Work that began years ago at Oxford High School with initial aspirations not much bigger than simply making his high school track team has paid off.
Now, the dream is coming true for Sam Kendricks. He is going for gold in the pole vault at the Rio Olympics.
The men’s pole vault competition will start Aug. 13 and conclude with finals Aug. 15.
Four years ago, Kendricks was on the outside looking in when it came to qualifying for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. He was number 25 on a 24-man entry list for the U.S. track & field Olympic trials and had to watch the Olympics on television with the rest of the world.
This year was a much different story for the Oxford native as Kendricks dominated the competition for his third straight U.S. pole vaulting title and a spot on the Olympic team bound for Rio this week.
“I cannot guarantee that I would have had success my first time around,” Kendricks said of missing out four years ago. “I think that this sport really favors the experienced and that’s why having stepped away from Ole Miss and having that NCAA experience and now this professional experience sets me up for a much better chance when it’s my turn to represent.”
It is indeed Kendricks’ time and it was a historical feat as it marks the first athlete from Oxford High School to become an Olympic athlete. Kendricks is the second person from the Oxford-Lafayette community to participate in the Olympic games as Jennifer Gillom went as a member of the U.S. women’s basketball team during its gold medal run in the 1988 Seoul games and was an assistant coach in 2012.
Hard work pays off
Pole vaulting was not something Kendricks took to naturally. Scott Kendricks, his father and now coach for 11 years, was the coach of the Oxford High track team and told his son that he would always be on his team if he wanted to be. The only issue was finding the right event for Sam to excel in.
It took him a couple years as his freshman and sophomore seasons saw him be beaten by nearly everyone, but he still was good enough to claim third place at the state championships. His junior and senior seasons, it was Sam’s turn to start beating everyone else, claiming back-to-back Class 5A state championships. In 2011 he cleared a state meet best 16 feet, 3 inches to help Oxford to a runner-up finish. His best mark in high school was 17-feet even, which became the high school record for the state of Mississippi.
“We could come out and we could put in the work and he consistently improved,” Scott said. “That’s just something that any father and son, if they work at something, is just fun to do. …That was always part of our process. ‘Hey, we’re going to get there. We’re getting a little better. We’re getting into that top 5, we’re getting into that top 3.’ Then before you knew it he’s a sophomore at Ole Miss and jumped 19 feet at age 19. Very few guys in the world do that.”
Father knows best
The Kendricks duo carried their momentum of father and son-turned-coach and athlete across town to Ole Miss where Sam joined the Ole Miss track & field team while his father joined the coaching staff. During his time with the Rebels, Sam once again struggled during his freshman and sophomore seasons, as he had to adjust to the level competition.
“Success at this event is all about speed and height and agility. I had to grow into that,” Sam said. “I’m thankful that I had my father as my coach because another coach may have had an accelerated mindset for my training in order to make me improve so I can be exceptionally useful for his track team. My father never took that stance.
“He says that we’re going to improve my own pace and the way that your body is ready to improve.”
His junior year at Ole Miss, everything started falling into place for Sam as he claimed the Southeastern Conference, NCAA and U.S. outdoor championships in 2014.
Sam decided to forgo his senior year to pursue his aspirations of becoming a professional athlete. The move helped him become one of the top vaulters in the world, claiming multiple world championships as well as winning many titles at meets all across Europe and the U.S.
Sam will be representing not only his hometown of Oxford, where he has lived and trained throughout his career, but also the United States during the two weeks of the Rio Olympics, which began Friday.
This is nothing new to the younger Kendricks as he has been representing, and serving, his country for much longer than just this month.
Kendricks is a 2nd Lieutenant and a transportation officer in the Army reserves. He had a goal of becoming a full-time officer in the Army after graduation, but with the success he was having with his other job as an athlete, it made Sam have to re-evaluate those goals and pick a new path through the armed forces.
“When I graduated high school and walked on the Ole Miss track team, I said I needed something else to do to really commit my time to Ole Miss and have something to really look forward to after school,” Sam said of joining the Army. “The military is a great thing for a guy like myself where I’m pursuing things athletically, academically and looking for something in the future with some security. United States Army is a great way to do that.”
When he is not picking up a pole and competing around the world, Sam will report to Fort Lee in Virginia in October for 14 weeks to complete his transportation officer training. Sam hopes to still be competing at a high level for another decade and will then evaluate where things stand in his athletic career as well as his military one.
“I’ve always considered myself trying to represent my best,” Sam said. “Now, making an Olympic team is just a byproduct of me trying to pursue that excellence all the time. I’m very thankful to be able to represent my country on two fronts, but I always try and think of myself doing that even in the offseason. They say an officer like a doctor never puts down his professional life, and I believe whole-heartedly in that.”
Watch Party Scheduled
The community is invited to a watch party for Sam Kendrick’s pole vault finals in the Summer Olympics in Rio will be held Monday, Aug. 15 at 6 p.m. at Rafters on the Oxford Square. The finals begin at 6:30 p.m.