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Chris Nilsen USA Track and Field Championships

University of South Dakota pole vaulter Chris Nilsen jumps in USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in 2018 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines.

Going into the NCAA Division I track and field championships in Austin, Texas, last week, University of South Dakota pole vaulter Chris Nilsen thought he needed to jump 19-feet, 6-inches in order to win his second straight outdoor title.

Except Nilsen didn't clear a height over 19-3 during the season. His best height was 19-2.75.

So even though Nilsen was the defending NCAA outdoor champion in the pole vault, the USD junior had quite the challenge in front of him since LSU freshman Mondo Duplantis had the highest jump this season of 19-8.25.

"Me winning it a year ago was irrelevant coming in. I think that, with (Mondo) coming in, I didn't think I had to beat Mondo," Nilsen said. "I was just going to give it everything I had and if I had a personal best, regardless of place, I was going to be happy. If I would've cleared 19-4 and gotten second, I would've been happy.

"I didn't come in thinking I wanted to beat Mondo. I just wanted to jump high."

Nilsen has come close to clearing 19-4 many different times over the past season.

Nilsen and Duplantis were the only two competitors remaining when the bar moved to 19-4.25. On Nilsen's first jump, he cleared the height for a new personal best. 

Duplantis didn't clear 19-4.25 on his first attempt and passed to 19-6.25.

That's when Nilsen had the best jump of his career. After setting a new PR, Nilsen followed it up by clearing 19-6.25 on his first attempt. Duplantis missed his attempts at that height, giving Nilsen his second NCAA outdoor pole vault title.

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"I was shocked and I still kind of am. I am more excited it did happen. The fact that I had to jump (19-6.25) to win was ridiculous," Nilsen said. "We've taken so many shots at (19-4.25) over the last year, probably 15 times. I figured one of the times it would stay up there with luck or a good jump and it was both.

"(Nineteen-6.25) was the better of the two jumps. That was more surprising. 19-6.25 is a really high bar and to jump that was cool."

Even though Duplantis didn't clear 19-4.25, Nilsen figured he still had to clear 19-6.25 to win the title since Duplantis has cleared 19-8 this season.

The crowd helped fuel Nilsen for the winning jump.

"It was 'I have to clear it or I am not going to win it.' That jump was adrenaline and the crowd got the clap going and I felt good going down the runway," Nilsen said. "That absolutely fuels it. The clapping is a big motivator because it feels like you got them going and they are trying to help you get over that bar."

Clearing 19-6.25 set the NCAA outdoor championship meet record. The previous record was held by Nilsen from last season. He broke his own record by five inches.

It's Nilsen's third title. He also has an indoor pole vault title during his career at USD.

This title came against an athlete who Nilsen has come to consider a friend throughout his career. Nilsen and Duplantis vaulted against each other in high school and Nilsen faced the freshman phenom a few times this season.

Duplantis is considered one of the best vaulters in the world already, along with Nilsen. On Monday, Duplantis announced his intention to turn professional, forgoing his final three seasons at LSU.

"We have a good friendship. I am ridiculously happy for him. He's a great athlete and a great person," Nilsen said. "We just joke around and talk like buddies and I've never had a bad moment with him. I hope he does some cool things in the future and either I will be by his side or watch him as he does them."

Even though Nilsen won't see Duplantis again at an NCAA competition, he could face him at international competitions.

Nilsen now turns his focus to the U.S. Track and Field Championships, which is July 25-28 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines.

The top three finishers qualify for the World Championships.

"I would love to make the World Championship team. It's the goal for the summer," Nilsen said. "I've been consistent enough over the bar to make it but I am not going to say I have a better chance than anyone else. This competition brings out the best in every athlete and it could take 18-6 to make the team or more.

"With the talent we have with the young guys and veterans, you never know. If I do make it, we roll from there."

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