#STINGDAILY: Accelerating Up

June 19, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn Sting Daily

To most, the world of pole vaulting is foreign. Nikita Kirillov brings it home – in Russian.

Fresh off his freshman year at Georgia Tech, he last week set the school record with a vault of 18 feet, 2 inches while winning the U.S. Junior Meet. That was a meet record as well.

Kirillov is far from finished for the summer. He not only earned a spot in the next month’s World Junior Championship meet in Barcelona, Spain, but next week will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.

His is a family affair, and his family has come from half way around the world.

Kirillov’s coach is, and has always been, his father. Viktor Kirillov, a native of Ukraine, is Tech’s pole vault/throws coach, and before working on The Flats he tutored his son in high school at St. Pius X in Atlanta.

That’s not all. Olga Kirillov is the pole vaulting coach at St. Pius now, and serves as her son’s nutritionist. She throws a vaulting opinion in there now and then as well.

Although he speaks perfectly fluent English, and prefers the language even when speaking with his older brother, Nikita does pole vaulting 100 percent in Russian.

“Whenever I jump, I think in Russian, all the words, phrases,” Nikita said. “Whenever people start talking pole vaulting I actually don’t understand half the time what they’re saying because I was taught in Russian. I can put it together, but I think pole vaulting in Russian.”

Viktor was a high-level pole vaulter for what was then the U.S.S.R. before a serious accident left him with an elbow problem. Olga was a high-level swimmer in the U.S.S.R, although she gave birth to Nikita in Bishek, Kyrgystan, south of Russian. Mother and sons joined Viktor in Atlanta when Nikita was 6.

Pole vaulting wasn’t always in Nikita’s future.

Older brother Alex was quite the basketball player at Oglethorpe University, where he is now finishing work on his Master’s degree. He was Nikita’s role model.

“My dad got me into it. I really didn’t want to do it. It took over a year. To be honest, I hated it,” Kirillov said. “My brother played basketball, and I wanted to play. Alex. I always wanted to be like him when I was growing up, but . . . I sucked at basketball. I’ll be honest. Eventually, I realized I could be good at the pole vault.”

Once he got his feet under him, and then over his head, it was quickly clear that Viktor’s son was a prodigy. In his first meet, where the goal was to clear seven feet or so, Nikita went nine. So, in the eighth grade after a little more than a year of instruction, the youngest Kirillov said, “I realized I could be good at the pole vault.”

With four straight high school region championships, a state championship, the state record (set last spring in a meet held at Tech), Kirillov doesn’t sneak up on anybody. Last week’s vault was one of the four best junior marks in the world this year.

Yet the sport still sneaks up occasionally on him. That’s one of the attractions.

“There are aspects of technique that I still don’t understand,” he said. “The whole vault is an acceleration until you let go of the pole. Every step should be faster than the last one. The whole vault should also be an acceleration until you let go of the pole.

“It’s very explosive. We need to do a lot of gymnastics . . . and we need to know the feeling of being upside down, and the feeling of how the pole shoots us up.”

Try practicing that in your back yard. No, scratch that. It’d be dangerous.

Actually, Kirillov and Tech’s other vaulters (Aaron Unterberger, Samantha Becker and Erica Penk) had a back yard-style device that helped them mimic certain aspects of their sport.

The “Russian Death Trap,” is gone, at least for now, because of construction on the Ken Byers Tennis Complex adjacent to the Tech track.

“We had a little contraption over there . . . ever since high school, when my dad built one over there, we called it the Russian Death Trap,” Kirillov said. “It looked like a giant swing set. It was 18 feet tall. There was a rope we could climb, or climb upside down.

“The rings are usually the main thing we use. We would put a wall up at 20 feet, and swing back and forth and then we’d actually jump [feet-first up and] over it. We had to take that down. It needs to be re-assembled, and hopefully we’ll find an area.”

Here’s a hunch that’ll probably happen. Here’s another: you’re going to keep hearing and reading about Nikita Kirillov.

“After the trials, I know I’m going to junior worlds team even if I make the Olympic team because the Olympics are not until August,” he said. “The Olympics, though, would be like a dream come true for me. That’s been a goal of mine since even before I started vaulting.”

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