him an Olympic spot for Rio. He proudly waved his red, white and blue flag — with a little extra vigor.
“I love to have the colors [of the flag] in my hands,” Kendricks said. “I’m lucky and I’m very thankful for the grace to befall on me that I get to do this and compete for my country.
“My commitment to my country comes first and foremost.”
It was a big day for the armed forces in the pole vault, with U.S. Air Force star Cale Simmons taking second. Logan Cunningham was third.
There were two other Air Force members in the field: Dylan Bell and Joey Uhle, who had a mishap with his pole when it snapped in the middle of one of his jumps. Uhle didn’t clear a height.
“It messes with your mind a bit, throws you off your balance,” Uhle said.
Kendricks was proud of his fellow servicemen.
“All great jumpers and serving their country on two fronts,” Kendricks said.
The 23-year-old certainly didn’t disappoint, as he cleared 19 feet, 4 3/4 inches (5.91 meters) to break the trials record set by Tim Mack in 2004. It just so happened that Mack was on the sideline encouraging Kendricks to top his mark.
Later, Mack placed the gold medal around Kendricks’ neck.
“The meet record was a byproduct of a lot of great jumping,” Kendricks said. “I was lucky enough to have a coach who had a plan.”
For that, he gave thanks to his dad, who doubles as his coach. They hugged after he won.
“That was our goal: Come out here and jump the bars like we did in practice,” said Kendricks, a two-time NCAA champion at Mississippi who still trains in Oxford.
This was quite a contrast to four years ago at trials, when Kendricks showed up in Eugene ready to compete but didn’t. He boarded the plane with a spot in the field, but when he landed, he was informed that, through some late additions, he was out.
Kendricks scrambled to buy a ticket and watched from the stands.
“I saw it as a blessing. It really allowed me to have a hard goal, not to be on the bubble again,” Kendricks said. “An easy goal to set but not necessarily easy to obtain when you don’t know what the future looks like. I made that promise, made stronger by the fact I had to watch from the sidelines.”
He was the clear favorite in this event, especially after he took second at the world indoor championships four months ago. What’s more, he had the second-best vault in the world this season, trailing only Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie of France.
The fans had his back, too.
“There’s that thunder in your heart when you hear the crowd behind you, especially when you look around,” Kendricks said. “It’s funny, when you look to the left, you hear them right there in your ear, and then you look to your right and hear that clap, you get that double heartbeat action.
“It made me feel like everyone was behind me, and that’s what I love about the pole vault. We get to be out there all day, and you can really feel the crowd get behind you.”