Jun. 18—It's been a long time coming.
In track and field circles, Kenny Bednarek is well-known. Within the sport, the Rice Lake graduate has made a name for himself as one of track's rising stars since turning pro two years ago.
But this opportunity inserts a new element into the equation.
Now he's finally getting the chance to become a household name on a global scale. That's the kind of effect getting to an Olympic Games can have on an athlete's reputation.
As he enters the United States Olympic Trials this week in Eugene, Oregon, Bednarek is ready for his long-awaited shot.
"For me, right now it's to make a statement," Bednarek said in a Team USA interview. "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."
The pedigree is already there to make it happen. The 22-year-old is one of the top competitors on the planet in the 200-meter dash.
He's run the race at five professional meets this season. Four ended with first-place finishes.
Three of his four victories came with sub-20 second times. Two were only minimally aided by wind. The only run that didn't break 20 seconds was on a day with brutally wet, frigid conditions near the east coast of England.
For reference: The only runner to go under 20 seconds in the 200 at the 2016 Olympic Games was gold medalist Usain Bolt.
"Physically, he's one of the best athletes I've ever seen. He has a true gift," Brent Ewing, Bednarek's college coach at Indian Hills Community College, told the Leader-Telegram last year. "His mechanics, above anything, are really what you notice right away when you watch him run, just how mechanically sound he is. That's what really sets him apart from not just a college sprinter, but even other professional sprinters."
Bednarek has beaten up-and-comers and Olympic medalists — like Canadian 2016 silver medalist Andre DeGrasse — alike. Just like his days at Rice Lake, few can measure up to him.
The only loss the seven-time Wisconsin state champion suffered this year came against world champion Noah Lyles by 0.04 seconds at the USATF Golden Games in May. Bednarek led much of the race before Lyles chased him down at the last moment.
"When I raced against Noah I wasn't really focused on me; I was more focused on him," Bednarek told Team USA, "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 alright."
They'll likely get a rematch next weekend in Eugene.
The 200 is where he really shines, but Bednarek will race in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the Olympic Trials. The 100 will take place this weekend, with the finals on Sunday. The 200 is slated for next weekend, with the finals scheduled for Sunday night.
The United States can enter a maximum of three athletes in any single event at this summer's Tokyo Games. Anything can happen, but Bednarek appears to be in good shape to take one of the three spots in the 200.
Making the team would announce his presence to a nationwide — and global — audience.
"I'll just do what I always do and compete, hopefully be one of the top athletes and win gold," Bednarek told the Leader-Telegram last year.
Schneider c ompeting in hurdles
Eau Claire native Drake Schneider will also compete at the Trials after qualifying in the 400-meter hurdles. Schneider, a Memorial graduate, runs collegiately at Montana State University.
Schneider reached the NCAA Division I West regional meet for the Bobcats this spring, taking 34th in the 400 hurdles there. He was the Big Sky Conference champion in the event and owns the Bobcats' school record.
He's looking for a bit of redemption after missing out on the NCAA championship meet, a place he felt he should have gotten to this spring.
"I felt like that was a spot I should have been at, so this is just another race to redeem myself from that," said Schneider, who is training in Bozeman, Montana. "Hopefully I can go out there and show everybody that I'm supposed to be there. I think that I can do that."
This week was a roller coaster for Schneider, who found out he had been accepted into the Trials on Tuesday. Now that's he got the chance, he's focused on making the most of it.
"I think the main goal is just to run my race, make sure I don't mess up my stride and pattern," Schneider said. "The time will take care of itself. I would love to go under 50 (seconds) because I definitely feel like that's in the realm of possibility, but if I can go in the low 50s again, I'd take it too. That would be a solid race for me."
Schneider is the son of UW-Eau Claire track and field coach Chip Schneider.
The first round of the 400 hurdles is slated to begin next Thursday at 9:32 p.m. CST. The semifinals are the following afternoon, and the finals take place on June 26 at 8:35 p.m. CST.
It will be the experience of a lifetime for the Memorial graduate.
"I don't want to get caught up in the moment before it happens. I think that will hit me a little bit more after the face," he said. "I think it's pretty easy to forget the level of competition that I'm walking into is a level above anything I've ever seen before. I'm trying to treat it as if it's just a really big meet right now and not get overwhelmed by the situation when I get there. It's just another 400 meters with 10 hurdles set around the track."
UW-Eau Claire track and field assistant coaches Curtis Jensen and Roger Steen will both compete in the shot put at the Olympic Trials on Friday.
The duo coaches throws for the Blugolds.
Shot put is the first event of the Trials, with the qualifying round beginning at 2 p.m. CST on Friday. The final takes place a few hours later at 8:30 p.m.
UW-Eau Claire alumnus Dylan Cooper nearly qualified for the Trials in the decathlon. The former Blugold's top score of 7,691 in the event was just 94 points shy of the lowest qualifying score that was accepted into the field at Eugene.