Pole vault friends, rivals set to square off

By: Bob Holt
Published: Sunday, February 21, 2021

FAYETTEVILLE — Nine years after pole vaulters Andrew Irwin and Sam Kendricks first competed against each other at the 2012 SEC Indoor Championships in Lexington, Ky., they’ll be back at it today at the final of four American Track League meets held at the University of Arkansas’ Randal Tyson Track Center.

Irwin came to the UA from Mount Ida, where he still lives and trains nearby at the Arkansas Vault Club in Black Springs and at Lake Hamilton High School, where his coach, Morry Sanders, still coaches.

Kendricks, from Oxford, Miss., stayed home to vault for Ole Miss. He still lives and trains in Oxford.

“We’re just two country boys from the South,” Kendricks said of himself and Irwin.

Kendricks could have added he and Irwin, both 28, also are two of America’s top vaulters.

Kendricks has won a combined nine U.S. championships indoors and outdoors and was the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist. He became the American record-holder outdoors by clearing 19 feet, 10 1/2 inches in 2019.

Irwin, who like Kendricks won two NCAA titles, won his first U.S. title indoors in 2019.

“We’ve always had a good time being able to compete with one another,” Irwin said. “Because we were around each other in college so much, both being in the SEC and going to the same meets all the time, we became great friends.

“That’s continued on through our professional careers.”

Irwin won the SEC title at the 2012 Indoor Championships with Kendricks taking sixth. At the SEC Outdoors that year, Irwin won with Kendricks second.

“Andrew was the standard by which everybody was judged when I became a collegiate athlete,” Kendricks said. “I call him ‘Big Pig.’

“Arkansas wouldn’t give me the time of day [in recruiting] because they had Andrew. That was no fault of theirs. They had a great prize from Mount Ida, Ark., when they got Andrew.

“For years we chased Andrew all over the country trying to find him on a bad day, and most of the time we couldn’t.”

While Kendricks has competed in several meets in Europe this indoor season, today will be the first meet for Irwin since the 2020 U.S. Indoor Championships at Albuquerque, N.M., where he cleared 19-0 1/4 to finish fourth.

“To be honest, it’s been hard to find a meet anywhere locally for sure,” Irwin said. “A lot of the colleges aren’t letting outside competitors in [because of covid-19 safety protocols], so that kind of cuts a lot of the meets that we can get into in the States.”

This is the first American Track League meet in Fayetteville to have a men’s pole vault competition, so Irwin finally was able to find a meet near his home, where along with training he works at a restaurant owned by his family, the Mount Ida Cafe.

“I get there at 5:30 in the morning and work until about 1 p.m. through the lunch rush,” Irwin said. “Then I go change clothes and get ready for practice.”

The restaurant is closed on Sundays, so Irwin won’t be missing any work there by competing at today’s meet.

“We’re good,” Irwin said of his conditioning. “We’re definitely going to wing it a little bit. I haven’t had quite as many long run practices as I probably should have coming into this, but we’ll be fine. I’m super stoked about [the meet].”

The Randal Tyson Center underwent a renovation prior to this indoor season.

“I really want to check out the new facility,” Irwin said. “I’m also looking forward to seeing some guys I haven’t seen in a long time. That’ll be great.”

Kendricks, who in head-to-head competition is 16-6 against Irwin, said it will be especially good to see his old SEC rival.

“Since we made the World Championship team together in 2017, we’ve been even better friends,” Kendricks said.

“I’m hoping to have a good meet,” Irwin said. “Have a little fun and jump high.”

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