From Iowa junior college to Tokyo: Former Indian Hills sprinter Kenny Bednarek qualifies for Olympics
In fall 2018, shortly after Kenny Bednarek arrived at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, head track coach Brent Ewing talked with his star freshman sprinter outside the weight room.
Ewing asked Bednarek: What are your goals?
"He was very adamant," Ewing remembered in a conversation with the Register on Monday. "He wanted to go to the Olympics."
Now, nearly three years later, he is.
Bednarek earned a spot on Team USA Sunday night at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon, finishing second in the men's 200-meter dash in 19.78 seconds, which is a personal-best time. Noah Lyles, who won at 19.74 seconds, and 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, who took third at 19.84 seconds, also qualified.
"He's happy he made the Olympics. But he wants to win. He wanted to win last night," Ewing said. "There's a big part of Kenny that wants to get back on top and beat Lyles and get a gold medal at Tokyo."
Bednarek, the first Iowa junior college athlete to ever qualify for the U.S. Olympics team, according to Iowa track expert Mike Jay, took an unusual path to the Olympics.
He was the No. 2 overall sprinter in the 2018 recruiting class coming out of Rice Lake High School in northwest Wisconsin, about two hours from Minneapolis. Basically every track power program in the country recruited him, and he committed to Oregon.
But his high school grades weren't where they needed to be, and he had to take the junior college route. He chose Indian Hills.
At Indian Hills, Bednarek quickly proved why he was so highly sought-after in high school. In December 2018, at the Mel Tjeerdsma Classic in Missouri, Bednarek ran the 400-meter dash in 45.93. At the time, it was a world-leading indoor mark.
"That's when I was like, 'OK, this kid is really, really special,'" Ewing said.
In March, at the junior college outdoor nationals, he ran 20.43 in the 200 and 45.97 in the 400. Then, in April, at the 2019 Drake Relays, Bednarek won the men's elite 200 in 20.29, which was more than 3-tenths of a second faster than the field.
One month later, in May, Bednarek won the 200 and 400 at the junior college outdoor nationals at 19.82 and 44.73. He became the second man ever — and first American — to run the 200 and 400 in less than 20 seconds and 45 seconds on the same day. It was then that he decided to turn pro, and he signed with Nike in July 2019.
Injuries and COVID-19's effect on the 2020 season have prevented Bednarek's professional career from taking off. But his qualification for the Tokyo Olympics goes a long way to proving he is an elite sprinter.
"Definitely vindication. I was happy for him," Ewing said, "because I do think there are some people out there who, maybe prior to these trials, maybe didn't take him real seriously. Or thought, 'OK, this kid has posted fast times. But can he really do it when it matters?'"
Bednarek answered that question Sunday night.
Matthew Bain is the deputy sports editor for the Des Moines Register. He still covers some recruiting, too. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.