EUGENE, Ore.—South Dakota track and field alum Chris Nilsen captured his first U.S. Championships gold medal June 21 and punched his ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Nilsen, a product of Kansas City, Missouri, cleared the winning height of 19-4 ¼ (5.90m) following a perfect competition. He was the only athlete with a clean sheet in the competition, clearing six bars on first-attempt makes en route to the gold medal. After securing the win, Nilsen took three shots at the elusive six-meter bar (19-8 ¼), but was ultimately unable to clear it.
"I have been thinking about this day for the last five years, and even more so the last two months," said Nilsen. "It is such an honor to be able to represent the University of South Dakota here on the big stage. Tonight I get to go to bed as an Olympian. I am so excited to wear the Team USA jersey again and head to Tokyo with Sam and KC."
A 2020 graduate of the University of South Dakota, Nilsen was a three-time NCAA Champion for the Coyotes. He was a seven-time All-American and never finished lower than third at the NCAA Championships in his collegiate career. His senior championship meets were wiped out to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nilsen continues to work with USD coach Derek Miles, a three-time Olympian and Olympic bronze medalist (2008) in the pole vault, while training in Vermillion.
"What a day for Chris and the University of South Dakota," said Miles. "Certainly Chris is a gifted athlete, but I think he is also a product of a culture that was established by the committed and motivated athletes that came before him. Now in turn, he's demonstrated a pathway to having profound success at the collegiate level as well as professionally that our current athletes can follow. To compete that well at the highest level and not have a miss over the entire meet is truly incredible."
Nilsen heads to Tokyo ranked fifth in the world this season with a best of 19-4 ¾ (5.91m) that he vaulted at the USATF Golden Games in early May. His personal best of 19-6 ¼ (5.95m) was set at the 2019 NCAA Championships, also breaking the NCAA meet record.