Mondo Duplantis Reaching Rarefied Air

Transcendent talents don’t come through the collegiate ranks often.

But when they do, their impacts reverberate through the annals of history for a long time after.

What do Quincy Watts, Jim Ryun, Sydney Maree, Henry Rono, Gabriel Kamau, Renaldo Nehemiah, Hollis Conway, Lawerence Johnson, Erick Walder, Keith Connor, John Godina, Balazs Kiss and Patrik Boden all have in common? They all held – or hold – collegiate outdoor records that stood – or have stood – for more than 20 years.

Records, as they say, though, are meant to be broken.

Old Guard Still Standing Tall

Name Event Year Status
Quincy Watts 400 Meters 1992 Broken
Jim Ryun 800 Meters 1966 Broken
Sydney Maree 1500 Meters 1981 Broken
Henry Rono Steeplechase 1978 Current
Henry Rono 5000 Meters 1978 Current
Gabriel Kamau 10,000 Meters 1981 Broken
Renaldo Nehemiah 110 Hurdles 1979 Current
Hollis Conway High Jump 1989 Current
Lawrence Johnson Pole Vault 1996 Current
Erick Walder Long Jump 1994 Current
Keith Connor Triple Jump 1982 Current
John Godina Shot Put 1995 Current
Balazs Kiss Hammer Throw 1995 Current
Patrik Boden Javelin Throw 1990 Current

Marks once deemed untouchable – like those established by Watts, Ryun, Maree and Kamau – have all been felled in recent years. And not even three of those records were safe for longer than three years, as collegians, in turn, continued to push the limits of what we think was possible.

Whose record is next on the chopping block? Johnson’s 23-year-old pole vault standard of 5.98m (19-7½), if you ask the current collegiate record holder himself.

SIDEBAR: Alone At The (Rocky) Top
Current collegiate record holder Lawrence Johnson was ahead of his time

Alone At The (Rocky) Top

Lawrence Johnson is one of a kind.

LoJo, as many know him, was the first black vaulter to make the U.S. Olympic Track & Field team in 1996, the first black vaulter to medal at a world championship in 1997 and the first black vaulter to medal at the Summer Olympic Games three years later.

Lawrence Johnson competes as a member of the Tennessee Volunteers (Photo: Tennessee Athletics)

Before all of that, Johnson left his mark on the high school and collegiate levels.

“Lawrence was an animal,” said Toby Stevenson, who is now an assistant coach at Washington and competed against Johnson as both a collegian and as a professional. “He was truly an athlete ahead of his time. He had the right physicality and the right mindset. And when I say mindset, I mean that he was just crazy enough to go for those big jumps back in the early-to-mid 1990s when everybody else wouldn’t.”

Johnson entered the NCAA system with a PR of 5.33m (17-6) that he established as a senior at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Virginia. (Rumor has it that, as a freshman, Johnson didn’t have eyes on the pole vault: He wanted to be a hurdler, but since the program already had four talented athletes in that event group, the coaches herded him toward the runway. It’s safe to say that after two National Scholastic titles and a PR that would probably would have made him an NCAA All-American as a high school senior, all parties involved made the right decision.)

Once at Tennessee, Johnson’s legend grew – as did his hunger to win.

After finishing second to Martin Eriksson in the pole vault at the 1993 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, Johnson went off on his own to a curtained-off section of the RCA Dome, where the meet was held. Johnson proceeded to run stadium steps for a few hours.

“That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I had this thing where if I didn’t perform how I wanted to, I would punish myself,” Johnson said. “I felt like I deserved to win every single time I competed, because I worked harder than anybody I knew.”

Perseverance paid off for Johnson later that year as he stood on top of the podium at the SEC Championships – but it wasn’t after the pole vault. Actually, the pole vault was just one of the 10 events he contested over two days. That’s right: Johnson won the SEC decathlon title as a freshman (He placed third as a sophomore and finished runner-up as a senior).

Johnson wouldn’t be denied pole vault glory – or history – for long.

He won five of the next six SEC titles and four of the next six NCAA titles between 1994 and 1996. And it was in 1996 where he set the current collegiate record in the outdoor pole vault of 5.98m (19-7½).

“I just remember those were some pretty fun years, especially 1996,” said Johnson, who’d go on to have a decorated professional career. “Whenever one meet ended, I wondered how I could top myself at the next one. One thing I haven’t lost to this day is that competitive edge.”

“I’ll be honest with you: I never felt as if my record was ever in danger in the past,” Johnson said. “But now I see what Mondo is doing and I’m like, ‘Yeah. It’s over. I had a good run at the top.’

“It can’t be overlooked or understated what he’s doing, especially at the age he’s doing it. Someone told me recently that he wasn’t born for another three years after I set my record. That’s crazy.”

Mondo, in case you don’t know, is Mondo Duplantis, the freshman phenom at LSU.

Just two weeks ago at the LSU Invitational, Mondo went over 5.94m (19-5¾), the second highest bar in collegiate history behind Johnson’s all-timer. That clearance – on the first attempt, mind you – put the Swedish-American a full inch ahead of Shawn Barber, who previously held that spot for the past four years.

Mondo then asked the bar to be raised to 6.01m (19-8½), so that, with a clearance, he could unify the collegiate records (He holds the indoor version) and take down Johnson’s record one month before its 23rd anniversary. He took three cracks at it, but fell agonizingly short with each passing attempt.

“The margin of error is pretty slim when the bar is that high,” said Washington assistant coach Toby Stevenson, who is an accomplished vaulter in his own right. “Everything has to be just about perfect. Jumping six meters or higher isn’t easy for anybody in the sport.”

Let’s put that in perspective: There are only 24 men in world history who have cleared the six-meter bar indoors or outdoors. Two of those men have been mentioned in this article: Stevenson became just the second American to join the exclusive fraternity back in 2004, the same year he’d win the silver medal at the Athens Summer Olympics; Mondo was the 23rd man to walk through the door on his way to winning the gold medal at the 2018 European Championships, a meet in which he tied as the second best performer in world history at 6.05m (19-10¼).

Johnson, who won the world indoor title in 2001 and an Olympic silver medal the year before, topped out at his collegiate record.

“The difference between 19-6, 19-7 and 19-8 is pretty significant,” Johnson said. “It might not seem that much different to anybody watching, but once you start moving into the mid-19s, your technique really comes into play more than your physical gifts. You have to be perfect. I would have to point to individuals, like myself, who were able to negotiate a 19-7 jump, but trying to reach that next level became rather challenging.”

Stevenson believes that since Mondo already broke through that ceiling, the question is when, not if, he can do it again. And once that happens, the floodgates will open for good and propel contemporaries like Zach Bradford of Kansas, KC Lightfoot of Baylor, Matt Ludwig of Akron and Chris Nilsen of South Dakota to new heights.

“That’s why the men’s pole vault is going off these days,” Stevenson said of the athletes seeing what each other are doing. “When someone goes over six meters, it shows the other guys that, ‘Hey! It’s not impossible. We can do that.’ That would be great for the future of the vault.”