Sam Kendricks couldn't out-jump the best pole vaulter in the world, but he will bring home a medal from his first Olympics.
The U.S. Army Reserve second lieutenant from Mississippi took bronze Monday night at a height of 5.85 meters (19 feet, 2 1/4 inches) for the first U.S. medal in the event since 2004.
Home favorite Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil took gold in his first Games, stunning world-record holder and defending Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie with an Olympic-record height of 6.03 meters (19 feet, 9 1/2 inches). He is the first Brazilian ever to win a pole vault medal.
The U.S. dominated the pole vault for decades, winning gold in every Olympics from 1896-1968. But after the Americans went 1-2 in the event in Sydney and Athens, they missed the podium altogether in 2008 and 2012.
The 23-year-old Kendricks finished ninth at the 2015 World Championships but has had a stellar 2016. Entering Rio, only Lavillenie had vaulted higher this year than Kendricks' 5.92 meters (19 feet, 5 inches) in Beijing. Kendricks took second behind the Frenchman at the World Indoor Championships earlier this spring but didn't quite have enough to best him or the young Brazilian Monday.
While Lavillenie breezed through, passing on the first two heights and clearing the bar in one attempt at the next four, Kendricks had to work his way up before failing three times to clear 5.93 meters, a centimeter above his personal best. Da Silva then cleared 6.03 in his second attempt and Lavillenie was unable to jump the 6.08 he needed to reclaim gold.
Kendricks is currently stationed in Millington, Tenn., and is planning to take the basic officer leadership course this fall.