A World Champion, Soldier, and True Southern Man: The Story of Sam Kendricks
Many know the athlete, some know the soldier, but few know the man that is Sam Kendricks. From small-town Mississippi to the No. 1-ranked track and field athlete in the world, Sam Kendricks is a million anecdotes wrapped into one phenomenal person.
OXFORD, Miss.– I walked into the Overby Auditorium on the Ole Miss campus this morning excited to hear from Sam Kendricks, an Oxford native, Ole Miss alum, US Army First Lieutenant, and World Champion in the pole vault. With no real prior knowledge of track and field, I strolled in expecting to see an athlete dressed in a Nike tracksuit, ready to run out and train as soon as we finished. Instead, I saw a stoic military man who almost resembled Crocodile Dundee.
Dressed in Ariat boots, Wrangler jeans, a Carhartt work shirt, and with a knife strapped to his belt, Sam Kendricks instantly intrigued me. Before the program began, he was striking up conversations with people from across the audience, asking our names, making connections, and showing us his congenial personality — one that can’t help but make you smile.
Behind the Medals
Sam Kendricks was born and raised in Oxford, Mississippi. He competed in track and field at Oxford High School under the coaching of his father, a retired Captain in the United States Marine Corps. In 2009, Sam broke the Mississippi state pole vault record, jumping 17 feet. However, despite his incredible success in high school, college track and field programs did not come calling. Ole Miss was his lone scholarship offer, something for which Sam is still incredibly grateful.
“I got to go to school, then come home for Sunday dinner,” Sam said of his time at Ole Miss.
The discipline and purpose he still exhibits to this day are something he attributes to his father, a man who would wake his twin sons up early every morning to run and take care of their animals. The hard work and the routine to which Sam became accustomed led him to the ROTC program at Ole Miss, something he did while also training as a high-level pole vaulter.
If you listen to Sam talk long enough, you’ll hear him say that he is no stud athlete. He comments that he’s still never beat his twin brother in those early morning runs and that his wife Leanne, also a former track and field athlete at Ole Miss, is the real athlete in their marriage. However, he does recognize that what he lacked in athleticism he made up for in determination.
Between ROTC, training for the pole vault, and chasing his future wife, “I was always tired, but it made me hard as a rock,” says Sam.
He also explained his determination and how that led to incredible success.
“Buy into something and seek the knowledge that accompanies it,” Sam tells us. “You’ll become something different, and you’ve gotta be OK with that.”
In Sam’s case, that “‘something different” was becoming a two-time NCAA champion, two-time SEC champion, 2016 Olympic Bronze medalist, and a 2017 and 2019 gold medalist at the World Championships in London and Doha, Qatar.
After winning the 2013 and 2014 NCAA Championships, Sam turned pro in 2014, launching himself into an uber-competitive sport that doesn’t garner public attention like football or baseball.
But that’s how Sam likes it.
He told our audience that outside of Oxford, MS where he’s a hero, he’s only been publicly recognized a handful of times, almost every time coming right after a medal was hung around his neck.
To the average person, Sam is most widely known for a brief moment in time at the 2016 Olympic prelims. While racing towards the pole vault pit, seconds away from a jump that would make-or-break his future with Team USA, the National Anthem rang out in the stadium. Without hesitation, First Lieutenant Sam Kendricks stopped dead in his tracks, dropped his pole, and stood at attention while the anthem played.
It was a moment that went viral and introduced Sam Kendricks to millions of non-track and field fans across the globe.
When I asked about that moment, Sam didn’t hesitate to reply.
“I can’t take credit for that moment. I’m a trained person, I’m a soldier. As soon as I heard the anthem, I couldn’t think of it any other way.”
That’s Sam Kendricks for you.
From small-town Mississippi to world traveller and champion
In his opinion, one of the coolest parts about Sam’s career and profession has been the ability to travel across the globe for competition. Coming from small-town Mississippi, he appreciates and places great importance on hospitality and kindness, something that is a staple of the southern U.S. He recounted trips to places like Poland and Croatia where he says the people are as kind and welcoming as anywhere he’s ever been.
We also learned that he’s not a fan of Paris, France — but that’s a story for a different time.
Recognizing what cool and unique opportunities he was experiencing early in his career, Sam always tried to bring back something from his trips. While he joked that he always tried to bring a medal home, the usual souvenir was something much more mundane: coffee mugs.
They served as a reminder of the people he had met, the incredible places he had visited, and the wonderful and exciting opportunities he had experienced.
“It can open your eyes to the world being a huge place, and you realize people aren’t as different as you think,” Sam replied when asked what he appreciated most about his travels.
Despite the plethora of amazing international experiences, Sam did say he’s always happy to come back to Oxford, a town that he calls his “fortress.” He also joked that he loves being at home because, “People don’t respect a good cheeseburger everywhere.”
That’s just Sam Kendricks for you.
Discipline and Determination
Despite just hearing him speak for a little over an hour, I can tell Sam Kendricks is a man who radiates hard work and perseverance. As stated earlier, he’s never seen himself as the best athlete in the family. Instead, he sees himself as a fighter and a product of years of persistence.
Coming from a family of athletes and soldiers, Sam said his goal is simple: “I try to represent, that’s why I’m so thankful…I do it for myself, but I’m trying to represent and leave something behind.”
Being a military man, but also an individual competitor, is something that has created a duality of sorts within Sam.
He described the military as “a petri dish” that brings together people from all walks of life, and unites them towards a common goal. They all have short hair, dress in green, and exude great pride in their nation. However, he also knows that in order to achieve success and publicity as an athlete, you need to be unique and individualistic, things that are foreign to the average trained soldier.
Two competing ideas wrapped into one man.
However, I’d argue that Sam’s military-style persona is something that sets him apart from the vast majority of competitors. He doesn’t follow the money or the fame; he follows his morals and what he knows is right for him.
In his opinion, “your public image dances on the edge of a knife,” something that Sam tells us can be very difficult for many athletes to manage. He reiterated that you always have to be cognizant of how you present yourself and how you communicate — two things Sam has trained for since the beginning.
Also, two things that Sam does very well.
When we finished our discussion, Sam stood up, shook hands with people around the auditorium, then put on his Browning hat and jacket, while tucking his work gloves into his Wrangler jeans.
He then picked up his gold medal from the 2019 Doha World Championships that he’d brought to show the audience and walked out, looking like he was going to stack hay bales, not train for the Olympics.
But that’s just Sam Kendricks for you.
(Feature image: Sam Kendricks successfully pole vaults to victory in Rio Olympics. Photo courtesy of James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)