As if winning the U.S. a bronze medal and dominating the entire sport of pole vaulting throughout 2017 wasn’t enough, Ole Miss track and field alumnus Sam Kendricks just had to outdo himself. The 25-year-old capped off an undefeated season this month with the prestigious Jesse Owens Award, given to the top U.S. male track and field competitor.
“To win the Jesse Owens Award is kind of putting my name out there on a plaque with guys I’ve looked up to for a long time,” Kendricks said. “You don’t get that chance doing a lot of things. Being a world champion kind of put me on a list with a lot of great men and women. But being recognized by my peers and a lot of other great athletes in America as, ‘Hey, you are the pinnacle of what we’ve made the sport this year. We value you enough to name you the most valuable athlete.’ I think that’s amazing.”
Kendricks’ national and global recognition began in August 2016 as the Oxford native and first-time Olympian earned a bronze medal for the U.S. in the Rio games, the first American to medal in the event in 12 years. Upon his return to the States, Kendricks was a new man and an unstoppable force while competing.
Going an incredible 17-0 in competitions across the globe, Kendricks continuously put on a spectacle and finished with one of the greatest years ever for an American pole vaulter. International competitions in Shanghai, Paris, Zurich, Berlin and stateside in Oregon all seemed like child’s play to the former Rebel as he earned his first IAAF Diamond League title for pole vaulting.
“It’s kind of hard to put this kind of year in a box,” Kendricks said. “So much happened. If I took a notepad last year after the Olympics, sat down and said ‘OK, I want to win every single competition I go to next year. I want to be a world champion. I want to win the Diamond League. I want to be elected the most valuable athlete in America, in track and field.’ They’d say, ‘You’re crazy, Sam. Pick one.’”
Of course, Kendricks’ jaw-dropping abilities were present long before he boarded that plane to Rio. After picking up the sport because he wasn’t fast enough for other track and field events, Kendricks quickly excelled in his newfound passion. From Oxford High School to Ole Miss, the star vaulter claimed event after event, eventually posting an undefeated campaign during his senior year in 2014.
While many would attribute Kendricks’ success to freakish athleticism and good genes, the real key to the phenom’s winning nature is simple dedication and a hardworking attitude.
As cliché as it might sound, those intangibles explain how Kendricks has made his way to the podium so many times at such a young age. As a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, Kendricks understands the power of duty and the success one may achieve through the right mindset. That commitment has reflected in Kendricks on and off the field.
Just before winning his first-ever Olympic medal, Kendricks was running to vault in the qualifying round when a familiar tune caused him to stop mid-run. With the national anthem playing over the loud speakers, Kendricks slowed to a halt, dropped his pole and stood at attention for the duration of the anthem. The moment, which soon after went viral, encompassed the type of competitor and person that Kendricks is.
While his career is just beginning, Kendricks has already achieved outstanding acclaim both in and out of his sport. The Jesse Owens Award, a rightful honor to the star athlete, quite possibly marks the emergence of a future legend.
The esteemed award will be presented Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, at the USA Track & Field annual meeting, but Kendricks will not be in attendance. Once again flashing the true colors of his character, he will instead be fulfilling his commitment to the United States Army Reserve.