Wing-less hero Armand Duplantis soars in risky, acrobatic art

Sweden's Armand Duplantis in action at the Müller Indoor Grand Prix Glasgow 2020 Athletics in Glasgow, on Feb 15, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Armand Duplantis, 20, owns no wings, does not study aeronautics, has no DNA in common with Superman yet he makes a living by hanging around at heights that might make a giraffe giddy. Last fortnight he pole vaulted to a world record 6.17m and then for fun soared to 6.18m a week later. What can I say, the kid's a rising star.

Pole vaulters are a unique breed who do not require stairs to enter your second-storey apartment. They just drop in. They carry the biggest stick in sport and have an ongoing altercation with gravity.

Fittingly for people in search of lift, their work begins on a 40m runway. What we can see is that they run, plant the pole, catapult themselves upwards, do a sort of handstand on the pole and end by falling onto what appropriately looks like a stunt man's airbag. What we can't always tell is the incredible technical polish.

These people cram multiple professions into one versatile body: They're sprinters with an acrobat's flexibility and a lumberjack's upper-body strength, who start by going forwards and finish by falling backwards. "It's not a natural human movement," said Rachel Yang, who holds the Singapore women's record.

Duplantis' father, Greg, is a former United States vaulter, which is good karma because America won the men's gold at the first 16 Olympics. But the son competes for Sweden, which is where his mother, Helena, a former heptathlete and volleyball player, hails from. Either way he seems destined for a life in the thin air of greatness.

"It's something that I wanted since I was three years old," he said of the world record. With a vaulting pit at home, he had flown to 1.67m at age six, was up to 3.91m at 11 and reached 5.30m at 15. With most kids we say, 'Oh, how much you've grown', with him, it was probably a case of flown.

Clearly, among this tribe, vaulting is a custom that is passed on to kids. At 21 days old, Yang's son, Zac, was attending her practices; at two, he carried around a broomstick as if it were a vaulting pole; now at seven he has his own fibre-glass pole. It's a lot nicer, one presumes, than the wooden stick, with a spike at the bottom, which old-timers used.

Vaulters are an intriguing clan, whose history is studded with terrific, tall stories. One great Olympian, Bob Richards, who was ordained as a minister, was known as the Vaulting Vicar. Another world record holder, John Pennel, as the Los Angeles Times wrote, finished a competition in Warsaw in 1963 with car headlights illuminating the runway and a photographer's spotlight lighting up the plant box.

As a sport this is a testing one, for pits are not found in every stadium - only three in Singapore, said Yang - and unlike sprinters and their weight-less spikes the vaulters must carry the equivalent of telephone poles to work.

Poles can be soft, stiff, of varied size - Yang said hers is 4m and Duplantis' is 5.2m - and are of impressive price. They cost, she said, between US$600 (S$833) and $1200, are stuffed into a tube, put on her roof rack and taken to the airport.

"They don't fit into the cargo compartment of budget airlines," explained Yang, "so we have to take Singapore Airlines most of the time... Sometimes it takes a lot to explain (to the airlines) what my oversized baggage is as not many people know about pole vault."

Vaulting is also athletics turned into a contact sport. Sometimes you wonder if their medals should be the ones they give to soldiers. To go that high, after all, is to risk falling badly. Yang, like other vaulters, has missed the mat, fallen into the hard plant box, been thrown backwards and has landed on the bar. "I thought I had broken my back," she said.

When we finished speaking, she sent me a short, staggering video of herself at practice. She runs in, plants the pole, it bends, she rises and just when she's upside down it snaps like a twig. One piece lands on the mat, the other turns into an unintended flying javelin.

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The only thing Duplantis is currently shattering is records. He has "almost perfect technique" said Yang and might own that rare skill that lures people to his sport.

In the class system of sport, track shines more than field. Except once in a while - think Yelena Isinbayeva or Sergei Bubka - a talent emerges who blurs these lines. The higher Duplantis rises, the more the spotlight will turn to his art and right now he has our attention.

On Feb 8, in Poland, after leaping 6.17m, he said he needed rest before the next event in Scotland. "I'm going to try to come down from this high," he smiled.

But, of course, all he can do these days is go higher and he did, again, by 1cm in Glasgow. To watch it in slow motion is mesmerising. It isn't just sport, it's a one-man spectacular Swedish mission to athletic outer space.

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