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Clayton Simms' memorable streak

KU pole vaulter is 6 for 6 in qualifying for nationals & he's not afraid to talk about making it 8 straight before he's done

7 min read
Kansas junior Clayton Simms soars over the bar at a meet earlier this season. Tonight, Simms will compete for a national championship in Eugene, Oregon. [Kansas Athletics photo]

At his first ever national collegiate meet three years ago in 2021, then-KU freshman pole vaulter Clayton Simms stood on the podium near teammate Zach Bradford at the end of his event and heard a few words that stuck with him.

“Now that you’ve done this once,” Bradford told him, “you’ve got to keep getting back here.”

So far so good.

Later tonight, in Eugene, Oregon, Simms, now a junior, will make his sixth consecutive appearance at nationals — three indoor meets and three outdoor meets. The men’s final in the pole vault is slated to begin around 7 p.m. central time tonight.

While Simms’ goal, of course, is to win the whole thing, he’s not afraid to lean into the streak of six straight and how special that accomplishment already is.

“I definitely saw something in him at a young age,” Bradford told R1S1 Sports during a phone call from Sweden last week. “And I just remember telling him, ‘Dude, you can do this every year.’”

Bradford should know. The former KU standout reached seven consecutive podiums during his four-year KU career before falling short in his eighth and final try by one spot.

Bradford’s ninth-place finish in 2022 left the door open for Simms to be the first to complete the streak. But there’s something else the junior from Watson, Louisiana is still gunning for, as well.

“He’d tell me all the time, ‘I’m gonna get your school record,’” Bradford recalled of his indoor record (5.81 meters), outdoor record (5.77) and Rock Chalk Park and Anschutz Pavilion facility records (5.77 and 5.58).

Simms hasn’t knocked Bradford out of the top spot just yet. But as the now-professional-pole-vaulter said from Sweden, “He’s still got some time.”

Time is something that has played a key role throughout Simms’ career. Never more so than this season.

While he’s won his share of meets and steadily improved his bars, he’s always been at his best at the exact right time. You don’t get to six straight national meets without being some type of gamer.

And while Simms will be the first to tell you that most of his outdoor season in 2024 fell way short of what he hoped and expected, he’d also be happy to tell you that none of that matters now. All that mattered at all, in fact, was him hitting the mark he needed to hit at May’s regional meet so he could travel to Oregon this week.

“Nothing matters now until I step on the runway,” Simms told R1S1 Sports. “In fact, it kind of gives me more confidence that I went through a season like that and I’m still here. I’m still out here swinging.”

Simms came to KU in part because of the nudging of his Louisiana club coach, Joe Sarra. After hearing that he had conducted a recruiting call with KU jumps coach Tom Hays, Sarra, who now coaches at Texas A&M, made sure that Simms understand where Hays stood in the sport.

“That’s the guy,” Sarra told him. “His athletes are always in the mix.”

Simms said he and his teammates have talked about what it is about Hays that makes him — and them — so good. They settled on his unique relationship building with each of his athletes, how he puts ideas in your head early about what you need to do or how it needs to happen and how he helps you prioritize the progression of improvement that each of his athletes needs to take.

“He somehow has a way of getting people in the right head space and physically ready to perform,” Simms said.

Added Bradford: “The atmosphere that we’ve built at KU with the pole vault squad, everything is competitive.

It’s not just good coaching or natural talent that has helped Simms come this far, though.

“It’s not just me, at all,” Simms said. “I have one of the best coaches in the world, in my opinion, and an amazing support system around me, with my teammates, my family, my mom and my dad. A lot of athletes don’t have that, and it’s such a big thing for me.”

Although Simms still considers himself to be young in the sport, Simms likes to think that he’s seen and been through it all as a pole vaulter.

There have been times during his KU career when he entered a meet off of the best practice of his life and hopped on the plane feeling invincible. And there have been other times when he was down in the dumps and felt like he didn’t belong at the meet he was traveling to at all.

“Trust me; I felt a little bit throughout this season,” he said. “But, at this point in the season, I know where I stand and believe this is where I should be.”

His showing at the regional meet in Fayetteville, Arkansas did a lot to bring back that mindset. He knew he had the top personal best of anyone at the meet. And his past successes at the money stages, have not left his mind.

So instead of letting a tough season bring him down, he flushed it and went to Arkansas with the belief that he was the man to beat.

“I operate best with a positive, reaffirming mindset,” Simms said. “I perform at my best when I go into a meet thinking that I’m the best guy here.”

More often than not, he has made good on that thought, especially at the meets that matter most.

“Being able to get there every opportunity I’ve gotten and being able to perform when it matters on the day, that’s one of the things I take the most pride in, that I’m able to show up when it matters,” he said.

As a freshman standing next to Bradford on the podium, he took 8th at indoor nationals. This, after qualifying with the 14th best mark at the 16-man event.

“I got in by the skin of my teeth and barely made it onto the podium,” he remembers. “But that was the goal. I was so excited about that.”

Later that season, he took 7th at outdoor nationals and followed that up with two 5th-place showings at indoor and outdoor nationals as a sophomore.

Earlier this year, in March in Boston, he took 6th place at his third straight indoor nationals appearance.

“It wasn’t my best day,” he said. “But I was still up there on the podium and I’m trying to be in that mix every single time.”

Truth be told, he’s trying to do more than that. And he believes he can.

KU pole vaulter Clayton Simms warms up at outdoor nationals in Eugene, Oregon ahead of his Wednesday night showing in his signature event. [@NCAATrackField photo]

That confidence, which comes largely for the work he puts in and the passion he carries with him, dates back to his visit to Baylor during his senior year of high school.

Former BU pole vaulter KC Lightfoot, who owns the American record (6.07 meters) and took fourth at the last Olympics, showed Simms around during his time in Waco, Texas.

When they were at Lightfoot’s apartment, Simms got a glimpse of one of Lightfoot’s plaques for making it onto the podium at nationals.

“I saw it and I was like, ‘I really want one of those,’” Simms recalled.

He has five now and he’s going for six tonight.

But the goal this time, perhaps more than ever before, is to win it.

“Now, I’m competing for that No. 1 spot every time I go out there,” Simms said. “Every time we go to meets, it’s to try to win.”

As we look to Simms’ future, which includes a lot of smaller meets and another full year of pole vaulting as a Jayhawk, there’s also another big goal hanging out there.

Because of his confidence and the wisdom he has gained throughout his first three years in the program, Simms does not believe it’s too early to start talking about it, nor does he mind.

After all, part of the reason he wanted to go 6 for 6 in qualifying for nationals during his first three years was so he could make it 8 for 8 by the time his career is finished.

“I’m OK with saying that out loud,” he said. “But I have to believe that myself for it to matter. And I do. That’s why I’m OK with putting that out there, because I actually believe it.”

R1S1 features on 5 of the Jayhawks at Outdoor Nationals:

• 'I've had the record in my sights'

• KU's Yoveinny Mota off to nationals as record holder & future Olympian

• Devin Loudermilk's jam-packed path from hooper to high jumper

• 'It's kind of what you dream of'

• Clayton Simms' memorable streak

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