Head down to Lafayette, La. Make your way toward Ducharme Lane. Please, obey the 25 mph speed limit. About halfway down the tree-lined street is a backyard unlike any other.
Greg and Helena Duplantis had a baby boy, and began filling their oversized lot with a swing, slide and monkey bars. They would add a trampoline, skateboard ramp, batting cage, rope — dangling from a tree branch 20 feet overhead — and three more children.
“My wife and I are really just jocks, and she’s not concerned with aesthetics at the house,” Greg said. “Early on, the boys liked doing stuff outside, like the way I grew up. I wanted to create this environment for them to do fun, healthy stuff outside.”
Andreas, Antoine and Armand (known to awestruck international track and field audiences as Mondo) were unacquainted with boredom, competing at whatever was most appealing that moment. What was so normal to them was so exotic — and dangerous — to others.
“It was one part playground to do whatever you want to do, but also a nightmarish liability of kids getting hurt and trying to hang with us,” said Andreas, 28. “We had kids double bounce off the trampoline and break their arm. We made an obstacle course and had wrought iron gates and someone cut their leg. Kids dropped like flies left and right, but they’d keep coming back because the environment was so fun.”
The pole vault pit was the pièce de résistance.
“It was always a fun party trick and some would try it, if they were brave,” said Antoine, 24, a Brooklyn Cyclones outfielder in his first full season in the Mets farm system. “Most of the time you’d have to explain what it is. They just knew we did something different. They’d ask, ‘What’s that thing y’all do with the jumping stick?’ It is cool to have that unique thing about yourself. You have that mystery about you: ‘What is that weird thing that family does?’”
The landing pit remains a magnet for water. Overgrown bushes encroach upon the track. The brick wall straddling the property line threatens to break any bone it meets.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, it was the only place the world’s best pole vaulter could practice his craft. Instead of training for Olympic gold overseas, Mondo would grab one of the backyard’s aging poles, run through a hole in the front gate and fly past bedroom windows, imagining he was in Tokyo.
“It was essential. He had no other place to pole vault,” Greg said. “It was like having a bomb shelter: You don’t think you’re gonna use it and then you have to have it.”
It was essential. Mondo, 21, plans to be the greatest of all time, to use this summer’s Olympics to bend his legacy — and the status of his dramatic but TV-sidelined event — to new heights.
Antoine — taken in the 12th round of the 2019 MLB Draft — is just trying to buy time in the bushes, trying to extend his dream, trying to string together enough good at-bats to avoid another line of work.
Greg grew up in New Orleans. His bloodline traces back to France.
“I’m not a Cajun proper,” Greg said, “although you can refer to me as a Cajun.”
Lars-Ake Hedlund was a Swedish track standout whose daughter, Helena, earned a track and field scholarship to LSU. She knew nothing of Louisiana besides the draw of its warm climate.
“Some people say it’s so different down in the South, but I didn’t know the difference,” Helena said. “It was the first place I’d ever been to in the United States, so to me, that was the United States. Isn’t it like this everywhere?”
Helena, who also starred in volleyball, was in Baton Rouge for a year when she met Greg, an All-American pole vaulter at LSU. They married in August 1987. She would represent Sweden in the heptathlon in international meets. Greg became a U.S. Olympic team alternate in 1996 and later an attorney in Lafayette.
“They’re pretty different, but they represent where they come from really well,” Mondo said. “Where my mom comes from, you can’t have that big of a personality or be cocky or think you’re better than anyone else. My dad grew up in New Orleans. It’s a little bit different.”
Andreas had first dibs on the backyard. He was a two-sport star who played baseball in the Little League World Series, represented Sweden in the pole vault at junior world championships and later competed in the sport at LSU.
“I was kind of the guinea pig,” said Andreas, who now works in fashion. “We never wanted to be one of those families that made someone pick a lane at 10 years old. I wanted to see how far I could go in each thing before it upset the other one.”
Next came Antoine. Then, Mondo. Later, Johanna, an incoming LSU freshman and three-time state champion in the pole vault.
The bar was always high. Greg placed it there while holding backyard track meets for his kids.
“It would get heated,” Andreas said. “The more we saw how bad the other one wanted to win, the more we wanted to make them lose, whether we were pole vaulting or [playing] baseball or football or doing backflips on the trampoline. When you’re developing that will to win, it’s a good thing to have it young. They were coming at my throat constantly.”
The three brothers remain best friends, linked and differentiated by their DNA. Mondo is like their father. Antoine is like mom. Andreas is a Cajun-Swede blend.
“We have a lot of the same interests, but different personalities,” Antoine said. “Mondo’s a little more fiery, more outgoing. I’m pretty isolated, kind of a loner. My older brother’s a bit of a mix. It works out in a good way that we all keep each other in check.”
Mondo set his first world record at age 7 (3.86m) and captured every age-group record through 12 years old. He took a one-year, baseball-fueled sabbatical to be like his older brothers — “Mondo didn’t care about anything other than getting to Williamsport,” Greg said — then resumed his historic journey.
His first jumps came inside the home, clutching a broken broom stick to soar over the ottoman onto the living room couch.
“The broom had no trouble holding me up back then with how light I was,” Mondo said. “That’s a pretty big advantage to this journey that I’ve been able to have, is that I was able to start at such a young age because my father built a setup and I was able to build a technique from 3 years up to now. Without the backyard, I’m not whatever I am today.
“I knew that none of my classmates were pole vaulting. I knew I had a special situation. When I was younger, pole vaulting was all that I knew. It was mainstream. It was so accessible to me and I was able to do it so much and so often. I’ve been surrounded by it since I was a little kid, like someone playing basketball.”
His father has always been his coach, the architect of the backyard and the dream. His mother serves as his trainer and dietitian.
“My mom really got into being a trainer and wanted to help out with that side of things so we could just keep it all within the family,” Antoine said.
The backyard setup has undergone several renovations. It started with carpet foam in a trawling net for a landing area — it’s now a regulation pit — and a dirt runway, which was eventually replaced by a conveyor belt and then by plywood.
Because placing the bar at record height would catapult Mondo into his neighbor’s yard, he now uses the site to work on his technique — or create viral videos by vaulting from a hoverboard.
“Pole vaulters are just naturally daredevils, risk-taker guys,” Greg said. “Andreas was like that and Mondo’s really like that. I have to hold him back from doing stupid stuff. … But you have to have that mindset. It’s this crazy kind of rush and adrenaline: You get flung up in the air with this stick and when it bends it adds a new dimension of craziness to it. He never really needed a lot of guidance other than me being out there to make sure he didn’t kill himself.”
Antoine came out of left field. His first love was America’s pastime.
“I was the unique case in our family,” Antoine said. “My older brother and younger brother had a hard time choosing to leave baseball. I didn’t have a tough time leaving pole vaulting. Maybe because my younger brother was almost as good as me.”
Unlike his brothers — Mondo spent one year pole-vaulting at LSU before turning pro — Antoine didn’t expect to follow his family’s footsteps. The Tigers had minimal interest in the light-hitting outfielder.
“In baseball, it’s hard to know who is gonna turn out and who isn’t,” Antoine said. “I was a late bloomer. I think I was the last guy they committed to that class. I don’t blame them for not offering earlier. LSU’s a pretty prestigious program, and I wasn’t ready.
“Mondo was the best in the country. He could go anywhere he wanted. I understood I might not be good enough. I was open to going to another place, but I ended up living out my dream.”
When Antoine left LSU, he had collected more hits than any player in the history of a program that dates back to the 19th century and owns six national championships. He never hit below .316 in any of his four seasons. He was named to the 2017 College World Series All-Tournament team, played on the U.S. national collegiate team and was taken by the Indians in the 19th round of the 2018 MLB Draft. The outfielder then returned for one more season in Baton Rouge, hitting 12 homers as a senior after totaling six home runs in his first three years.
Antoine hit a combined .324 in four seasons in the SEC, the country’s best conference. Jeff McNeil, who hit .296 at Long Beach State, was also a 12th round pick of the Mets.
“I look at that as inspiration and something to keep you going, to look at those kinds of players and say to yourself that I can be that guy,” Antoine said. “What’s holding me back from being a player like that? He made it with the same route I took. Jeff McNeil and other guys that made it that aren’t high draft picks or don’t have that much power or don’t have those big tools that are really sought after, I look at that as sort of an inspiration, but I’m also my own type of player. I gotta figure out what’s gonna make me the best player I can be.”
The area scout who watched Antoine develop at LSU believes the outfielder’s potential lies in his consistency, compact swing, plate approach and “outstanding defensive instincts.”
“Everybody felt pretty good about what we were getting,” said Jet Butler, who was named the Mets’ scout of the year in 2019. “Everybody was on the same page. The hit tool is gonna be there. The defense is gonna be there. The upside is there. He can certainly be a player that brings value at the highest levels of our organization.
“The ball is in his court. He’s gonna have every opportunity.”
Winter in Louisiana is pleasant. Summer in Sweden is perfect.
Mondo splits his time accordingly between both sides of the Atlantic, living in the Swedish town of Uppsala when he competes on the pro circuit in Western Europe.
The Duplantis children have spent a significant amount of time in their mother’s homeland since they were young, leading Andreas to compete for Team Sweden. At age 15, Mondo made the same decision, sparking some backlash back home.
“There were certainly people who weren’t happy about it and said, ‘How could he with everything the United States has done for him?’” Helena said. “It was his decision, and I was confident he would be happy with the decision. It’s such a small country. It just feels like a big track community. It’s a big family.”
Unlike the U.S. — which requires athletes to qualify through potentially heartbreaking Olympic Trials — Mondo’s spot on Team Sweden is guaranteed. Unlike in America, Sweden allowed Mondo to become a massive star in a marquee European sport.
“For the layman track and field person that jumps on every four years and sees someone that’s lived in the United States their whole life and then they’re representing a different country, they probably frown a little bit upon that,” said LSU track and field coach Dennis Shaver, “but everyone educated about it knows the financial opportunities representing a country like Sweden is significantly higher.
“It’s a no-brainer. Their stadiums are packed. It’s like American college football. You go to Brussels and there’s 60,000 people in the stands for the track meet. You go to Zurich — I’m talking about just regular events in the summer, not necessarily an Olympic Games or world championships — same thing. There’s always people outside the hotel who spend the whole day and half the night looking for autographs as an athlete walks out. They’re just as familiar with the track and field events like fans here are with football. They truly understand what it means to jump 8.50 meters in the long jump, to pole vault so high, what it means to throw the disc or the javelin X number of meters.”
In Louisiana, Antoine remains far more famous than his younger brother. In Sweden, Mondo is a celebrity, stopped for pictures and autographs. The youngest son has endorsement deals with Puma, Red Bull, Omega, a Swedish sports betting outfit and an electric car company.
“It helps him that he lives this dual reality. He goes to Sweden and he’s this god, and then he comes back to the United States and mostly people don’t know him,” Greg said. “All over Europe, he’s this superstar. Then he lands at Atlanta airport and nobody knows who the heck he is. That’s kind of grounding.”
When the world was under lockdown, Mondo’s face became even more recognizable.
While Antoine had his minor league season cancelled and was unable to face live pitching, Mondo continued performing in an event perfectly suited for social distancing. He became — and remains — the world’s top-ranked pole vaulter in February 2020 after breaking the world record with an indoor jump of 6.18 meters (20 feet, 3 ¼ inches). That September, he seized the all-time outdoor mark that had been held by Sergey Bubka for 26 years by leaping 6.15 meters.
“It’s hard to comprehend. It felt like he broke it so easily, but that was the world record,” Helena said. “Because I’ve been part of it for so long, it’s kind of like when you see your kids grow up and you don’t realize how old and how tall they’re getting. It just felt like inch by inch, and all of a sudden, world record heights.”
Mondo — who won each of the 16 meets he competed in during the 2020 season — was named the male world track and field athlete of the year at the World Athletics Awards, the youngest person to win an award that has been given out annually since 1988.
“He has a lot left that he wants to prove,” Andreas said. “He can be the Tiger Woods of pole vaulting.”
Gold is just the beginning.
“Going to the Olympics was always a dream of mine growing up,” Mondo said. “It’s important to me and the legacy that I want to have as a pole vaulter. I want to be the best pole vaulter ever. I want to be known as the best to ever live. To be able to have that, you have to be able to get the job done in the most important moments, like the Olympics.
“I’m gonna try and take pole vaulting as high as I can. I want it to be as popular as it can be. I want to jump high. I want to break records. I want to be entertaining. I want people to enjoy watching it and be fun to watch. I want to win gold. Now after breaking the world record, everyone expects that out of me.”
Antoine might face even more pressure.
After graduation, Antoine appeared in 52 games with the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2019, batting .237 and ending the season with the tying triple and winning run in the deciding game of the 2019 New York-Penn League championship. Last March, Antoine was at his first spring training — renting an apartment with five other prospects, who rotated among the couch and sharing a queen bed — when COVID-19 ended the experience after only six days.
Following a year of training in Louisiana, Antoine returned to Port St. Lucie and earned an assignment to High-A Brooklyn, where he took his first live at-bats in nearly 20 months. Playing left field and batting leadoff for the Cyclones, Antoine is hitting .242/.310/.335 with two home runs, 12 RBIs, three stolen bases and 37 strikeouts in 182 at-bats.
“It came back a lot quicker than I expected it to. I really didn’t feel like I missed a beat,” Antoine said. “It was good to step away for a little bit because it’s hard to make adjustments when you’re playing all the time. Step away, slow everything down, analyze myself. I felt even more ready this year.”
There is no time to waste. He just lost a year of his career and will soon be eligible to collect Social Security, as far as High-A ball is concerned.
“I’m 24 and I haven’t played my first full season yet, so I’m kind of feeling the pressure,” Antoine said. “It feels like time’s not really on your side at this point. You gotta go out there and really show them what I can do this next year or I’m probably done in the next two years, if I don’t. That’s how I go about it every day.”
Here is their chance. The wait is over. Summer is finally here — again.