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Road to Rio more than just a father-son trip for Sam Kendricks

6/30/2016
 

By Emily Giambalvo, USATF Communications

 

When Sam Kendricks discusses his pole vaulting success, his wording sparks confusion among listeners.

 

Kendricks launches himself through the air alone, yet he speaks of his performances with the word “we,” as if a group flies over the bar together.

 

“It strikes them odd until the third and fourth time I say it,” Kendricks said.

 

Then they understand. The “we” Kendricks often uses alludes to Scott Kendricks — Sam’s coach, father and mentor blended into one body.

 

“I've never done this alone,” Sam said. “I've always had him at my back.”

 

Together, the duo’s work has propelled Sam, an Oxford, Mississippi, native, to the No. 2 mark in the world this year. Vaulting 5.92m/19-5 at last month’s IAAF World Challenge in Beijing, Sam posted the best height by a U.S. pole vaulter since June 2008.

 

Even though he now heads toward the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field as one of the world’s top vaulters, Sam’s initially began the event as a seventh grader hoping for a place on the Oxford High School track and field team.

 

Sam said he was slow and short. His father, who was the high school’s head coach, worried that Sam might not find an event where he could make the team.

 

“I started teaching the little guy [pole vault], give him a niche so he could grow up on our team,” Scott said.

 

Before middle school, the only time Sam had attempted the event was when he and his twin brother, Tom, played around after their father’s high school got its first pole vault pit. They were 7 years old and cleared about three feet using a broken high jump bar.

 

Since then, Scott estimates Sam has jumped 15,000 times at that high school track. He still trains there, and the red rubber has worn out where Sam consistently takes his last few steps on the runway. He has practically dug a hole where he takes off, so now they cover the area with a mat.

 

Next to the pit a plaque given by the high school team reads, “Sam Kendricks Pole Vault Training Area.” Underneath are a few of Sam’s accomplishments — NCAA champion in 2013 and 2014 and USATF champion in 2014 and 2015.

 

They enjoy training in Oxford. It’s usually empty. Sam said most people avoid the area in the summer heat and the high schoolers don’t practice until the evenings. It’s quiet. It’s comfortable. And it’s home.

 

The Kendricks family connects to the University of Mississippi with a double-digit number of degrees that stretch up to Sam’s great grandparents. Sam graduated last year and vaulted for the Rebels before turning professional prior to his senior year.

 

His mother, Marni, is the assistant dean of the school of engineering at Ole Miss. While Sam was a student, he would often throw something at her office window to see if she was there. If his mom came to the window, Sam ran upstairs to visit.

 

Sometimes, Marni would make an appearance at her son and husband’s place of work.

 

“They would text me and say, 'He's having a really good practice. Do you want to come?'” Marni said. “I'd drop everything and run over to the track. I loved that.”

 

She now has a poster of Sam hanging in her office where he wrote, “To the #1 Mom on campus or anywhere! Hotty Toddy!”

 

Prior to Scott’s head coaching job at Oxford High School, he served in the United States Marine Corps for 10 years. In high school, Sam was part of the school’s Marine Corps Junior ROTC program.

 

But once he started college, his military path differed from that of his father. Sam joined the Army ROTC, and the program welcomed his pole vaulting career. Now, Sam is a reserve officer in a unit in Memphis, Tennessee, and attends monthly training.

 

Scott was a middle-distance runner at Ole Miss and took a volunteer coaching position Sam’s sophomore year. When Sam began college, the Ole Miss head coach was Joe Walker, who filled the same role during Scott’s collegiate career.

 

“We were out there at practice one day and Coach Walker walks up and says, 'Kendricks, when you were on my team, you were all right. Your boy is the real deal,’” Scott said. “That is the greatest compliment that man could have ever given me because I struggled so much to be just anybody on his team.”

 

At practice, Scott has always been Coach K to his athletes, even Sam. When’s he’s acting as a father, Sam calls him Da. Sometimes Sam refers to him as Papa K, a mixture between personal and professional. The name must adjust as the duo balances the different facets of their relationship.

 

While some athletes change coaches multiple time in their careers, Sam has worked with his father non-stop since the start.

 

“I'll do anything in the world for the guy,” Scott said.

 

Scott’s dad, who passed away last year, shares Sam’s name and often played in the backyard with Sam and his brother. After the boys made a catch, scored in a game or won a race, their grandfather would tell them to “wave to the crowd.”

 

“I saw Sam doing just that with a big smile on his face after a big jump in front of a big crowd and my heart melted,” Marni said. “That’s what Pop had told him hundreds of times growing up. ‘Wave to the crowd, Sammy-Boy.’”

 

In 2012, Sam boarded his flight to Oregon for Olympic Trials thinking he’d compete. But a few competitors were added to the list and Sam was pushed out of the group who jumped. He watched the meet from the stands.

 

Four years later, Sam returns to Oregon for Trials. This time he’ll have a chance to soar over 19 feet off the ground alone. But if Sam finishes in the top three and earns a spot in Rio de Janeiro, it won’t be an individual accomplishment.

 

“We did it,” he will say.

 

Because for Sam and Scott, that’s how it has always been — together.

 


Amanda Brooks
Marketing and Communications Manager
USA Track & Field
317.713.4690
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