“Pole vault’s a very lonely sport. It’s just you, inside your own head, all the time,” says Mondo Duplantis in Born to Fly, a documentary about his rise to stardom as a record-setting pole vaulter.
Along the way, he had some company: filmmaker Brennan Robideaux.
“Mondo was 17 when I started on this, literally a kid, becoming an adult,” says Robideaux of the early days of making what would become his directorial debut. “And I was just 21 when I started the project. You think you’re an adult then, but now I think I was a child. I very much grew up personally through this process, at the same time he was.”
Robideaux followed Duplantis with a camera over the course of six years — first as a high school athlete, and then internationally as Duplantis won, and sometimes lost, at the elite meets that would cement his status as the best pole vaulter in the world.
Robideaux and his wife, a Lafayette nurse, self-financed the majority of the project. He wore his gear onto planes, ate peanut butter and shared hotel rooms with the Duplantis family — giving him access to moments that would center the film as a coming-of-age story.
“The Duplantis’s were so generous with me. There was never a time when they were like ‘turn the camera off.’ I was able to capture those little moments, like Mondo arguing with his dad, that make his story so great. He’s a world-class athlete, but he’s also a teenager growing up,” says Robideaux.
Robideaux filmed Duplantis from the track at Lafayette High School, to competitions around the country, and finally to arenas at the upper echelons of his sport: the European Championships, the World Championships, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where he took home the men’s gold in pole vault. He was just 21 years old then — and his career has continued to soar. Today, Duplantis holds the world record for a jump of 6.23 meters, roughly the height of a two-story house.
Along the way, the pair bonded, with Robideaux granted intimate access to Duplantis’ family life and capturing the singularity of a young man achieving global renown in one of the most dangerous track and field events, while competing for his mother’s country of Sweden.
“His older brothers had moved out by then, so I think that allowed us to relate almost like brothers,” he says. “I lived in houses with him, slept on his hotel room floor for three straight years. His parents also had to be willing to have me lug around camera gear and ride in cars with them. Sometimes they would stay with Helena’s [Mondo’s mother] family in Sweden, and even they made room for me. I was a part of the family for years, so that was pretty cool.”
This October, Born to Fly premiered in North America at the Austin Film Festival, where it was the Audience Award Winner for Best Documentary. A week later, it was the Jury Award Winner for Best Louisiana Feature at the New Orleans Film Festival. This week, it will make its Lafayette debut at Southern Screen Festival, where Robideaux’s hometown can see the project that he hung his aspirations on as a 21-year-old filmmaker.
“I don’t know if I would do it today. It takes so much blind faith to bet on a child basically, that he’ll grow into what you think he can become,” Robideaux says.
This blind faith drove his efforts as a film crew of one, supported by the extra money he and his wife could scrape together — the couple even had an extra job cleaning an office on Sundays. Robideaux wouldn’t have financial or operational support for making Born to Fly until the final year of production, when Red Bull Studios came on to help finish the film and bring it to market.
The studio is known for producing documentaries on a wide range of sporting events, and their vote of confidence in the project was a testament to Robideaux’s years of effort — and Mondo’s growing track and field fame.
“Films like this one, people aren’t going to be like we’re just going to find talented, prodigious kids and make films about them. There’s too much risk,” he says. “You’re more likely to see films about already established stars like Beckham, or Quarterback on Netflix. That stuff has a huge market right now.”
At the end of Born to Fly, Mondo gets emotional talking about his journey to the Olympics.
“My mom would do anything for me. She would drive 20 hours to bring me to a competition,” he says. “And my dad… any time I set goals for myself, those were always turned immediately into his goals. He would give up anything for me to be able to just jump. They’re the reason I’m here, that’s who I’m gonna be jumping for.”
Robideaux’s own journey on this film was also one girded by belief, family support, and a lot of hard work. As Born to Fly finds a warm reception on the festival circuit, his belief — in Mondo, and in himself — is now paying off.
Born to Fly plays at Southern Screen this Saturday at 6:45 p.m. Festival passes and single-event tickets are available here.