THE OLYMPIC SEASON saw a 200-meter record of a kind smashed. Not Usain Bolt’s hallowed 19.19 WR of ’09, which, for now, stands untouched 13 seasons later. The mark that fell was a remarkable standard for consistency that may be a harbinger of faster times ahead.
Over the 4 months of the summer season, May 09–September 09 — which included his 19.68 PR run to silver in Tokyo — Kenny Bednarek, AKA “Kung Fu Kenny,” dashed no fewer than 11 wind-legal sub-20 half-laps. He closed out the string with a 19.70 win over Olympic champ Andre De Grasse in the Diamond League Final.
Some numerical perspective: Bolt’s most prolific season for sub-20s was the ’08 Olympic year. He did it 5 times, adding 4s in ’09 & ’12. Michael Johnson’s best? Also 5 legal 19s, in ’96 when he crushed the WR and mined gold at the Games.
Justin Gatlin, a Bednarek training partner until he announced his retirement upon turning 40 in February, wrote a then-record string of 6 sub-20s in ’15. Since then Noah Lyles had been the man: 5 in ’18, a new high of 7 in ’19, 6 in ’20. And then 6 again last year.
No one has done it like Bednarek. He scratches his head over the fact, his attitude mixing pride and bemusement.
“I didn’t expect to run that many 200s,” the Oklahoma native says. “I mean, I didn’t want to run that many 200s. I tried to get into the 100 a little bit more, but I just couldn’t somehow get in. Like when I went to Pre [where his 19.80 in his first post-Games outing placed 2nd to Lyles] I didn’t want to run the 200; I wanted to run the 100, but that’s a Nike meet so they obviously wanted me to run the 200 there.”
No drama. Bednarek, now 23, accepts that pro track is a business and his sponsor matters. Factoring in the pandemic delay, ’21 was his first true full pro season after he dropped a stunner on the sport in ’19.
That year, fans will remember, Bednarek exploded at the JUCO Championships for Indian Hills CC to record the U.S.’s first sub-20/sub-45 same day double with 44.73 and 19.82 in that order.
The wind-and-altitude aided 19.49 Bednarek had run in the previous day’s heats still sees him at No. 4 on the all-conditions list with only Bolt, Yohan Blake and Johnson quicker.
Last season, Bednarek explains forthrightly, his string of blazers by no stretch exceeded his expectations. “It was a surprise because I ran that many,” he says, “but then it was a surprise that no one ever ran that many sub-20s in a year. I didn’t know that.
“But I also think it’s just because I run the 400 — I can say I used to run the 400 — so I had that 400-meter strength in me. Going down [in distance] it’s a lot easier, but at some point I kinda got sick and tired of it. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, here we go. Another 200.’ But yeah, it was pretty cool to see how my body was working under all that fatigue. And for me, it was like an indication that, ‘OK, I’m running this many 200s at this pace so I know I have a lot left in the tank.’
“For me, last year, I should have run a lot faster, but I just had little mental screwups here and there.
“But when I went to Zürich for the Diamond League Finals that’s where I almost had a complete race. I have a bad habit of slowing down at the end and I guess in a way I just thought I had the race and it was the last race of the year.
“I just had a mental misstep. So yeah, I won it, but I should have run a PR. I should have run a lot faster. I mean, my goal last year was to run around 19.5; I think I had it in me but I just didn’t put all phases of my race together to do that.
“So this year I’ll kind of have that same mindset where I want to run 19.5 or 19.3. For me to run consistently 19.8, 19.7, that’s like, ‘OK, that’s the norm for me. So sooner or later I put that whole race together, I’ll run something way, way lower than that.’
“I’m just waiting to get my mind and everything all connected in order to do that.”
While Bednarek’s momentous ’19 JUCO statement felt for many like it blew in out of nowhere, he never felt that way. He had run track since early elementary school and as a Rice Lake, Wisconsin, senior in ’18 sprinted 10.42, 20.43 and 46.68. While the 200 mark led the HS list, he had no exposure in post-season nationals, and he needed to polish his academics.
“In 2019 I was at the junior college,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to go there, but I slacked off my first two years of high school and that’s what I had to take. As soon as I got there, I think I remember telling my coach, Brent [Ewing], that I wanted to go pro. I wasn’t really thinking about the Olympics, but when I figured out that we can go pro, that was the first thing I would say. He’d ask, ‘What do you want to do this year?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I want to go pro.’
“I just made sure to keep my head straight and not do anything unnecessary when I was there and did my homework. We had a little bit of struggle here and there because being at a junior college, it’s harder to prepare yourself like the NCAA athletes do — because equipment wise and just having people around you like massage therapists and all that, it’s very limited.
“So I just had to make sure to work twice as hard and just focus to get where I wanted to be.” And then he got there.
Straight after his JUCO double Bednarek turned pro and, steered by Nike, joined the Florida enclave of coach Dennis Mitchell, who has guided him since.
Bednarek went down with a hamstring pull in the ’19 USATF 200 final after winning his semi in 20.07. The injury “was a big shocker,” he says, “because I was always very prideful over the fact that I’d never been hurt. I would always see my teammates get hurt and I was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow. That kind of sucks but that will never happen to me.’ I had thought I was, I guess at the time, invincible.”
Bednarek hobbled to Doha for the World Champs because he had the time standard but didn’t make it out of his heat. “But at the end of the day,” he says, “that kind of ended up helping me because through that whole hamstring problem I found out that my body has a lot of imbalances and weaknesses in there. I had to clear that up for 2020.”
Bednarek now says the pandemic Games delay set him up for a bigger Olympic year than he might have had on the original schedule. “I met my girlfriend [pro golfer Sharmila Nicolett] in the beginning of the whole COVID season,” he explains, “and she helped me find some good people to get my body straight. We also got people from USATF that helped me out, my coach sent me to foot doctor specialists, all that other stuff, just a lot of recovering and fortifying my body.”
Bednarek — who guesses he’ll open this season in earnest in May — surveys the prospectively loaded World Champs Trials finals field with a smile. “I just get excited,” he says, “because I know if they’re going to bring their A-game, I definitely got to bring my A-game.
“If I do that, my times are going to be there, they’re going to be really good, they’re going to be crazy or whatever.
“My goal when all’s said and done is to be the best ever to do it. I want to break Bolt’s record and I think I have the capabilities if I keep my head right. Body and mind and all that stuff.”