By T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
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FORT LEE, Va. – With the vibrant atmosphere of last summer’s XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro now a distant memory, Sam Kendricks, the bronze medal-winning athlete, can now settle into the role of Sam Kendricks, Army second lieutenant.
The Mississippi-born-and-bred Soldier traded his athletic workwear for the camouflage duty uniform Oct. 3 when he began the 16-week Transportation Basic Officer Leader Course at the Army Logistics University. The reservist said the transition from athletic endeavor to military training environment has been minimal because the levels of focus needed to be successful are similar.
“Wherever I go around the world, I’m always wearing the uniform under the skin and having to represent because you never stop being a professional athlete as you would never stop being an officer,” he said. “It really allowed me step back into a role I was rather familiar with.”
Kendricks, aside from placing third in the pole vault, earned even greater acclaim when – true to “wearing the uniform under the skin” – he halted his sprint during qualifications to stand at the position of attention while the U.S. national anthem was playing for another athlete. His act of honor was featured on media outlets around the world and eventually got the attention of the commander in chief.
“Thank you, Sam,” said President Barack Obama, recalling the moment at a White House event honoring USA Olympic and Paralympic teams Sept. 29.
The 24-year-old Kendricks’ character and athletic excellence has its roots in an Oxford, Miss., family headed by a Marine veteran and high school track and field coach. Scott Kendricks said he and his wife, Marni, reared their son and his siblings on bedrock values.
“I tried to instill some discipline in him and his brother,” said the elder Kendricks of Sam and his fraternal twin, Tom, an engineer. “We used to get up together in the mornings and run, and we did a lot of pushups and sit-ups.”
The environment in which the Kendricks children were reared demanded discipline. The family raised horses and other animals that required constant attention. The work also was humbling. Sam and his brother had plenty of chances to exercise their olfactory system as well as their biceps “scooping” manure on a daily basis.
“We wanted them to have a work ethic, and we wanted them grounded,” said Scott, who headed the Oxford HS track and field team at that time.
The Kendricks way of child-rearing would pay off for Sam. Considered only a mediocre pole-vaulter in the beginning – “He was probably the worst pole vaulter prospect I ever coached,” said his father – Sam surged ahead on his path toward improvement.
“Eventually, because of that work ethic, he got better and pretty soon he was the guy who was doing the winning, but he had to earn it,” said Scott. “That’s one reason he is grounded and humble.”
Sam went on to become the state high school outdoor pole vault champion in 2010 and 2011, his junior and senior year, respectively. The younger Kendricks’ promise was such the elder Kendricks quit his job as Oxford’s coach, and at considerable risk, took a volunteer position with the University of Mississippi to coach his son and the other vaulters.
The move paid dividends immediately. During his sophomore year at Ole Miss, Sam made his biggest leap in ability, vaulting more than 19 feet, ¾ inches.
“It was a personal best by almost eight inches,” Sam recalled of the event at the 2013 Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays. He went on to win an NCAA national championship that year.
The achievement underscored what could be accomplished by a once sub-par athlete and a volunteer coach with no pole-vault coaching experience whose pairing was subject to father-coaching-son pitfalls. There was plenty of upside as well, said Sam.
“It kind of opened our eyes to say, ‘OK, we’re doing the right thing,’” said Sam. “If we keep honing that axe, making it sharper and tightening all the lose bolts of what makes me a great jumper and what we do that works, then we can go to great heights.”
Sam later propelled himself to the amateur athletic stratosphere, earning the 2013 and 2014 NCAA outdoor titles among other accolades. Feeling the need for greater competition, Kendricks decided to leave the Ole Miss track and field program in 2014 to turn pro (he continued on as an ROTC student and engineering major, graduating in 2015). The elder Kendricks continued to coach him.
“I wanted to make a living in the sport,” he said.
That meant building notoriety. The Olympics would help. He finished first at the Olympic trials and aimed his pole toward Rio. His father and girlfriend came along. It was surreal, said Sam, pointing out winning the medal and standing atop the podium with millions watching was not the proverbial cherry-on-the-top moment for him.
“There was an internal victory and gratitude long before I stepped on the runway to compete,” he said. “I wondered, ‘If I won a medal, what would I do?’ I decided I was going to feel that way now. I’m going to really internalize what it means to be a winner and a loser and understand that neither of those matter. It is my ability to compete. That’s most important, and I’m going to enjoy that.
“The time on the podium was for everyone else.”
Sam’s ability to capture perspective might serve him well as a BOLC student. He has given deep thought to what it means to be a leader and how his stature as a championship athlete might influence others.
“I think I can help Soldiers by helping to convey that short-term goals equate to long-term goals by emphasizing discipline and detail,” he said. “My mission as an athlete is to jump high, but my goal is to compete well. To do both, I must do the small things. I must get a little faster, get a little stronger and learn a little bit more. If I can do all those things every day, I can accomplish the mission.”
Kendricks is assigned to the 655th Trans. Company, 373rd Quartermaster Battalion, 38th Regional Support Group based in Millington, Tenn. He said the unit was more than supportive during his Olympic quest. Kendricks has his sights on the 2017 world championships in London.