VERMILLION, S.D. — Chris Nilsen is not only one of the country’s best pole vaulters, he’s also learned how to be a great navigator.
Nilsen, a former pole vault star at the University of South Dakota, has spent the last few weeks preparing to compete in the same event at the Tokyo Olympics, which start Friday with the Opening Ceremonies.
Nilsen leaves Saturday for Japan, and he’ll touch down in Tokyo the following day. The preliminaries are July 31, and Nilsen believes he has to jump 18 feet, 10 inches to make the Aug. 3 finals.
When he departs for Tokyo next weekend, it’ll be Nilsen’s first visit to Asia, but not his first experience dealing with overseas travel.
“I don’t really think people understand how big of an issue that is of Americans going overseas to compete,” Nilsen said. “I believe the longer you do it, the better you get at it. It’s about learning things along the way. Five days after landing is a pretty good amount of time to get your body acclimated. It’ll be a little bit more of a challenge, because I’ve never been to Asia, but it’s just another time zone.”
He’ll hope to be acclimated to the time zone by the time July 31 rolls around.
He told a story about the first time he went to Europe. There, he had three days to get ready, and Nilsen remembered he didn’t perform well.
Just a couple weeks ago, Nilsen traveled to Poland, and he got a personal best there after qualifying for the Olympics.
Nilsen knows how to adjust to a far different time zone, and get ready to compete after having his body adhere to Tokyo time.
Tokyo time is 14 hours ahead of The Journal area.
Once Nilsen gets the time zone used to, he’ll have to navigate the weather.
The late-July, early-August heat has become an issue over the years in Japan.
According to a report by the Japan Times earlier this week, Tokyo has seen 95-degree heat 12 times per summer in each of the last three years.
The 1964 Summer Olympics that were held in Japan were pushed back to July, because the weather was so hot that summer.
Nilsen has been accustomed to competing in the heat.
Of course, he’s dealt with the Midwest heat while competing for the Coyotes.
Nilsen also had to deal with heat during the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. With little shade and high heat, Nilsen fought through the elements to win the U.S. competition and clinch one of three spots.
“I’ve been everywhere in this country, and I think that a lot of places have provided me a way to deal with the hot or cold,” Nilsen said. “When it comes to dealing with heat, it’s normal stuff. It’s just the same. We need to hydrate and get as many electrolytes as we can, and maybe take some salt packets with us. Maybe even some pickle juice if we really want to be extreme with it.”
Nilsen talked to fellow Olympians — like friends KC Lightfoot and Sam Kendricks — how they’re dealing with it. Both of those men competed at the World Championships in Doha, where the heat is no joke there.
Two down, one to go. The final hurdle that Nilsen will deal with is competing in front of an empty crowd.
Japan earlier this month declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19, thus not allowing any fans to watch the Olympics in-person.
So, Nilsen will be at Olympic Stadium without any spectators watching him.
Sure, it’ll be quiet, but that’s something he’s willing to overcome.
Like the other two hurdles, Nilsen has dealt with this, too. He competed in a few track meets during the 2020 season, and because of the pandemic, those meets restricted fan access.
“Going into the Olympics, I think we’re just going to go into it thinking it’s a normal meet,” Nilsen said. “People like Sam Kendricks and myself to an extent were able to pull out some good performances at those meets.
“So, I think it gives us a better appreciation of the fans being there, but at the same time, it shows that we can do something without 100,000 peoples’ eyes on us,” Nilsen added. “It’s the Olympic Games. Fans or no fans, we’re going to have to jump as high as we can.”
Nilsen, however, isn’t going alone. True, his family doesn’t get to come out to Tokyo.
The former Coyote is bringing USD jumps coach Derek Miles. Miles is a good choice.
Miles is a three-time Olympian, competing at 2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing and 2012 London in the pole vault. He earned the bronze medal in Beijing, and he retired professionally with a personal best of 19-2 1/4 in 2007.
While at USD, Miles coached Nilsen to three national championships from 2017-19.
Miles has helped Nilsen ride the waves en route to these Olympic Games.
“What makes that easier even when he was in college, he had some big meet experiences,” Miles said. “He started off his college career with an Olympic Trials experience. He’s been in the meets and he’s held his own. He’s gotten stronger. Two or three years ago, I would have been concerned about that.”
Even though neither Nilsen nor Miles have been to Japan, Miles can still provide some valuable advice.
"He has told me about the stakes and how he's felt, and it's very nice to have that insight," Nilsen said. "At the same time, I need to go figure things out by myself."