LAFAYETTE — The house located on Ducharme Lane appears like any another brick and wooden structure in the affluent neighborhood.
As one steps through the gate underneath the home’s carport, you are greeted by a pair of playful Golden Doodles named Onyx and Pippi. Once inside the fenced-in backyard there is a weathered trampoline, a batting cage and a nice covered patio area where people are sitting and conversing.
For the most part, the scene is typical of a family home except for one large and distinctive difference, there is a regulation pole vaulting area in the backyard. That’s because this home belongs to Greg and Helena Duplantis, the most accomplished pole vaulting family in Acadiana.
“I think it is the same as any family that grows up around baseball,” said Lafayette High freshman pole vaulter Armand “Mondo” Duplantis, who will be competing at the LHSAA Indoor Track & Field State Meet at LSU on Saturday. “The only exception is that it is a different sport.”
The passion for the sport stems from the patriarch of the Duplantis family.
Greg Duplantis moved from New Orleans to Lafayette with his parents during the oil boom of the late 1970s. He attended Lafayette High, where he set a national record in the pole vault before moving on to a stellar career at LSU.
During his LSU career, 1981-86, Duplantis was an All-American and an Southeastern Conference indoor and outdoor champion. He then spent nearly nine years as a professional, clearing a career best 19 feet, ¼ inch, took part in four Olympic trials and was named an alternate for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Greg then transitioned from vaulter to full-time lawyer, and he and his wife, a former heptathlete and volleyball player at LSU, started their family of pole vaulters.
The oldest child Andreas was a star pole vaulter at Lafayette High. He won a state title as a junior, before competing at LSU. During his junior year in 2014, he finished in the Top 10 at the SEC Indoor and Outdoor Championships.
Next was Antoine who pole vaulted at Lafayette High as well, before deciding to focus solely on his baseball, which he will continue next year at LSU. Armand followed four years later and began setting world records at the age of 7 and has become one of the nation’s premier pole vaulters. Even younger sister 12-year-old Johanna is an aspiring pole vaulter.
It was an easy decision for Greg to pass along his passion for the sport to his children.
“I figured if you are a concert pianist there is nothing wrong with teaching your children how to play the piano,” Greg said. “I viewed teaching them pole vaulting the same way. They don’t have to become a professional, but there is nothing wrong with learning how to do something.”
Part of that teaching led the family to start converting their home into a training arena for the sport around 10 years ago.
The first foam pit for the landing was made out of shredded carpet foam and fishing net. The original runway was dirt and then rubber and then boards with rubber topping. Then roughly two years ago, Greg purchased LSU’s former aluminum framed 150-foot pole vaulting runway at a government auction.
Greg estimates that the whole setup over the past decade has cost him around $10,000 but well worth the expense. The setup attracts neighborhood kids, family friends and high school track athletes to come by to practice two to three times a week.
“It is an event that can be complicated and not many people have a great amount of knowledge,” Greg said. “I have been around it for 40 years. In a way it is an obligation to teach people about it and keep this sport safe.”
How did Helena feel about her backyard being converted into a training arena? The former track star fully embraced it. The native of Sweden grew up in a country where track and field was ingrained into the culture at an early age.
“What club can you go to here in Lafayette where you can practice like that?” Helena said. “I’m from Europe, and we start track school at a really young age. It is a very good basic sport to develop children in athletics.”
That backyard setup has been instrumental in Armand’s rise to state and national prominence.
By the age of 13, Armand already held seven age group world records but this year he has been especially sensational. The 15-year old holds the national freshman indoor pole vault record, which he has broken three times in the past month.
He first set the mark with a 16-1 vault at the LSU High School Classic and then broke it the next week with a 16-8 vault at the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nevada. Then last weekend at the 108th NYRR Melrose Games in New York City he defeated a field of mostly seniors with a vault of 16-8¾.
“During the meet, I just think that I am one of them,” Mondo said of competing against older boys. “I don’t really think about age or what grade. On the score sheet, it doesn’t say that I am first or second and a freshman. It just says first or second.”
Despite being an accomplished vaulter himself, and already developing two of his sons, Greg was still impressed how quickly Armand grasped the sport.
“You never know what their talent level is really going to be,” Greg said. “But at an early age and I mean 4 or 5 years old you could tell that he had a special talent for the event. He took to it very quickly and very early. It is difficult for a kid at six or seven years old to run and stick the pole into the box and hang on. That’s not easy.”
Despite having a hectic athletic schedule, Armand still finds time to be a normal teenager.
In between his homework and vault practice, he makes time to play soccer with friends in the neighborhood or video games at his neighbor’s house.
Even as his star continues to rise, the mild-mannered teen remains focused on exceeding his own expectations. Not only does he want to win state championships, he covets taking home Olympic gold and being considered the best pole vaulter in the world.
“I like the pressure, and I think that I will be able to live up to all the expectations that people have of me,” Armand said. “I have high expectations myself. I want to be the best in the world one day. I want to compete in the Olympics, and I want to win.”
“I jumped 19 feet, and he surprises me a lot,” Greg said. “He’s so talented that I don’t know where he is going to go with it.”