Donning a Superman cut-off tee and stepping off the track he immortalized for the final time, Kenny Bednarek’s route back to his team tent at last year’s WIAA state championships was blocked by young autograph seekers.
Laying claim to the fastest ever 200 and 400-meter runs by a prep on Wisconsin soil, the Rice Lake phenom said goodbye to a crowd at Veterans Memorial Stadium in La Crosse that spent four years watching superhero-like performances from a kid who will go down as the greatest sprinter Wisconsin has ever seen.
Those signature seekers who brought their meet programs, t-shirts and just about anything else capable of holding a permanent marker weren’t just after the guy who set the prep sports world on fire with times that shattered 20-year old state records.
They wanted the ability to show people someday that they saw Bednarek run before he hit the big time.
He lit up Wisconsin with times that may never be replicated again — 20.43 in the 200 and 46.19 in the 400, not to mention 10.42 in the 100. Folks who gave the seven-time state champion a standing ovation three years running in La Crosse wanted to know just how many more levels he had him.
In his first indoor season at Indian Hills Community College, just months removed from his high school graduation, Superman took the air again to show the sky might not even be the limit.
On Dec. 8, Bednarek broke 46 seconds in the 400 in his first collegiate race, a 45.93. And on Feb. 2 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Bednarek clocked a 20.3, the 13th-fastest indoor 200 time. Ever. As in the history of the world.
“I’ve never seen Carl Lewis in person, and I know he is kind of the pinnacle” said sprint coach and mentor Leron Williams. “But when I look at Kenny, I say when it’s all said and done and we are doing breaking down his form, I think you are looking at a career that is going to be very long.”
Bednarek won Indian Hills its first national junior college championship at last weekend’s national meet as he clocked in another sub-46 — 45.96 to be exact — in the 400.
He blew up the social media with his electrifying times, especially after taking down some of the top Division 1 runners at Nebraska.
“Every time he steps on the track, he wants to make people look,” Indian Hills head coach Blake Albrecht said.
That’s something track fans in Wisconsin won’t argue.
While his running abilities creates a buzz, it’s the quietness of Ottumwa, Iowa, that has really suited the humble and soft-spoken star.
On a smaller campus with little outside noise it, Bednarek has been surrounded by people who have tweaked his mechanics and put him through elite workouts. Not only that, but those same folks care about Bednarek the person and student.
He’s comfortable there, and it is showing with his torrid terror that has made him a household name across the country.
“I think being here has made me more focused,” Bednarek said. “Since it’s a higher level, you have to be serious. This is a quiet place and not much to do around here. We are just more focused on what we are supposed to do.
“Being here in a small area just helps keep me on track.”
His training plans during the preseason forced extreme focus. They were certainly eye-opening for the former Warrior.
He had some fine coaching at Rice Lake — the Warriors won the Division 2 team title last year after finishing second in 2018. At Indian Hills, he’s been exposed to more extensive workouts as well as more attention to detail.
Bednarek has coaches who help break his form down and build it back up.
Williams also introduced him to some longer intervals, 350 to 400 meter kind of repeats.
While Bednarek, who would occasionally dabble in the 800 for Rice Lake, had run those kinds of workouts in practice before, Williams cut his rest time down considerably between repeats.
“What I wanted to do was focus, taking his naturally gifted speed and training him longer under duress so he could get used to training under lactic acid,” Williams said. “That last 100 of the 400, we wanted to make sure he could handle that before we got to the nitty gritty of his training.”
Even though he drew standing ovations every time he came around the curve in high school, there’d be times Bednarek would tighten up down the straightaway and not come close to his first half split during a 400.
Coupled with his new training and a weightroom regiment that focused on his core, Bednarek was able to keep form all the way through to the line right away to begin the season.
“The core thing, I could tell it was a huge factor,” Bednarek said. “The way I run, instead of using my feet I use my arms and all that stuff. Every day after a meet I’d be sore. So I know I use my whole body to run that fast. I finished stronger and stayed upright, all that stuff.”
Bednarek blew away everybody he came up against this winter, just as he did in high school, where he went unbeaten in individual races his sophomore through senior seasons.
His biggest competition has been the clock as well as himself. He works his darndest to get the best of both of them.
“You never have to motivate him,” Albrecht said. “He’s always ready for the next thing. He never races to win. He is always going to run as hard as he can.”
A cramping issue slowed up the end to Bednarek’s indoor season. He actually had to withdraw from the 200 finals at nationals.
He felt like he was ready to pop something super special, and it’s made him up his goals for the outdoor season.
If he stays healthy and continues to progress under his current training, Bednarek hopes to break 20 in the 200 and dip well under 45 in the 400. With his indoor times, that’s a fairly realistic jump. Keep in mind he never broke 48 indoors in the 400 in high school and went almost two seconds faster by the end of outdoor.
For reference, Bednarek’s 200 time would already qualify him for the 2016 Olympic Trials standard. His 400 would be a half-second off.
Bednarek has a lot of decisions upcoming. He could have the opportunity to turn pro sooner than later. He could also transfer out to attend a high-profile Division 1 school.
For now, though, he’ll focus on continuing to do what he’s done the past four years.
“I feel like anywhere I go I feel like I can go out and blow out the competition,” he said.
Who knows what kinds of doors — nationally and internationally — he’ll open.
But if you were lucky enough to track Superman down last June, best be sure to hold on to that signature you collected.