‘I belong here': Kenny Bednarek on being overlooked, Olympic dental scare, adoption
At just 24 years old, U.S. sprinter Kenny Bednarek already has two individual global medals. Under the radar, he earned 200m silver at both the Tokyo Olympics and this past summer’s world championships, just seven months after breaking a toe.
Bednarek, from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, grew accustomed to the weight of the chip on his shoulder.
In a conversation with OlympicTalk, Bednarek discussed his path to becoming a professional athlete, being overlooked, his adoption and more.
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*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: Tell me about how you got your start in track and field. Do you have a specific memory of when you first fell in love with the sport?
Kenny Bednarek: I have ADHD, so growing up I always had a lot of energy as a young kid. I was one of those kids who was always getting into trouble, running in the hallways and jumping over tables, for some reason. To get rid of that energy and pass the time, my mom decided to have me go into cross country at the beginning of first grade when I was in Oklahoma. I started with that and then went into track and was doing both of those sports up until sixth grade. I didn’t want to do anything longer than a mile, so I stopped doing cross country and solely focused on track and field. I was always the fastest kid in my class and one of the fastest kids in the area. I just always loved running and competing.
How did you choose the 200m?
Bednarek: When you’re running the 400m, the lactic acid build-up is something else, so it was an easy transition coming down to the 200m. I’m good at it. I have a good bend turn. I just need to fix my last 50 meters. When it comes to running the 100m, it’s a little bit more difficult finding the right angles and getting out of the blocks. I usually have one of the worst reaction times.
You also played football in high school, and you were a very talented wide receiver. What made you decide to focus on track and field?
Bednarek: Football is my first love, and I really do miss it a lot. I enjoyed my time playing in high school, but what made me ultimately focus on track and field was the risk of injuries. Football is a high-contact sport, and injuries can rack up over time. When I was playing football in high school, any time I got tackled the first thought that always came to my head was about my legs. With track and field, the worst thing I can really do is pull my hamstring, and I can limit that factor by fortifying my body and doing preventative things to make sure that won’t happen. In football, there are a lot of things that are out of your control. One hit, and your ACL is blown or your ankle is messed up.
When did becoming a professional athlete become a dream for you?
Bednarek: I always wanted to be in the Olympics. I didn’t really know about the professional aspect of the sport until I was in college, so as soon as I found out that was an option, it became my goal to become a professional athlete and represent the U.S. at an Olympics.
Take me back to your senior year of high school. What was your path to competing at a junior college?
Bednarek: I had a few schools that wanted to recruit me -- University of Oregon, Washington and other big track schools -- and I was obviously very interested, but I spent my first two years of high school fooling around a little bit too much. All I wanted to do was hang around friends and have fun, and I wasn’t really thinking about the bigger picture and what I was going to do outside of high school.
Once those offers started coming in during my sophomore and junior year, I started to improve my grades and pay attention in class more. I did a lot of summer school classes during my junior and senior years and actually improved my GPA, but unfortunately, the NCAA didn’t accept the credits from the summer school classes I took. So I had to take the junior college route, and I decided to go to Indian Hills Community College. They had a relatively new track and field program before I arrived, and I just liked the idea of growing with that school and building it from the bottom up.
At first, I was ashamed of it because there is an assumption that if you go to junior college you’re stupid, but that’s not the case. Some kids end up there because of a variety of situations, whether it’s with their grades or to get a better opportunity with a better school.
What was your experience at Indian Hills Community College like, and how did your time there develop you as an athlete and an individual?
Bednarek: I only spent a year there, but I had several great coaches. Brent Ewing and LeRon Williams helped me grow as a person and made sure that I was doing everything that I needed to do mentally, physically and academically. There wasn’t really much to do in Ottumwa, Iowa, so it was easy to stay out of trouble. I wasn’t really the type of kid that liked to go to parties anyways, so I just kept it simple. I chilled with friends, played my games and kept to myself.
So you graduate from high school in 2018, go to JUCO for a year and turned pro in 2019. You made the worlds team for Doha in 2019 as one of the few athletes with the qualifying standard but were struggling with an injury at Worlds. How did it feel to get that chance on the big stage but be dealing with a significant injury?
Bednarek: When my hamstring went at the trials, I didn’t see that coming at all. There was no indication that my body was going to break, so it was a shocker to me because I always took pride in not being one of those kids that got injured. I never got injured in any of the sports. I felt like I was Superman, so it was very humbling for me. My body took a beating. It had been running all year and finally just broke. I was very upset about the situation, and I didn’t really know what to do, but my coach helped me find the right people to nurse my hamstring.
Physically, I was ready to go for Doha, but mentally I wasn’t ready. I was running well in practice, but when I went through the first round I felt a little pop in my hamstring, I think it was more of the scar tissue, but I didn’t realize what it was at that moment, so I just let up there in the race. Honestly, going into Doha, I was just like, it’s cool that I’m here. I’m going to take this as more of an experience rather than really trying to compete. It was a lesson for me.
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Did the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics help you get fully back to form after the 2019 injury?
Bednarek: Yes, 2020 was a blessing because that gave me more time to actually get right mentally and know that I was ready to go for the Olympics. It helped me physically because I was able to work on a lot of imbalances in my body that I didn’t even realize I had. I ended up meeting my girlfriend, [Indian golfer] Sharmila Nicollet, in 2020, and she helped me find some of the right people to help work on my body. The whole season was just a rehab year, and that really helped me for the following year.
Did you grow up watching the Olympics? What sports did you watch?
Bednarek: I always watched whatever my mom was watching -- tennis here and there -- but I didn’t really care about that. I always cared about the racing, obviously. For me, it was always about the big four -- Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay. Those are the guys I was always watching. When I became a pro, I finally met Yohan, and it was such a cool moment seeing the person that I grew up watching on TV in my presence. I had the same feeling with Justin when I was training with him, and it was a surreal moment to realize that I’m actually at that elite competition level. Justin really showed me the ropes at the beginning of my career as a pro and helped me navigate the track and field world.
Walk me through your experience at the Tokyo Olympics.
Bednarek: 2021 was my breakout season. I had a fun year running a lot of 200s and winning a lot. It was very stressful coming into trials, but once I got to Tokyo all of the stress went away. I saw so many athletes. I got to see Yao Ming in the cafeteria. I didn’t ask for a picture because I didn’t want to bother him. Just being in the Athlete’s Village and being in Japan was an amazing experience. I wish that we had the ability to go outside the village and travel, but unfortunately, we couldn’t because of COVID. Taking COVID tests every morning was nerve-wracking as well, but other than that I had a good time.
Many people don’t know this, but I actually had a cavity in my wisdom tooth and two days before the race I was in the cafeteria taking a bite out of a carrot and my wisdom tooth broke. I had excruciating pain on one side of my face. I was talking to my girlfriend and mom trying to figure out what to do and we decided to take my tooth out the next day at the dental station in the village. I was very nervous. I’ve always been the kind of person that looks over the doctor’s shoulder and asks a million questions whenever I go. I didn’t know what to expect. I had a bad experience in the past where I had my mouth numbed before but still felt the drilling, but this procedure was pretty quick.
It was such a weird experience. I was in Tokyo about to run one of the biggest events of my life, and I had to get a wisdom tooth out and then ended up coming up with the silver.
Wow! How much pain were you in before the race and were you able to eat?
Bednarek: I was in a little bit of pain after the surgery, but it was nothing compared to what I felt when the tooth initially broke. When that happened, half of my face was radiating with pain. I couldn’t move because I was in so much pain. I was able to eat but just had to chew really slowly and only on one side of my mouth.
How have you grown personally and professionally since Tokyo?
Bednarek: I learned to get more in tune with my body, knowing exactly what I need to work on and getting more sleep. I have improved my diet a lot more than I did for the Olympics, and I’ve learned how to deal with and tackle jet lag -- the little details that help me with a race. On a personal level, I ended up buying a house. I bought another dog, so I now have two -- a husky named Rambo and a goldendoodle named Coco. I’ve been with my girlfriend for the last two years and have really worked on building more relationships with people and surrounding myself with a good circle to be a better human.
You went from junior college to becoming an Olympic silver medalist. Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Bednarek: I would tell myself to actually study and not fool around too much because I certainly made the path to get here ten times harder. Fortunately, I had the circumstances and people around me to help me get here, but if I didn’t have that I probably wouldn’t be here today. I would also tell myself to take things more seriously because there’s a lot to lose. There are so many athletes that are more talented, but they’re not able to succeed because they put themselves in a bad situation.
Also, I would tell myself to really prioritize sleep and nutrition. I found out I had a gluten allergy two years ago. There were so many nights I would stay up all night watching a show or playing a game. I’ve learned that diet and sleep are really big factors in performance.
Walk me through your season leading up to the 2022 World Championships in Eugene.
Bednarek: This year was really stressful. I ended up breaking my toe in December while building a coffee table -- something so simple that could have ended my season. I learned my lesson not to be a handyman. I am not Bob the Builder. Breaking my toe and going through rehab was so stressful, and training was ten times harder because I only had a limited amount of time to get back in shape and get my speed up. My coach killed me. I take pride in not puking most of the time, but he made me puke several times in practice.
Leading up to trials, I was really nervous and I wasn’t in the same shape as last year when I ran so many sub-20s. I actually had to make sure to strategize and not waste too much energy on the first round or the second round of trials and, fortunately, I ended up getting the job done.
The way I was training before I broke my toe, I felt like I was on the trajectory to get the American record. I was upset that Noah Lyles ended up getting it before me, but congrats to him. He worked his butt off to be able to get that, and his turn has made a major improvement.
You went into the world championships as the Olympic silver medalist but still didn’t really get a lot of press going into it. Then you come out again and take the world silver after a broken toe. How much did that win mean to you?
Bednarek: I don’t want that much press. I just want people to show me my respect, and I feel like I don’t get that a lot. I won the Olympic silver medal last year, and there was a lot of talk this year and I felt disrespected, but the [world silver] meant a lot, especially with all of the adversity that I faced. To be able to pull off what I did shows a lot of mental toughness.
After a toe fracture and months of setback, faith was never lost 🙏🏽 Let this be a testimony that hard work and determination can get you there.— Kung Fu Kenny (@kenny_bednarek) July 22, 2022
World Champ Sliver Medalist🥈That does sound good to me 😎 Kid From Juco Tour continues 🌎 #WCHOregon22 pic.twitter.com/vUavyaRTY8
What would getting respect look like for you? And also, what do you say to all those people who have disrespected you and have counted you out?
Bednarek: You’ve got me, Noah [Lyles], Erriyon Knighton, and all of these other guys ... know that I’m always going to be one of those guys that are in contention of getting a medal or winning the race. I’ve competed against these guys and beaten them before, but there’s been a lot of times where my name isn’t even mentioned. People often say, “Oh, it’s a race between these two people,” and in a way, I kind of just feel disrespected because I’ve actually beaten these guys before. So why are you not even considering me?
I remember winning the Diamond League Final [in 2021], and one of the commentators was so surprised. I was like, “Why are you surprised? I’m an Olympic silver medalist.”
Everyone has that one specific thing that kind of strikes a nerve and makes them work harder in life. What’s your why, and how do you stay motivated knowing that you’ve been overlooked in the past?
Bednarek: When it’s all said and done, I want to be a legend -- one of the best to ever do it. I want to be in a position of doing what no one else has ever done, and that’s what makes me want to be better every single day and time I step out on the track. I definitely have a chip on my shoulder, and that’s definitely what’s made me a better athlete.
What do you feel like you have to prove?
Bednarek: I feel like I need to prove that I belong here. I feel like there are a lot of people that just don’t show me their respect, so I feel like I need to win the race or run something crazy just to show people that I belong here. When I first came into the scene, I always felt that me coming from a different background with junior college and being from a small area, I was the underdog. I want to show people that I’m going to be a threat every single time I step on the track.
Paris 2024 is coming up. What would having the opportunity to represent the U.S. at a second Olympics mean to you?
Bednarek: It would mean the world to me to try and get gold for the U.S. I was so close to getting it last time so I just want to right my wrongs and exert my dominance on everybody.
Switching gears a little bit ... tell me about your upbringing.
Bednarek: I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I have one fraternal twin brother and two sisters, but my twin and I are adopted. We were adopted at 4 years old by my mom, Mary Ann, and we lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma until about 2010, 2011 before moving up to Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Rice Lake is a really small town of 8,000 people where everyone knows everyone and half of the people have the same last name. Growing up in a small town and being adopted, it’s been a pretty crazy journey.
My last name, Bednarek, is Polish, so I get a lot of questions about my last name when I’m in that part of the world. But I recently did the 23andMe ancestry test and found out that I’m like 75% Nigerian, 12% European and a mix of some other stuff.
What is going back home to that small town like for you, especially after winning these two huge medals?
Bednarek: Oh, they love me out there. I didn’t realize how much of an impact I had on this little town until I actually went back home. People tell me they appreciate what I’ve done and that I’ve made Rice Lake proud, and every time I go back it’s just a constant celebration. It’s very cool to be appreciated like that.
How much impact has your mom had on your life?
Bednarek: My mom did all of this by herself. She’s always been there to support me at nearly every race, and whether I win or lose she’s always critiquing me, keeping me in check and making sure I stay humble and don’t waste my talents. She was the first person to put me in this sport, she saw that it was the right fit for me, and she truly loves track and field.
Tell me about “Kicking it with Kenny.”
Bednarek: We started it because I know not many people know who I am. I’m a very quiet guy, I haven’t really talked to many people, so I just want to get my personality out there and let people see who I am as a person. I have a lot of fun ideas for the future, especially with the whole Kung Fu Kenny thing. I know some Tai chi right now, but I plan to learn karate and share some of that journey. It will be on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.
How did your nickname Kung Fu Kenny come about?
Bednarek: We all have the same gear and everyone kind of looks the same on the track, so I wanted to think of a way to stand out [with a headband]. I liked the ring to “Kung Fu Kenny” and the values that it has with it -- discipline, dedication, respect and humbleness. I want to instill those values in my daily life and professional life. I don’t want to just be another sprinter. I want to have a brand and persona so people know exactly who I am every time I step out there. Even the bowing represents me because I’m not high energy. I’m calm. These are some of the simple things that show who I am.
Race day hype song?
Bednarek: I listen to Kendrick Lamar so “DNA.” and all of his songs.
If you could only listen to one artist for an entire workout, who would it be and why?
Bednarek: J. Cole.
If you weren’t a track and field athlete, what would be your Olympic sport?
Bednarek: I’ve always thought about bobsledding.
Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a race without …
Bednarek: Beet it. It’s a beetroot juice that has 98% beets and 2% lemon juice. I have it an hour and a half before my race. I’ve been drinking it so often now that sometimes I feel naked if I forget it. I don’t like it at all, but my nutritionist told me it’s good for me, so I drink it and it’s definitely helped.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about being a sprinter?
Bednarek: It’s not easy. I know there are a lot of people out there that think we make good money, but we work our tails off just to make a decent wage. Contracts can be shaky, and there are a lot of track and field athletes that don’t get paid what they’re worth.
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