Kenny Bednarek competes in the Men's 200 Meter heats during the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships.
On a rainy night in Gateshead, England, Kenny Bednarek stood in the blocks waiting for the announcer to call his name for the start of the 200 meters. Then he pressed his hands together under his chin and bowed with just a glimmer of a smile.
“I’m trying to be a little bit more fun, like a ‘Kung Fu Kenny’ thing,” said Bednarek, who wore a black head tie like Rambo – which is also the name of his new Husky puppy -- to complete the look. He said he and his girlfriend talked about “something to do to have people get more into me and what I’m doing and who I am.”
That formal bow was fitting since the 22-year-old feels like he’s still introducing himself two years after bursting onto the scene.
Going into this month’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track and Field, Bednarek said, “I just want people to know that I’m there. I’m one of the guys that they need to watch out for.”
He thought he made that clear in 2019 when he became the first American – and only the second person in history -- to break 20 seconds in the 200 meters and 45 seconds in the 400 meters on the same day. And yet hearing the chatter before the 2019 national championships, Bednarek said, “I felt like there’s really nobody talking about me.”
He thinks that’s because he competed for Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, and not for an NCAA powerhouse school. Coming from a junior college, Bednarek said, “I haven’t really gotten the respect I feel like I deserve.”
He’s getting that respect now. This season Bednarek has posted the fastest 200-meter time in the world under all conditions, running 19.65 seconds with a significant tailwind of 4.0 meters per second (twice the allowable limit). Terrance Laird, who ran collegiately for LSU, has the fastest legal time of 19.81 seconds while Bednarek’s best legal time is 19.88. Divine Oduduru of Nigeria has also run 19.88.
Andre DeGrasse of Canada, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist, is next at 19.89 seconds, followed by Noah Lyles, the 2019 world champion, clocking 19.90 in his only 200 of the season so far. “I’m fully confident in what I can do in the 200 meters,” said Bednarek, who said he expects to double in the 100 and the 200 at Trials, which begin June 18 in Eugene, Oregon. “I feel like I’m the best in the world, and I know every time time I step on the track I’m going to beat everybody and the only thing that’s going to be able to stop me is me.”
Excellent Track Record This Season
In five 200-meter races this season, Bednarek has only one loss – to Lyles – at the Golden Games in Walnut, California, while posting a time of 19.94 seconds.
Bednarek said his coach, Olympic gold medalist Dennis Mitchell, and his agent, former 110-meter hurdles world record holder Renaldo Nehemiah, have advised him not to focus on his competitors.
“When I raced against Noah I wasn’t really focused on me; I was more focused on him,” Bednarek said, “and I just kind of screwed up my whole race pattern. I’ve just got to learn how to focus on my race and finish strong and finish hard and then I’ll be all right.”
Apparently the only thing that can slow him down is red tape. Before his recent overseas trip, Bednarek was stopped at the airport and erroneously told to fill out extra paperwork.
Bednarek missed his flight and was rebooked with extra stops. While his teammates arrived for the meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic at 8 a.m., he didn’t make it until 1:30 p.m. the following day.
Bednarek was concerned about jet lag, which he remembered was a problem in 2019 on his first international journey to Rabat, Morocco, and Ostrava. His baggage also failed to arrive on that trip. Feeling unprepared for the rigors of the tour, Bednarek didn’t run well.
He was determined not to let that happen again. Even though the temperature was very chilly – in the 50s – at the Ostrava Golden Spike on May 19, Bednarek still breezed to a time of 19.93 seconds into a headwind.
He said the chilly air reminded him of back home in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. “I’m still pretty used to that weather,” said Bednarek, who now lives in central Florida. “I know how to handle it.”
He even experimented with his introductory bow at the meet, “but I don’t know if anybody saw that,” he said.
Then it was on to Gateshead, where Bednarek’s time of 20.33 seconds was his only result of the season that was not sub-20. And yet with his spikes splashing water on the track, he separated himself from a stellar field to win by an astounding 3 to 4 meters into a stiff headwind. Aaron Brown of Canada was far back at 20.79 seconds, followed by DeGrasse (20.85) with Adam Gemili of Great Britain, who was fourth in Rio, placing sixth (21.18).
The television announcer exclaimed, “Look at the gap grow and grow and grow!”
That separation looked familiar to Bednarek’s mother, Mary Ann, who put him in track and field when he was an energetic first-grader in Oklahoma.
“She always said I looked like I was her Secretariat,” Bednarek said. “I was always the person who would break away from everything.”
Advantages To An Early Start
Mary Ann adopted Bednarek and his fraternal twin Ian when they were very young. While Ian, who is smaller than Kenny, ran distance events, Kenny was the sprinter. They moved to Wisconsin, where Kenny won the 100, 200 and 400 at the Division 2 Wisconsin state track meet.
He signed with the University of Oregon but went the junior college route because of academics. As a freshman, Bednarek took the NJCAA Division 1 Championships by storm with the fastest wind-aided 200 time in history, clocking 19.49 seconds with a tailwind of 6.1 meters per second that one track website called “comically strong.”
“I saw people make jokes, ‘There was a hurricane behind me,’” Bednarek said. “Yeah, I was flying.”
But he pointed out that he was able to maintain his turnover and his form. Only Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson and Yohan Blake have gone faster.
“I remember a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh well, he’s got to run it legal,’” Bednarek said. “And some people were saying it converted to 20-point something (had the wind been legal).”
The next day Bednarek ran 19.82 with a slight headwind, which was the third fastest legal time by a collegian.
“That kind of just shut up all the doubters,” he said.
To put an exclamation point on the day, Bednarek also won the 400 meters with a time of 44.73. The only other person to run sub-20 seconds in the 200 meters and sub-45 seconds in the 400 meters on the same day was Isaac Makwala of Botswana in 2014.
But Bednarek was overlooked by the track prognosticators. “Everyone always talks about Michael Norman, Noah Lyles, Christian Coleman, but then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, did you guys see what I ran here?’” said Bednarek, who turned pro before the meet. “I feel like they should be talking about me being in the mix. And I was not really hearing any of that, so it gave me a little self-motivation.”
Shockingly, Team USA had only four sprinters who’d met the qualifying time in the men’s 200 for the world championships in Doha. Bednarek was one of them. However, there were only three spots on the team.
He ran well in the rounds, posting the fastest time in the semifinals, and felt confident in the final.
“All of a sudden, there was just a pop,” Bednarek said. “There was no indication that my hamstring was going to pull. Then I was limping to the finish and I was just very upset. I was kind of like, ‘Why did this have to happen at the most important meet?’”
However, Coleman, who was second in the 200, opted to focus only on the 100.
That put Bednarek, who had insisted on crossing the finish line in 45.34 seconds instead of posting a DNF, on the team because he was the only other athlete meeting the standard.
An Unfamiliar FeelingIn Doha, he struggled to overcome the first injury of his career and did not advance out of the heats with a time of 21.50 seconds. “I was always scared it might pull again,” said Bednarek, who also had a sciatic nerve issue. “Every now and then when I was running there was a pop in my leg, and I thought it was my hamstring pulling. It was the scar tissue breaking, so I was dealing with a lot of mental things.”
He said the Olympic postponement due to the pandemic allowed him to bring his fitness and his confidence back up to 100 percent. On July 4, 2020, Bednarek tweeted, “I’m not even the best me yet.” The next month he ran a personal best of 19.80 seconds.
However, Bednarek doesn’t make such pronouncements often. “I don’t really talk that much on social media,” he said. “I kind of keep quiet, do the work in silence and then whatever I put on the track, I put on the track.”
This season could almost be considered an “unfinished business tour.” After Bednarek made up for his poor 2019 showing in Ostrava, one of his former college coaches texted him, “Thanks for avenging us.”
He returned to Doha – although at a different track – and won the Diamond League race, holding off DeGrasse with his season-best time of 19.88 while the Canadian ran 19.89.
And now he’s heading to Eugene, with Hayward Field on the campus of the school Bednarek had hoped to attend.
“For me, right now it’s to make a statement,” he said. “I want to be the best in the world. I want to be the best in history, but I’ve got to do the work, put in the time. I just want more respect and want people to know that I’m there and I’m going to be a contender.”
Bednarek said he and his coach chose the 100/200 double instead of the 200/400 because they want to see what he can do in the 100. He clocked 10.03 earlier this season.
“We both know I can run 9.9,” said Bednarek.
Few athletes have run sub-10, sub-20 and sub-45 in the 100, 200 and 400.
“I want to be on that elite list,” he said.
No matter how he does, after every race Bednarek lingers at the finish line.
“I give everybody a handshake and tell them they did a good job,” he said.
And if Bednarek makes the Olympic team, "Kung Fu Kenny" could take another bow.