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Pole vault phenom Armand Duplantis stays grounded as he soars past records

COURTESY: BERT RICHARDSON/DYESTAT.COM - A 17-year-old from Louisiana, Armand Duplantis, is the world's leading pole vaulter of 2017, as he and other top track and field athletes descend upon Eugene for the annual Prefontaine Classic.Maybe some day — when he hits the ripe old age of 20 or 21 — they'll make a feature film on the life of Armand Duplantis.

"Mondo" will cover plenty of ground, just as Duplantis does when he grabs a pole, heads down a runway and springs into the air to some ungodly height, twisting his body like an accordion as he clears a bar.

There has never been anyone so good so young at the pole vault as Duplantis, the 17-year-old junior at Lafayette (Louisiana) High who set a national prep record and world junior record of 19 feet, 4 1/4 inches last month. Duplantis' mark is the best in the world this year — by a competitor of any age.

The state's track and field fans will get the opportunity to see the 5-11, 145-pound wunderkind up close Saturday in the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field.

Duplantis joins a world-class field that includes the three medal-winners from the 2016 Olympic Games — champion Thiago Braz of Brazil, runner-up Renaud Lavillenie of France, and American Sam Kendricks, who earned the bronze.

It's a dream come true for Duplantis to compete against Lavillenie, 30, the world record-holder at 20-2 1/2, the 2012 Olympic champ and owner of the IAAF Diamond League vault title seven years running.

"He has always been a role model of mine growing up," Duplantis says from his Louisiana home. "It's going to be surreal to compete against him, to be on almost the same level as him."

Duplantis comes from athletic stock. His father, Greg, was a world-class vaulter with a best of 19-0 1/4, an SEC champion at Louisiana State who went on to compete in four U.S. Olympic trials, finishing fifth in 1996. His mother, Sweden native Helena, was a heptathlete and volleyball player at LSU.

Armand's three siblings are athletes. Andreas, 23, was a four-time pole vault qualifier for the NCAA Championships at LSU with a personal record of 17-9 1/4. Antoine, 21, is batting .315 as the No. 3 hitter and left-fielder for the 11th-ranked Tigers. Sister Johanna, 14, who held world age-group pole vault records at 6 and 7 years old, competes in soccer and track and field and owns a vault PR of 10-4.

Armand is known by "Mondo," a nickname bestowed upon him by friends as a 5- or 6-year old, in part as an offshoot of his first name, in part because the word means "World," as in "world-class."

"I prefer 'Mondo' to 'Armand,'" he says.

Duplantis has been world-class almost from the time he picked up a tiny fiberglass pole at age 4 and jumped onto an ottoman at the Duplantis home. In his first meet at age 6, he cleared 5-6. By the time he was 7, Armand owned a world age-group record of 7-8, and his father knew he had a prodigy on his hands.

"It's hard to get a kid under 11 to even hang on to a pole," says Greg, 45, an attorney in Lafayette, a two-hour drive from New Orleans and an hour and a half from Baton Rouge. "He was running in there and bending it and going upside-down. I knew he was a little different. All three of the boys were."

Armand set world age-group records every year since, improving to 12-8 by age 10 to 14-7 by age 13 to a national freshman record of 17-4 1/2 at age 15. He had three meets in which he bettered 18 feet as a 16-year-old sophomore last year.

But Armand says he didn't feel special at the event until recently.

"Probably, it became really real this year," he says. "I always jumped good for my age. Now it's not an age thing. I'm just jumping good for anybody. And I know I'm going to get a lot better. I'm not very (physically) mature at all, actually."

Armand is much bigger, though, than his father, who competed at 5-6 and 150.

"I had good technique, and I was really fast," says the senior Duplantis, who was the first high school vaulter over 18 feet (for Lafayette High) and was the Prefontaine Classic champion in 1992. "I was clocked at 10 meters-a-second at takeoff, which is about as fast any vaulter ever. I was the shortest guy to ever jump 19 feet."

When the kids were young, Greg installed a pole vault facility in the backyard of their house. It serves as a playground and training center for his children as well as many of the youngsters in the neighborhood.

"It's open to anybody," says Greg, who volunteers as vault coach at Lafayette High and offers free instruction to those who want it. "Anyone can come, any time, as long as I'm there. I'll help anybody, and I never charge anybody.

"It's a dangerous sport. There are not many people who know a lot about it. It's a bit of an obligation for me to make sure kids get off on the right foot and keep safe. It makes a huge difference if you have sound technique."

Armand has finally outgrown the backyard facility.

"There are tight quarters," Greg says. "About three feet from the pit there is a fence that runs alongside a brick wall, and behind it is a chain-link fence. I don't like people jumping over 16 feet there — too dangerous — and Mondo can do that with a 30-foot run-up. He can still do four-step stuff, but that's about it."

Armand is a student of the event, studying hours upon hours of video of the best in the world. His father remains his primary coach, though Greg shares ideas and borrows from advice of many others, including Lavillenie's coach, Damien Inocencio.

"My dad has for sure helped me get to where I am now," Armand says. "But now I jump higher than him. I don't even know that he knows more than me now."

Armand, says his father, "has developed a very efficient technique. He's not very fast, not very strong, but he has a really good feel for how to do it. It's his own technique, not any textbook thing. It's just the way Mondo jumps."

Armand has it down to a science — his science, if you will.

"When you watch him vault, it's like there is no extraneous movement," Greg says. "There's a fluidlity that is like watching Ted Williams at the plate. He looked like he wasn't even trying. That's how he hit .400, having that kind of swing."

Armand uses a "very big pole," his father says.

"Much bigger than most people his size use," Greg says. "It provides more thrust. It throws you more. The event is about how high you grip and how stiff a pole you can use. Right now, he uses a pole that a guy who jumps 19-4 uses. As he gets bigger and stronger, he'll move on (to bigger poles)."

Armand continues to compete for his high school team. He is a 23-3 long jumper and runs the anchor on the 4x100 relay unit.

"I enjoy it," he says. "Trying to stay as normal a high-schooler as I can."

What does it feel like to sail over the bar at 19 feet?

"I always get that question, and it's so hard to answer," he says. "It happens so quickly. When I do it, I don't think about anything. I've taken thousands of jumps; it's like a muscle memory type of thing.

"I've always loved roller coasters and stuff like that. That factors into why I like to fly in the air."

Armand owns dual U.S. and Swedish citizenship, and once he began international competition in 2015 — winning the World Youth Championships at Cali, Colombia, with a record 17-4 1/2 leap — he chose to represent Sweden. Part of the decision is based on the fact that Sweden chooses members of its national team, while U.S. athletes must finish in the top three at the national championship or Olympic Trials competition to advance to the World Championships or the Olympics.

"If you're sick or hurt on the day of the competition," his father says, "you're out of luck."

The other part is that the Duplantis family has often spent its summers in Sweden.

"Mondo has been competing for clubs in Sweden for about 10 years," Greg says. "The club system in Sweden is really good. They have a very advanced youth program that we've been using for years. Training revolves around peaking for a championship event, not for the qualifying rounds."

Armand likes to jump high, but he likes to win even more. His goal for the Pre Classic reflects that.

"It's such a major meet, it's going to be about what the competition is doing," he says. "Let's say I PRed at 6 meters (19-8 1/4) but finished third. I'd rather go 5.9 (19-4 1/4) and win."

There is no telling what Armand's potential is, but it seems almost limitless.

Former world record-holder Sergey Bubka of Ukraine had most of his best marks after the age of 29. Lavillenie's world record was achieved in 2014 at 27. Brad Walker set the American record (19-9 3/4) two weeks before his 27th birthday.

Da Silva established his PR and won Olympic gold at 19-9 1/2 at age 22.

Duplantis, who turns 18 on Nov. 10, is less than a foot away from snatching the world record from his hero. That is one of his goals, but not the only one.

The immediate goal is to make the U.S. team that competes in the World Championships at London in August.

"I want to try to get on the podium (with a top-three finish) at London," he says.

Is an Olympic gold medal in 2020 at Tokyo the ultimate goal?

"Well," he says, "2020 won't be my last Olympics, hopefully."

That's the kind of confidence that comes from achieving unprecedented success all along the way, almost from his years as a toddler.

His father has difficulty assessing how high his son eventually will go.

"I really don't know," Greg says. "It's so hard to predict. I certainly wouldn't have predicted he'd jump 19-4 this year.

"The thing with vaulters is, if you go to the next-size pole, you can jump 4 inches higher. With Mondo, three more poles is the world record. But that's really hard to do. When you're 30, it may never happen. When you're 17, it could happen in six months.

"I can say this, though. He thrives on pressure. He is not a great practice guy. He really performs when he goes to the meets."

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@kerryeggersCOURTESY: BERT RICHARDSON/DYESTAT.COM - Armand Duplantis, 17, is the world leader in the pole vault this year, but he also competes for his high school team in Louisiana. 'Trying to stay as normal a high-schooler as I can,' he says.

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