Former Rebel Kendricks becomes champ at home in Oxford

OXFORD – A slow-paced song starts playing through the speakers connected to Sam Kendricks’ iPhone last Saturday morning, the music player lying on the track behind Oxford Middle School.

His father, Scott Kendricks, is ready with a few quick quips. If he were a pole vaulter, the elder Kendricks said, they’d be listening to Elvis. He then asks his son why the station went from the “throw-up music” (Scott’s term for heavy metal) that had been playing earlier to this.

Sam asks his father if he knows how internet radio works, throws in the word “Jackwagon” and changes the song in his Pandora app. Something more preferable for training comes on.

Welcome to the training facility for America’s top pole vaulter.

Exactly two weeks before he attempts to medal in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Kendricks is forgoing practice with his U.S. track and field teammates outside of Houston in favor of a facility the 23-year-old Oxford native has used for the past 10 years.

“You go to all these places in the world and you get tastes of Stade Louis in Monaco, which is one of the nicest outdoor track facilities in the world, or you go to Ireland and they have a beautiful indoor facility for track and field or you go to Germany and they have all these clubs,” said Kendricks, who won two national championships while at Ole Miss from 2012 to 2014.

“But for us, it doesn’t really have the character of Oxford (Middle) School. It doesn’t have the cool personality factor that we built this place. Our sweat and blood is in this track and this facility and this town. It’s nice to visit those places, but I wouldn’t want to stay there.”

Kendricks uses the same pole vault pit that he began practicing in when he was in middle school and using equipment designed for high school girls. Now, the 174-pound Kendricks’ poles are designed for someone 40 or 50 pounds heavier, a sign of his strength.

He qualified for the Olympics after winning the U.S. trials with a mark of meet-record 19-feet-4 3/4, breaking a 12-year-old mark held by gold medalist Tim Mack. Sports Illustrated projects him to finish third after he didn’t qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, and Kendricks has the second-highest jump in the world this calendar year.

This success sometimes surprises his competitors because of where he’s from.

“When we travel, people go, ‘Oh, you’re from Oxford? Oxford, where? Oxford, Maryland? Oxford, Virginia? Mississippi? You’re from Mississippi?’” Scott said. “They’re pumped full of negatives about Mississippi instead of positives. Come visit us.

“We’re always fortunate to have access to facilities here, the weather’s good, the people are nice here. Honestly, there’s a lot of people in the world that are jealous because they’re trying to put those things together.”

Sam continues to work out in his hometown because he wants to keep being coached by his father and because he has access to everything he needs.

He can practice at the Manning Center, the Ole Miss football team’s indoor facility, if the weather turns bad, or at Oxford Middle School because his dad has a key. Sam’s also found a good chiropractor in town, and he’s got friends with backgrounds in physiology.

He said members of the U.S. Olympic Committee visited earlier this year to review his situation.

“Let’s be honest: His coach is a high school track coach,” said Scott, a retired social studies teacher who coached at Oxford High and Ole Miss. “He’s been under a high school coach for basically 11 years. They just wanted to come down and see if they were going to recommend that he move. When they got down here, they go, ‘No, wouldn’t change a thing.’”

Sam trains by himself but said he doesn’t become lonely because members of the community will walk around the track or the high school team will practice at Oxford Middle School or Ole Miss teams will practice in the Manning Center when he’s there.

He also has his father to joke with.

Scott recently injured an ankle, which Sam told him to stretch using a workout plan he learned called the “A-B-Cs.” Scott jokingly told Sam that coyotes don’t do that type of exercise and just attempt to keep walking until their injuries are gone. He planned on doing that because he was an old man without the support of a team of professional doctors his son could turn to.

“Coach K and I never really get lonely out here because we’re such good friends,” Sam said.

The two spoke last summer during a competition in Paris about Sam finding a new coach.

“Sam, if you want to break the world record in the pole vault, you need to find a better coach,” Scott recalls telling Sam. “If you want to be one of the best in the world and make a good living, I’m your guy. I don’t know if I can coach you to 20-3. If you want that, move to Italy and work with Coach (Vitaly) Petroff or somebody like that and I think you’ll break the world record.”

But Sam chose to stay home with the same Elvis-listening coach he’s had throughout his career and to practice in the same pole vault pit that has a plaque honoring him next to it.

“(My competitors) say, ‘Hey, we want what you have, Sam,’” Sam said. “That’s cool because they’ve seen I’ve been able to grow and improve in this event.

“They may be from New York, they may be from Monaco, they may be from France, but they can’t help but be a little bit mystified that all these things came together for us.”





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