Eyes turn when Kenny Bednarek strides into the athletics track at Bengaluru’s Kanteerava Stadium. It’s a Saturday morning and the track is fairly crowded – there are athletes going through their paces, parents watching from the sidelines, and also a few weekend runners. The Patna Pirates kabaddi team is here as well, practising ahead of the Pro Kabaddi League that begins next month.
But everything stops soon after Bednarek shows up. Few knew Bednarek — at the stadium for a photo shoot — was coming over. A couple of senior athletes are the first to identify the current 200m Olympic and World silver medallist, and for everyone training becomes a bit of an afterthought. The photo shoot – which needs Kenny to run a few laps of the track -- must wait too.
Parents push children, with wide grins, to click pictures with him. More enterprising kids procure scraps of paper for autographs. A coach grills him about training patterns and food habits. Other athletes – many with little command over English – listen intently. A few look on enviously at his rippling muscles. A few minutes in, the state athletics association head appears with a garland and shawl to felicitate him. A few athletes work up the courage to ask Bednarek to run with them and he generously obliges.
“It must be good to be a celebrity. Everyone wants to take your picture,” remarks 10-year-old KC Aiyappa, who’s just started training. Even the Pirates – the most successful team in PKL history and runner-up last year – concur. They, too, walk around the track for a discreet look.
Bednarek admits that he enjoys the attention. “It’s amazing. The moment I came into the stadium the energy was up. Everyone was excited to see me, and I was excited to meet them. India has shown me a lot of love,” he says.
Honestly it was a little underwhelming when I went back to the USA after building it up in my head for so long
— KENNY BEDNAREK
The Tokyo Olympics silver medallist on the reception he got on returning to the USA after the 2021 Games
Anonymity in USA
It was a very different experience a year ago when Bednarek returned to his training base, in Clermont near Orlando in Florida. Olympic medallists might be celebrities in India, there’s no certainty of that in the USA. “Honestly it was a little underwhelming when I went back to the USA after building it up in my head for so long,” the 24-year-old recalls.
While Indian athletes had lunch at the Prime Minister’s residence, American medallists just had a zoom call with President Joe Biden. Bednarek missed that too because of scheduling difficulties. “When I got back to Clermont, there were a few guys who knew what a big deal it was but even then, there wasn’t much of it. A lot of the USA medal winners train in Orlando, a silver medal was not something very special,” he says.
The reception was far more boisterous when he went to his small hometown of Rice Lake, Wisconsin. All 8000 of the town showed up for the parade. “It was a much bigger deal when I went home. It’s a much smaller town and that medal meant a lot more to everyone there. It seemed everyone knew me and was cheering me on,” he says.
There’s some truth to what Bednarek says. While he’s certainly a big fish, in the USA he’s not swimming in a pond but a veritable ocean. While India won a total of seven medals in Tokyo, Bednarek’s silver was just one of 41 won by his country and 113 overall at the Olympics.
“That’s just how it is in the USA. Most people in the USA expect a gold. The standard is really high. I remember when I got my silver, I knew what the value of that medal was because of how much hard work had gone into it. I was a little upset because I got edged out a little bit. But there are some people who were like – ‘oh you got silver; we don’t care. You are the first loser.’,” he says.
Jostling for space
It also doesn’t help that Bednarek participates in a sport that doesn’t always get top billing outside the Olympics. “Track and field is not that big in the USA. Some people will know you. You certainly wouldn’t get the attention that you would if you were playing (American) football or basketball. We get a little bit of love but when you go to Europe or India, people seem to know who you are or when they find out, it’s a totally different thing. I feel much more appreciated. You certainly get a lot more love overseas than in the USA,” he says.
Running for India?
Bednarek is often reminded by friend – Indian professional golfer Sharmila Nicollet – that he’d be a much bigger star in India. “She was telling me that if I was born here, I’d be a king by now,” he says. “In the USA track and field athletes have a really small section of the sports pie. And every elite athlete is competing for the same sponsorships, the same pool of coaches and physios.”
Nicollet, who is hosting Bednarek in India, agrees. “In the USA if you are a track and field medallist, you are just one among many. In India there’s just one of you,” she says.
Bednarek, perhaps in jest, doesn’t dismiss the idea of a switch of nationality. “From a business standpoint, it would be a great idea. I know several athletes have done this in the past. Maybe in a couple of years it might be something I consider. But right now, I’ve just started on the scene. It’s only my second pro year. It would be a bit easier to stay a year or two and then decide after that. I’ve got a good team. I’m not saying no. I’m definitely open to coming over here. I like it a lot over here. And you can never say never,” he laughs.
Meanwhile, Bednarek — his competition season ended a few weeks back — is enjoying all the attention in India. The second highest number of his Instagram followers are from India. He’s treated – as young Aiyappa from Kanteerava says – as a celebrity.
Dosa for breakfast, lunch
“I’ve been trying a lot of different things. I’ve been having a lot of seafood but also some traditional Indian foods. I love the desserts here. I really like the kulfi and the rasmalai. It’s not like the USA where everything is loaded with sugar. Here it’s sweet but not too sweet. I’ve been eating a lot of biryanis, but I love dosas most. It’s not heavy. I’ve been eating them for breakfast and lunch. I can’t get enough of it,” he says.
And while it’s hard to see where it’s going on his six foot two, 86kg frame, Bednarek insists he’s putting on what some of his Indian friends call his ‘biryani weight’. “I’ve put on two pounds since I’ve been in India. I eat a lot, but I don’t really gain weight. I’m still around four percent body fat. I’m always at that range,” he says.
But Bednarek is not a fan of the traffic here. “The traffic is crazy. It takes forever to get anywhere,” he says. He sometimes wants to get out of his car and run during the rush hour traffic in central Bengaluru.
He would definitely reach his destination faster.
Bednarek might not have a World or Olympic gold medal but he’s seriously quick. He is the fifth athlete ever to run a sub-10 seconds 100m (PB 9.89), a sub-20 seconds 200m (PB 19.49) and a sub-45 seconds 400m (PB). Last year he ran 13 of his 200m races in under 20 seconds – more than any athlete in the history of the sport and twice as many as the next closest – a certain Usain Bolt.
While he’s made his mark as an elite track and field athlete, there was no guarantee of success early on. Bednarek had a difficult start to his life. There’s a deep scar over his left eye, result of a bunk bed accident when he was a toddler. He now questions the veracity of that story but guesses the alternate isn’t going to be any more comforting. “I still wonder what was a three-year-old doing on the top of a bunk bed. But I guess that goes a little way to explain the circumstances I was growing up in when the decision was made to take me from that situation,” he says.
At four, he along with his twin brother, was adopted by a single mother – Mary Bednarek – and moved to the small town of Rice Lake in Wisconsin – a state which isn’t really known for producing sprinters.
And while he was a standout athlete in his junior years, he didn’t follow the typical route of elite USA track athletes. That’s usually four years of competing in the NCAA division 1 program before turning professional.
Bednarek – because of terrible grades as he was more interested in sports in school – ended up in the community college of Indian Hills, rather than a top university. “Initially I was ashamed of that. But it was a lesson learned. I took school more seriously because I didn’t want to be one of those talented athletes who didn’t make it because he made a bad decision. When I went through junior college, it was a little frustrating because of all the equipment we didn’t have. When I was being scouted by the University of Wisconsin or Oregon, I knew all those schools had nice facilities, equipment, physios and doctors. So, when I went to junior college, I was like ‘oh ok. So, this is where I’m now’. But I embraced the junior college system, and I ended up being one of the few who came through it,” he says.
He did so after an unprecedented day on May 17, 2019 when he ran a 19.49 seconds in 200m followed by 44.73 seconds in 400m at the Junior College nationals. He is one of only three athletes in the history of track and field to run a sub-20 seconds 200m and a sub-45 seconds 400m on the same day.
Bednarek signed a professional contract with Nike a few weeks later. Yet, while he finally had a big-ticket contract, Bednarek says he wasn’t prepared for what came next. While the USA deservedly has a reputation for some of the best coaches and trainers, Bednarek found there’s no systematic structure in place for track and field athletes. “I think it’s better in other sports. But in track and field in the USA, it’s kind of like, ‘ok you run fast, here’s your money now go figure out what you must do.’ It’s been like that for a long time,” he says.
Bednarek was directed by Nike to a high-profile coach in Dennis Mitchell, who also trained Olympic champions Justin Gatlin and Kaylin Whitney. But was mostly left to put together the rest of his training staff on his own. “The USATF (United States of America Track and Field) have their own people, coaches and physios and trainers but they have so many athletes to work with. You have to wait for your turn, and you have to sign for them. And I didn’t want to deal with all of that. It’s easier to bring my own people so they can stay with me. So, I had to create a personal team. I had a personal physio, and I took him to the World Championships. It was expensive but it was worth it,” he says.
A friend indeed
That decision to build a personal team was partly the work of Nicollet. The two met in early 2020 in Orlando – one of the training bases for American track and field athletes in the south of the country – where the Indian was looking to make a comeback to professional golf after suffering an ACL injury to her knee.
Back then, Bednarek, who lived in the same apartment complex as Nicollet, had just begun life as a professional athlete – his best result was an eighth place at the USA national championships – and that showed in his training too. “I didn’t go through the NCAA college system. When I came out as a pro, I was finding out from my teammates who the right people were. A lot of runners who turn professional struggle because they are on their own. They don’t make right decisions and end up getting hurt. In the NCAA you get catered to for everything. You have the whole team there. As a professional you must find your own way,” he says.
Nicollet remembers Bednarek as an athlete with little concern for his fitness regimen.
“One of the first times I met him, I saw him eating a McDonald’s burger and drinking Sprite. And he was complaining that his stomach was inflamed, and he had all these other health issues. I asked him what his life goal was, and he told me he wanted to compete in the Olympics. And I told him that’s not likely with his current lifestyle,” Nicollet recalls.
At Nicollet’s suggestion, Bednarek had a blood test and found out that he had severe gluten allergy.
“My gluten intolerance was nearly 10 times the normal level. I had hemorrhoids, high inflammation. As soon as I went home, I threw out whatever I had in my house. I was eating whatever I wanted in high school and college and eventually my body rejected it. When you are in college and high school and you are running fast, you feel you are invincible. I just had raw talent. Most young athletes don’t know the damage their body is taking every day. Even today there are so many elite athletes who are smoking or drinking and partying all the time. They think they can get away with it and just run fast but eventually all that catches up,” he says
Getting battle ready
Off-season biryani binging aside, Bednarek is far more disciplined about his dietary habits. He now works with Indian nutritionist Ryan Fernando, one of several support staff Nicollet has introduced him to. He also works with her physio as well as psychologists. “Because he came from a small town and a small college, he wasn’t exposed to the right kind of nutritionists and the right kind of mental training. I realised (the need of professional support) only when I was 22. I didn’t know any better when I started golf at 18. I don’t want him to go through that,” says Nicollet.
The change in lifestyle brought Bednarek the Olympic silver in 2021. He also made the 100m relay team and won gold at the Diamond League finals.
Just as he was looking to build on that performance in 2022, he picked up a freak injury, fracturing his toe while trying to lift a coffee table he had built at his home. While he failed to match his previous season – he only ran three sub-20 seconds 200m races this year – Bednarek still managed to perform where it mattered, winning a silver medal at the World Championships in Eugene.
But he isn’t satisfied with the results.
“I’m a competitor. In any race, small or big, I hate losing. My standards are high. Every time I lose a race, I get upset. Last year when I made the (USA) team (in the 100m relay for the Olympics – which he did clocking a personal best 9.89 seconds at the United States Trials), I was really upset at the finish line. One of my teammates was like ‘why you look so sad, you just made the team.’ I was like – I lost,” he says.
Improvement for the 2023 season is on his mind. His primary goal is to win the World gold medal that’s eluded him so far. “The first thing I want is to get that gold medal. I think I’m quite capable of it. I have got the talent. I’ve put in the work. I’ve got the right mindset. I think I can break the American record (of 19.31 seconds set by Noah Lyle at the World Championships this year). And once I do that, hopefully I can get to Usain’s record in the future,” he says.
Gold is not the only target though. Bednarek started his career in high school and college primarily as a 400m runner but focussed on the 200m and to a lesser extent the 100m only after he turned professional. Now, he’s thinking about giving all three races a shot.
“The main focus is the 200 and after that I want to go after the 100m. Bolt medalled in the 100 and 200m. But there’s no one who’s medalled in the 100m, 200m, and 400m. I’ve heard that Fred Kerley (the silver medallist in the 100m in Tokyo and a former bronze medallist in the 400m at the World Championships) is trying for it. That would be an interesting challenge for me as well,” he says.
None of this will be easy. It will be particularly challenging for Bednarek to adapt to the 100m. “Because I was first a 400m guy, the 200 is a lot easier. Training for it is like training for the 400m without any lactic acid build-up in your legs. It’s a lot easier actually and a lot of guys who run the 200 do that because the 400m is just unpleasant. But the 100m is hard because I have to get to the right angle when I’m starting off. It’s harder for me because I’m tall for a 100m runner. The shorter guys have an easier time getting off the blocks because they are already so close to the ground. The coach is always trying to teach me how to get to those angles. Naturally my body doesn’t like it and I keep thinking about it and that’s going to make me get off the blocks a little bit slower. I’m trying to get to a point where it’s naturally there and everything goes smoothly. The thing that I like about it is that I don’t think I’m anywhere near where my peak is,” he says.
He has a rough idea of where he wants to be. “Last year when I ran the 9.89 seconds in the USA trials, I was really distracted. I didn’t have my horse blinders on. I remember in the final, Justin (Gatlin) got hurt and I was looking at him while running. I almost ran into the next lane and hit Fred. Then at the finish line I didn’t even lean forward to catch the tape. And at the start I was slower than the other runners. These are all the small things I must fix. Once I get my start, I know I can run a 9.6 or 9.7-seconds race,” he says.
He has similar high targets in the 400m as well. “When I was in college, I ran a 44.7. And I did that even when I was saving energy for the 200m which was on the same day. This year also, I was coming back from injury and hadn’t run a 400m in three years but still ran a 45.37 race. I want to run the 400m in the 43-seconds range. I know I have it in me. I’d really like to have a 9.6 time in the 100m, 43 seconds 400m and 19.29 seconds in the 200m. That will look good on my resume. It will be something no one has ever done,” he says.
As he hopes to continue to perform on the track, Bednarek will try to raise his profile off it. “A lot of the invitational races in the USA are decided by how popular you are. If you are well known and if your agent is good, you could get a good lane. But there are just so many good runners and new runners coming in each year from the college system. You really must work hard to keep your name out there,” he says.
The branding game
Bednarek has had to find alternate ways to stay in the spotlight. On Nicollet’s suggestion he adopted the ‘Kung fu Kenny’ moniker, wearing colourful hachimaki style headband and making a tai-chi inspired greeting at the start of races. His social media profiles too have the Kung fu Kenny treatment. “I’ve never done kung fu at any point, but I’d like to learn. I just wanted to stand out as an athlete. Some of the girls have colorful hair and nails. In the men’s side, there’s nothing like that. We all have the same gear and everything. I wanted to have my own push on the track, and it made sense for me because the kung fu culture has a set of values that resonate with me like discipline, humbleness, dedication,” he says.
While the name has caught on, not every branding attempt by Bednarek has had the same level of success. Bednarek took part in a game of ‘tag’ as part of a YouTube influencer tournament organised by Mr Beast – one of the most popular YouTube stars. Introduced as the fastest man in the world, Bednarek was tagged by a YouTube celebrity Jake Paul within a few seconds. “Getting tagged by Jake Paul was probably the lowest point of my career,” Bednarek laughs. “I didn’t even get a chance to dodge him. As soon as anyone asks me about that incident, I always go – ‘aw crap! I’m not getting into this.’ My teammates trip on me all the time,” he says.
Despite the embarrassment, Bednarek says he’s up for similar challenges in the future. But he also realises that true fame will come only through his exploits on the track. That belief was reemphasised recently in India.
A few days ago, while walking on a beach in Goa, Bednarek was approached by a man. “I had my shirt off and this guy comes up to me with his son and asks if his kid could take a picture with me. I was thinking ‘wow I’ve got so many fans here’. And then he asked me who I was. He had no idea who I was but just liked my physique. It was a bit deflating but also a little funny,” he says. “Hopefully over the next couple of years, I’ll do enough on the track for people to recognise me because of my achievements.”