Oxford’s Sam Kendricks caps perfect year with Jesse Owens Award
An Olympic medal, a world championship, an undefeated season and named the top athlete of the sport.
Most people would be happy with one, but Sam Kendricks wanted them all.
And got them.
A year that cannot be fathomed by even the man who lived it was capped last week when Kendricks was named the 2017 Jesse Owens Athlete of the Year, earning him the distinction of America’s top male track and field athlete.
He now shares this distinction with some of the sports top athletes, including Carl Lewis who won it in 1982 and 1991 as well as Michael Johnson (1994, 95, 96).
“It’s kind of hard to put this kind of year in a box,” Kendricks said. “So much happened. If I took a note pad 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.’”
The award will be presented on Dec. 2 in Columbus, Ohio during the USATF annual meeting. Kendricks will not be able to attend to receive the award as he has to fulfill his duties as a U.S. Army Reservist that weekend.
The 15 months of domination began back in August of 2016 when a kid from Oxford, Mississippi took home a bronze medal during the Rio Summer Games. It was his first time competing on the Olympic stage.
That momentum carried over into 2017 where Kendricks was unstoppable. He was a perfect 17-0 in competitions all across the world in what could only be viewed as the greatest season for an American pole vaulter.
Success is no stranger to the former Oxford High and Ole Miss standout who took up the sport because he was not fast enough for any of the other track events. Kendricks quickly became one of the nation’s best during his time with the Rebel track team, having an undefeated outdoor season his senior year in 2014.
2017 began with Kendricks claiming another USATF Outdoor Championships with a jump of six meters (19 feet, 8.25 inches). He then won gold and nearly had a perfect International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships when he defeated France’s world record holder — and close friend — Renaud Lavillenie.
“The helping of a wonderful family that just allowed me to just go for it and do what I train to do in such a fashion that it was just good enough,” Kendricks said. “It was not a miraculous margin by which I won a lot of these competitions. It was by very small margin, that I was just barely able to come out on top of the world each and every time I went out.”
Throughout the summer, Kendricks scored wins against international competition at Eugene, Oregon; Shanghai, China; Lausanne, Switzerland; Zurich, Switzerland; Berlin and Paris on his path to claiming the IAAF Diamond League title for pole vaulting.
“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.”
This year will be deemed a success for Kendricks on and off the track as he will be marrying his longtime girlfriend Leanne on Dec. 29.
Tokyo can wait
In 2020 the Summer Olympics return and will be hosted by Tokyo, Japan.
Claiming a bronze in his first time on the Olympic stage created excitement for those following Kendricks back home. With the success he’s had this season, including defeating Lavillenie — who took home silver in Rio — there is expectations for Kendricks to improve on his 2016 result, if not bring home a gold.
There are still three more full outdoor seasons between now and Tokyo and Kendricks is focused on the here and now.
“2020 can wait, man. There’s a lot off good stuff to be had between now and then,” Kendricks said. “I know that I’ll be my strongest when I’m 27 in Tokyo. But, hey, am I going to forfeit the next three years because Tokyo is looming? No.”
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