June 4, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn The Good Word
Nikita Kirillov deserves special credit on several fronts, and patience ranks high on the list of assets for which he ought to be applauded.
Take one interviewer with little idea about the specifics of pole vaulting, at which Kirillov is approaching master status, and have the interrogator ask questions and the result might not have been considered pretty.
This Georgia Tech junior is more than capable of dialing back, however, and he rolled through a Wednesday interview splitting the roles of student-athlete and educator as if he were a pro both ways.
Kirillov is super smooth, and maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. He has experience in backing off.
After setting the Tech record with a vault of 5.54 meters (18 feet, two inches) as a freshman in 2012, he had his sophomore season pretty much wiped out first by a stress fracture in his back and then a balky hamstring.
There are plenty of hazards attached to pole vaulting, primary reasons why he typically vaults just two days per week. Vaulters endure plenty of torque upon sprinting down a runway and then jamming a pole into a pit to turn that pole into a lever that vaults its user toward the sky.
Yet Kirillov is back, and preparing to leave Sunday for the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., where he will compete Wednesday for a national title. He finished third last week in the NCAA East regional in Jacksonville with a top vault of 5.32 meters (17 feet, 5.5 inches).
“It’s a little complicated; you have to have a really good takeoff, and have it in the correct spot. You do that [wrong] enough times, and your back takes the brunt of it,” Kirillov said of pole vaulting and some of the complications that can result.
“I’m so used to any kind of back pain – it’s the nature of the sport. You can’t hit your mark 100 percent of the time. Back pain comes and goes, but it was getting worse and worse and worse last February and March so I got an MRI, and they shut me down.”
Pole vaulting is a sport of nuances to say the least.
There are different poles to be used, different speeds applied to approaches and more.
Good thing Kirillov has had such a good coach.
His father, Viktor Kirillov, is Tech’s pole vaulting and throws coach, and he’s been mentoring his son since the summer after Nikita finished sixth grade.
While Nikita was out last spring, the elder Kirillov coached Aaron Unterberger to the Indoor All-ACC third team and a Tech indoor record vault of 17-10 ¼.
While it was at one time Nikita’s goal to be a basketball player like his older brother Alex, who played collegiately at Oglethorpe, that kind of jumping just did not work out. So, he turned to Dad.
Born in Bishek, Kyrgystan, to parents who were Olympic-caliber athletes for the former Soviet Union, Nikita has traced the paths of both his father, an acclaimed pole vaulter, and his mother, Olga.
“When I first started doing sports, I swam because my mother was a swimmer. I never really had the passion for it,” he said. “I tried to follow in my brother’s footsteps; I really wanted to be good at basketball. I was a terrible basketball player. Then, my dad introduced me to vaulting and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Kirillov, who turns 21 today, has been long coached by his father on the side and at St. Pius X Catholic High School in DeKalb County. Also, his mother prescribes his diet as the Kirillovs take a team approach to pole vaulting.
Dad knows best, yet occasionally that drives Nikita nuts.
“There are times when we kind of get at it, I admit, and it’s difficult having your dad as your coach. But I firmly believe he is the best coach in America,” said the business major. “Sometimes emotions get the better of me. But at the end of the day, I end up listening to what he says.”
There are plenty of nuances in vaulting as well. To vaulters, it can feel like a different sport indoors than out, and there are plenty of tactical changes from one vault to the next.
“The biggest difference is wind. Surprisingly, wind affects vaulters so much. If you have a wind in your face, you can be like, `Man, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it.’ If you have a tailwind, that helps your confidence.
“I have around 10-12 poles that I take to meets. Every pole has different flex. The lower the flex number, the stiffer it is. When you’re going for bigger heights, you want a stronger pole [and need more approach speed]. It depends on how you feel.”
Speaking of which, pole vaulting is not something to be practiced every day. The sport places too much stress on the body.
“Vaulting is impossible to do every day. If you try . . . you’re going to get injured. We do a lot of sprint work, and since vaulting takes such a huge toll on your body, we do a lot of gymnastics. I’ll vault two days a week whether we have a meet or not.
“If I’m having a good day, it will be about two hours. If I’m not having a good day, I’ll go until I get it right.”
Kirillov wants to get it right all the way to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He went to the Olympic Trials in 2012, but was one of 13 vaulters to, “no height,” or fail in three tries to clear the opening height (17-4).
“It was raining sideways [at the ’12 Trials],” Nikita said. “Going to the Olympics is the goal. It’s been my goal since I began vaulting.”
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