Last week, a man stopped Nina Kennedy at a supermarket near her home in Western Australia.

This type of thing had been happening more and more as of late, so Kennedy stopped to hear what the man had to say.

“My three young daughters love you,” the man told her. “I just want to say thank you for being a role model for women in sport.”

Since winning the pole vault world title at the 2023 World Championships last August, Kennedy returned to celebrity status in her home country.

“I walk down the street, and people just know who I am, which is super strange because [track and field] isn't really a big sport in Australia,” Kennedy says. “There are a lot more eyeballs on me now. There are a lot more media stories written about me. And when you read articles on Olympic favorites, my name is always on there.”

But as her supermarket run-in illustrates, Kennedy, age 27, isn’t just any national sporting celebrity. She’s become a role model for young Australian girls. When she won gold at 2023 Worlds in Budapest, Kennedy made a decision that sent shockwaves throughout the athletic world: She approached defending Olympic pole vault champion Katie Moon and asked if Moon wanted to split the gold medal.

Kennedy and Moon were in the throes of an intense pole vault final that had reached its zenith. Kennedy jumped 4.85m, and so did Moon. Then Kennedy nailed a 4.90m leap. Again, Moon matched her.

“Everyone was watching,” Kennedy remembers. “There were no other events left, so every single eyeball in the stadium was watching us.”

And, after both women failed three times to hit 4.95m, two options remained: compete for gold in a sudden-death jump-off or just share the gold medal. Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italian Gianmarco Tamberi had already set the precedent by splitting Olympic gold in Tokyo, so Kennedy shot her shot.

“I floated the idea to share it,” Kennedy remembers. “And you could see the relief on Katie’s face when I said that. Then, she could see the relief on my face because of her relief. It just felt really right."

“Something in me was like, ‘Let's do this,’ and so I just rolled with that. I didn't even ask my coach, which is really strange. And it's really strange to think that my whole life I've been doing this sport, and in this huge moment, it was one of the easiest decisions of my life.”

Upon her return to Australia, Kennedy has been hailed a hero, an example of the model sportswoman.

“Australia really got behind the story of Katie and I sharing,” Kennedy says. “They were like, ‘Yeah, sportsmanship!’ I felt really happy coming back to Australia.”

When Moon returned to the U.S. with her shared gold medal, that universal support — the “Yeah, sportsmanship!” Kennedy describes — was sorely missing.

Instead, Moon faced intense backlash from social media trolls, who argued that they wanted the defending Olympian champion to fight for a solo gold medal. But Moon stood strong in the face of these criticisms, writing on X that, "I would like to help enlighten those that are calling us 'cowards,' 'shameful,' 'pathetic,' etc. I know you can't make everyone happy in this world.”

For Kennedy, seeing her friend face such furor was frustrating.

“With the ‘win at all costs’ American mentality, I feel like there was a little bit of a difference,” Kennedy says. “I looked at the American media, and I felt like Katie was copping it a little bit.”

In spite of this, Moon remains steadfast in the pair's decision, just like Kennedy.

"I was more laughing at a lot of the comments, because I knew it was people that just didn't get it," Moon told NBC Olympics. "And often times, it was people that I knew had never actually watched a track meet in their life. They just saw the headline and wanted to be mean. And if people wanted to be mad, that's OK. They're welcome to be. I'm not gonna be mad, but I spoke my piece on it.

"I'm thrilled with how it turned out. It made it really special. Because it's an individual sport, we get so few moments in track and field where you're truly as happy as someone else."

Kennedy and Moon are favorites to compete for Olympic gold in Paris, along with 24-year-old British star Molly Caudery, who won the pole vault title at the 2024 World Indoor Championships in March. Meanwhile, Kennedy is still recovering from a stress fracture in her back, which was still plaguing her as she won world gold last summer.

Now, she is locked in on getting healthy for Paris. As she does, Kennedy must, once again, balance her friendship with Moon with the stark reality that they’re still rival competitors.

“We still slide into each other's DMs, but it's not like I pick up the phone and call her,” Kennedy says. “Elite sport is such a weird thing because I genuinely love and respect all the girls, but at the same time — and Katie would probably feel this as well — we're competitors."

“It’s such a weird thing. You don't have any other relationships like that in your life. It’s like, ‘I love you, but I also want to beat you.’”

Paris will mark Kennedy’s second Olympics. She limped into the Tokyo Games nursing an injured quad and was eliminated in the qualifying rounds on a rainy day. Everything about those Olympics — the injuries, COVID-19, her lackluster performance — has made Kennedy want to throw her debut experience away.

“I had a horrible experience,” Kennedy says. “The Tokyo Olympics were legit and everything, but just competing with no crowds was so strange. So I feel like this is like my first Olympics again.”

Kennedy will compete in Paris armed with more than 20 family members and friends, each making the 20-plus hour journey from the Land Down Under to the City of Light.

In the next few months before she departs for Paris, Kennedy is sure to enjoy more grocery store encounters that remind her of her newfound status among Australians, who appreciate Kennedy both for her athletic accomplishments and her sportsmanship.

“I think about when I was a little girl growing up in Australia, and women's sport wasn't a thing,” Kennedy says. “It wasn't on TV. It wasn't in the newspapers. Social media didn't exist back then."

“I grew up as a little girl only watching men in sport, and it’s really refreshing to know that young girls now know women in sport is normal. It’s really cool.”