“I’M STILL IN THE WHIRLWIND,” says Kenny Bednarek.
Ever since the Indian Hills frosh led off his mind-boggling 19.82/44.73 double at the JUCO Championships with a stunning windy 19.49 heat, his phone has been ringing off the hook. “People saying congrats,” he explains. He’s appreciative but exhausted by it all. Calls from agents have been coming in too. This all started happening during Bednarek’s final week of school. He says he’s been putting everybody off for now. He wants to get back home to Wisconsin to sort things out.
To hear people who watched him as a prep at Rice Lake High talk about him, you’d think Bednarek was stamped for greatness the moment he stepped on a track. Perhaps he was. Born in Oklahoma, he and his fraternal twin Ian were adopted young, and grew up in Rice Lake, a town of 8000+ about 100M northeast of Minneapolis. The winters are cold there—average January highs range around 21 (-6 C). So not really sprinter country; hockey though, yes.
But Kenny and Ian’s parents had them give track a try. Says Kenny, “When I was a kid, I just liked running, and my mom put us in track.” From second grade on he participated in a local youth club. “We started a lot earlier than most people have,” he says. Ian took to the distances—he ran a 4:54 for 1600. Kenny found his home in the sprints.
As a 9th-grader he did all three events at Wisconsin’s Div. 2 State Meet: 11.47, 22.08 and 47.95. He finished 2nd in the 200/400. That summer he improved to 21.75/47.69. As a soph he won the State 200 and 400 and improved to 21.24/46.78. Junior year he hit a 46.19. The State titles kept coming. In his senior year he worked on the shorter sprints and pulled off a State triple, hitting 10.42/20.43 in the heats, with a 10.66/20.98/46.73 final day. Seven state titles in all, plus one on the 4×4, will make a sprinter legendary in Wisconsin.
Bednarek felt he had the talent to make his mark in the sprints beyond high school. “Just that fact that I was from Wisconsin and I was running those fast times.” His 20.43 led the nation’s preps last year. “I knew I had the potential to get here, but I had never expected that to be right out of senior year.”
He ended up at Indian Hills JC in Ottumwa, Iowa, and many were surprised when he blasted a 20.30 world indoor leader. At the JC Indoor he ran an oversized-track 45.97 to win the 400 by almost 2 seconds. The outdoor season brought a 20.29 PR to win the Drake Relays and a PR 45.62 to win his Regional.
Then came his big weekend at Nationals. Even Bednarek says he was surprised. He didn’t expect that big things were coming: “To be honest, no. At Indian Hills it’s been an up-and-down year. We’ve had several coaching changes. I was definitely in doubt because my hamstrings are weak and there are a lot of other things I need to work on and I just haven’t been able to really work on it. I mean, I still ended up doing what I needed to do, but coming in, yeah, I had a little doubt. I’m not going to lie about that.”
So becoming the first American to break 20 and 45 on the same day—that caught Bednarek off-guard. “It’s kind of hard to figure, for how long track & field has been around, I figured other people would have been doing that. Because, I don’t know, I’m not that special. When my coach told me, I was like, ‘Are you serious??’ So it kinda has hit me, and it kinda hasn’t.”
Before Nationals, Bednarek had his doubts about the longer sprint. “Literally, right before I ran that 44, I was telling my friend, ‘I feel like I should just do the 200 and the 100 because that 400 ain’t cutting it right now.’ I was running in the 45s, due to training and stuff like that. I’ve been hot in the 2, been pretty decent in the 1, so why not just go for that? Then I ran that 44.73 and kind of changed my mind. I guess I’m still good at the 400, so I guess I’ll start doing the 4 and the 2 again.”
Now the phone keeps ringing. Bednarek knows that these calls are going to lead to some difficult choices. Does he go back to school in the fall? “I would probably have to go back to another JUCO because I came out as a [academic] non-qualifier.”
Does he go pro? “Depending on the contract, I might be. But whatever happens in the summer…”
For now, he’s got to clear his head and focus on the task at hand. “I’ve been telling them all to kind of wait. I’m still at school and I’m trying to get all my stuff packed up and bla-bla-bla. I’m trying to give myself some actual break time, at least a week, before I open my ears to anything right now.”
When he gets home to Rice Lake, he’s going to do some light training for a few weeks. And then he’ll start working again with LeRon Williams, who coached him during the indoor season.
Bednarek, at 20, is the new name at the top of the lists as he prepares to run both the 200 and 400 at USATF. “Talent-wise, I think I’m up there,” he says. “Hopefully being able to compete in the finals and be able to compete with Noah Lyles, just seeing what I can do, to prove that I’m one of the elite sprinters. I want to make a big statement.”
“I’m just a dude from Wisconsin that’s doing crazy things right now and I’ve really got nothing to lose. I think that’s to my advantage.”