Chris Nilsen had his future pretty well mapped out. After graduating from the University of South Dakota with his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and sports management, the pole vaulter would put the finishing touches on his highly decorated college career and turn professional with the goal of earning a spot with Team USA ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
But as they say, even the best laid plans can go awry.
Monday afternoon, USA TODAY reported that the 2020 Olympic Games will be postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic. While nothing has been made official, the announcement appears imminent.
For Nilsen, who spoke with coach Derek Miles on Monday about the possibility of the Olympics being postponed, the news has forced him to rapidly shift his focus.
“(Turning pro) was kind of my plan for financial stability, besides having a bachelor’s degree,” Nilsen said. “The plan is to finish up my degree in May and find some type of way to live, make money and be a normal person. When things start settling down and athletes can start being athletes again, then we can come back to it. For now, we’re in a stalemate.”
The Olympic Games are the latest major track and field event to be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.
Eleven days ago, Nilsen was on the pole vault runway in Albuquerque preparing to do some warm-ups ahead of the NCAA Indoor Championships when he learned the event had been canceled.
A day later, the Summit League announced it had canceled all spring sports, an abrupt conclusion to a senior campaign that had already seen Nilsen break the NCAA indoor record with a clearance of 19 feet, 5.5 inches at the Nebraska Tune-Up in February as he prepared to compete for a third straight NCAA outdoor championship later this year.
“I kind of got jacked out of an outdoor season and the indoor championships, but that’s how life goes. It just happens sometimes,” Nilsen said, adding that safety is the highest priority. “I was upset, of course, as any senior athlete would be, but it’s not like I was crying over it.”
While the NCAA may grant D-I spring athletes an additional year of eligibility, Nilsen said he is unlikely to continue his collegiate career, reiterating that, for the time being, his focus is solely on earning his degree.
“The only reason I would (accept) would be to get some help with my master’s degree,” he explained. “Fifth years are a tricky thing because of scholarships and they’re still working out the kinks. I’ll just end up exploring my options and looking at what comes next.”
Looking down the road, Nilsen — who would like to apply his degree in the realm of sports, ideally as a coach — said it’s a matter of figuring out how to move forward and finding opportunities to compete. For the time being, he will continue practicing on his own (coaches are considered non-essential personnel and currently not allowed to work with athletes), doing what he can to stay healthy and in shape.
Once competition is allowed to resume, he will dive into his professional pole vaulting career and resume his pursuit of a spot with the U.S. Olympic team.
“It’s kind of all up in the air right now,” Nilsen said. “Everything kind of got shoved in our face very fast and very quickly, so a lot of people’s plans got either sped up or slowed down. I’m not sure which way mine went, so we’re just taking it day by day and seeing what we can do with it.”
Nilsen finalist for National Men’s Field Athlete of the Year
There was a bit of good news for Nilsen late last week. The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association announced Friday that he is a finalist forNational Men’s Field Athlete of the Year for the 2020 NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field season.
Kansas’ Gleb Dudarev and Tennessee’s Carey McLeod are the other finalists for the award. A second and final round of voting by member coaches began Monday morning.
Nilsen, along with four other Coyote seniors, had qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships on March 13, but the event and the entire outdoor season were canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen.