Everybody remembers what they did last spring right before they couldn’t do much of anything. Mondo Duplantis went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. This was in February 2020, not long after he jumped higher than anybody in the history of pole-vaulting and established himself as the favorite to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. He was fresh off a plane from Europe and ready to party. Life couldn’t have been much better for the best pole-vaulter ever. “I felt like I was on top of the world,” he says.
His fate in this case was out of his control. The greatest month of Duplantis’s professional career was February 2020—and by March 2020 the only place for him to compete was his backyard in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he was born and raised. He found out the Olympics were being postponed in his childhood bedroom.
“Where the Olympic dream started and died,” says Duplantis, now 21, more than a year later. “But it didn’t die, of course. Where the Olympic dream started…and then got put on pause.”
He’s been living in that strange purgatory ever since. Over the past decade, the Olympic Games have been threatened by nuclear war, terrorism and infectious diseases, but perhaps never before has such a huge majority of a country been so opposed to hosting the Olympics. With most people in Japan not exactly thrilled about inviting lots of foreigners to their biggest city in the middle of a pandemic, it often feels as though the organizers are launching themselves over a bar without a mat on the other side.
But if the Olympics do happen, Mondo Duplantis will be there, which means one of the biggest stars at these Olympics will be a pole-vaulter who could pass for the actor Timothée Chalamet.
The son of Greg Duplantis, an American pole-vaulter, and Helena Duplantis, a Swedish heptathlete, Armand “Mondo” Duplantis is a U.S. native who represents Sweden. He idolized the legends of a sport who were obscure to most kids in Lafayette. There were two dominant figures in the sport before Duplantis. Sergey Bubka spent a decade breaking his own records until he cleared 6.15 meters in 1993 and set a record that not even he could break. But if Sergey Bubka was Duplantis’s Michael Jordan, then Renaud Lavillenie was his LeBron James. Bubka’s iconic number went untouched for two decades until Lavillenie emerged as a worthy rival and nudged the bar to 6.16 meters. And that’s where it remained for Duplantis.
Duplantis was jumping when he was 4 years old and breaking records by the time he was 7.
Duplantis was jumping when he was 4 years old and breaking records by the time he was 7. It seemed like only a matter of time before he eclipsed Bubka and Lavillenie. But as he was entering their stratosphere, Duplantis finished with the same result in his three biggest meets of 2019. “Second, second, second,” he sighs. It sounds like a dirty word when he says it.
He was determined to make 2020 his breakthrough year. One weekend in February, he jumped 6.17 meters. The very next weekend he cleared 6.18 meters. The MJ and LeBron of pole-vaulting were now looking up at Mondo.
This was nothing short of the greatest jump of all time. What he didn’t know was that a deadly virus was following him from Europe to the U.S., and it would also be his last official jump for a very long time.
One rule of the Olympics is that almost everywhere you go, something peculiar is happening. In the fencing arena, someone is being stabbed by a sword. At the biathlon venue in the winter, someone else is shooting a gun while on skis. The pole vault is a sport that requires people to use sticks to fling themselves 20 feet high.
Another rule of the Olympics is that before you can do something once in front of billions of people, you must do it countless times in front of nobody.
There were worse places for Duplantis to be during the pandemic than his family’s backyard. This setup that turned out to be his remote office was a part of his life long before it became necessary. When he was a child, he didn’t think much about it. Instead of a basketball hoop in the driveway, Duplantis had access to his own pole-vaulting facility. He went to soccer practice and Little League baseball games—his brother, Antoine, is the LSU baseball team’s career hits leader—and then he flew behind his house when he felt like it.
“I really did what I wanted to do,” Duplantis says. “I wanted to jump some days. I wanted to not jump some days. Some days I wanted to jump left-handed. Some days I wanted to jump in my underwear.”
“I wanted to jump some days. I wanted to not jump some days. Some days I wanted to jump left-handed. Some days I wanted to jump in my underwear.”
His training methods also took into account what he didn’t want to do. For example, drills. Duplantis hated drills. He hated them so much that to this day he says that he does fewer drills than the average high-school pole-vaulter. “I thought they were so boring and so useless when I was younger,” he says. “Even if my father was trying to show me something, I just refused to do it. I thought, I don’t feel like doing that. I’m just gonna actually jump. I want to bend the pole. I don’t want to do some stupid little arm drill.”
I have never used a fiberglass stick to catapult myself in the air, so I couldn’t help but ask Duplantis the most banal question in sports journalism: What does that feel like?
“It doesn’t feel as crazy as you would think,” he says. “It feels so normal.” A few years ago, Duplantis leapt from a 6-meter balcony, and he felt his heart drop into his stomach during the free fall. “But when I jump, it doesn’t really feel quite like that,” he continues. “I’m just thinking about what was good about the jump. Or what was bad about the jump. Or celebrating.”
Olympians tend to be maniacal creatures of habit who devote years of their lives for the chance to compete for what might be a few seconds. Duplantis is an exception. Though his father once jumped 5.80 meters himself, he didn’t pressure his son into pole-vaulting. “He didn’t want to force something down my throat that I didn’t like,” Duplantis says. “He thought at the time that was going to make me back away from pole-vaulting—which I think was exactly right.”
He resisted the urge to specialize from a young age, but after his period sampling baseball, soccer and other sports, he decided to focus on pole vault when he reached high school. Duplantis feared that he was hitting a plateau and it was time to change his training strategy. Before his freshman year, his personal best was 4.75 meters. He reached 5.30 meters to win the under-18 world championships when he was 15. He set the world junior record at 5.90 meters in 2017 and cleared 6.05 meters in 2018. He climbed to 6.17 and 6.18 meters last year. That’s when he returned to his backyard.
This space that wasn’t designed for an Olympian is where he would have to resume his Olympic training. It wasn’t ideal. It was also a pandemic. There was no such thing as ideal.
Duplantis had outgrown the home facility when he was a teenager sailing over the bar at 5 meters. “Then it starts getting hairy,” says Greg Duplantis, his father. “We’ve got a brick wall on the left side, a chain-link fence on the backside and a big tree on the right side.” But this space that wasn’t designed for an Olympian is where he would have to resume his Olympic training. It wasn’t ideal. It was also a pandemic. There was no such thing as ideal.
It was summer by the time he left for a place where life was remarkably normal: Sweden. A dual citizen, Duplantis chose to represent Sweden and not the U.S., a decision that made it easier for him to qualify for the Olympics in theory. In reality it also turned him into one of his country’s most famous athletes and led to sponsorship opportunities that might not have been possible in a niche American sport. He has no regrets. “It’s worked out better than I ever could have imagined,” he says.
Sweden took an approach to the pandemic that made it the subject of ferocious debates around the world. That strategy happened to suit Duplantis.
Duplantis spent many summers as a child visiting the Swedish countryside, where his family had a little house on a winding road that led to a quiet lake. As one of the few European countries that rejected broad lockdowns and experimented with minimal Covid restrictions, Sweden took an approach to the pandemic that made it the subject of ferocious debates around the world. That strategy happened to suit Duplantis. It was by pure chance that his adopted country turned out to be a secret weapon that allowed him to continue training and competing throughout the pandemic.
He returned to the international track-and-field circuit for a series of meets last summer stretching across Europe and the Middle East.
Mondo Duplantis won every single one of them.
For the past few years, as Duplantis won meets in world capitals, signed endorsement deals and became a huge celebrity in his niche sport, he’s been followed by someone else from Lafayette. Brennan Robideaux is a filmmaker from Duplantis’s hometown who was looking for a new project a few years ago when he realized that it was staring him in the face. “We always knew this really talented, half-Swedish family does something with pole vault and they’re really good at it,” he says. “But people in Lafayette are not always the biggest pole-vault fans.” Eventually he introduced himself and explained that he was hoping to make a documentary following Duplantis on the way to the Tokyo Olympics. He sent him a text message to ask if he might be interested.
“I mean, I guess,” Duplantis wrote back.
From that indelible exchange a curious friendship was born. Together they have traveled around the world, Duplantis with his poles and Robideaux with his cameras, making a feature documentary called Born to Fly. Then they landed back in the place where they both grew up. The pandemic gave Robideaux and the Duplantis family time to ransack the house, sift through home movies and discover footage of a young Mondo hurtling across the backyard. “Finding the archive of old clips,” Robideaux says, “was as exciting as him breaking the world record.”
If the pandemic gave Robideaux an unexpected plot twist, it also gave Duplantis a whole lot of free time. In the early days, before he went to Sweden, he went to the golf course. He’d never played before, but there was something therapeutic about golf that gave him an excuse to forget about the pandemic chaos surrounding him. It was a slice of the Swedish countryside in the Cajun heart of Louisiana.
“The thing I really loved about golf was that when you’re on the golf course, nothing in the world matters other than your next shot,” he says. “Whether it was the pandemic, or the Olympics being postponed, or everything was great and then everything was bad. Nothing else in life matters except for your next shot.”
Duplantis internalized that lesson of golf at the exact moment when it had never been harder for Olympians to focus on their sports. There is a good chance that Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 will be normal Olympic experiences. There is a better chance that Tokyo 2020 in 2021 won’t be. This has been a year defined by exponential growth for Duplantis, but if there is one lesson that he has learned from pole-vaulting, it’s that progress tends to be incremental. This is a sport in which a world record is always one inch away.
This has been a year defined by exponential growth for Duplantis, but if there is one lesson that he has learned from pole-vaulting, it’s that progress tends to be incremental.
“Not even an inch,” Greg Duplantis says. “One centimeter.”
“It’s centimeter by centimeter every day,” Mondo Duplantis says. “You never feel like anything really changes that much. It changes so slightly. Those slight differences make such a big impact.”
Those slight differences are bringing him from his backyard in Lafayette to an empty stadium in Tokyo. Robideaux’s documentary remains a work in progress, just like the Olympics themselves. The only certainty once Mondo Duplantis takes off is that he will fall back to earth. What happens in between is wonderfully uncertain. It’s in those glorious few seconds when he’s afloat that he feels back on top of the world.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8