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June 18, 2012How about those odds? What would they be? Erik Kynard, Jr. looks at the bluest sky ever to hit Manhattan, his backside planted on the mat. He yells. How does this happen a week before leaving for the largest national championship track meet in the world, which will determine the athletes to represent Team USA at the 2012 London Olympic Games?
Erik Kynard, Jr. has been jumping since his eighth-grade year in Toledo, Ohio. He's the latest in a line of some of the finest high jumpers in recent United States history, many of which have been coached by legendary Cliff Rovelto. Erik Kynard, Jr. is only 21. Erik Kynard, Jr. has already done a lot. The week before, he defended his title at the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Afterward, he wore a cardboard crown that he picked up earlier in the day at Burger King. King Kynard. And now, one week before his next stop at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., he lays shirtless on the mat at the edge of the R.V. Christian Track on the Kansas State campus.
He has just jumped higher than he has ever jumped in his life.
"AHHHHHH!!!" he screams from the mat. A momentary celebration.
Sure, this was practice. And sure, he jumped from the "box," which is actually a training ramp that measures eight inches at its peak. Why use a training ramp? Because track and field is mental, high jump is mental, and in order to achieve it, you've got to see it, so you push higher and higher. It's all a part of the deal.
Kynard and Rovelto dangle the measuring tape from the bar to the ground. It measures 8 feet, 6.25 inches. That means theoretically, when subtracting the area where Kynard planted his right foot on the ramp before takeoff -- just about the midpoint -- his jump would've measured about 8 feet, just short of the world record.
No high jumper in the history of the United States has ever cleared 8 feet in official competition. Charles Austin cleared 2.40 meters (7.87 feet) in Zurich in 1991.
"Man, that was high, straight up," Kynard says upon retreating to his bench and cranking his head back to grab a swig of water from the green Gatorade squeeze bottle.
Kynard measures 6-foot, 4 1/2 inches and 193 pounds and carries about four percent body fat. Six days before, under sunny skies and 81-degree temperatures, Kynard cleared 7 feet, 8 inches (2.34 meters) inside Drake Stadium to repeat as NCAA champion. He entered ninth on this year's collegiate list. Skeptics didn't think he could do it.
By the end of the event, he was attempting to tie the collegiate record of 2.38 meters. He barely missed, but yes, the bar did fall.
"I did some great things," he says, "and I did some things that weren't so great."
And now, Kynard on Thursday travels to Eugene, Ore., which during the last week in June is otherwise known as "Tracktown, USA." It's where K-Stater Christian Smith qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 800-meter run by diving to a third-place finish.
Sometime shortly before 7 p.m. Saturday, Kynard will begin his quest to become one of three high jumpers to represent the United States in the London 2012 Olympics.
In competition, there are no theoreticals to it: Kynard is one of only two high jumpers in the world to clear 7 feet, 8 inches (2.34 meters) in the high jump at an official event this season.
For Kynard, who on that 92-degree June afternoon at the R.V. Christian Track jumped higher than he ever has in his life (with aid of a training ramp, that is), it's not about competitors, though. It's a battle with the bar.
"At the end of the day, the bar is going to win," he says, "unless you stop."
And for as energy-drainingly hot it was upon the track at K-State, Rovelto, who just completed his 20th year as K-State head coach and has served as a USA team staff member seven times, levies somewhat of a warning.
"The reality is that it's in Eugene, Ore., and it might be pouring down rain," he says. "You just don't know. Erik goes into it not just with the idea of being in the top three, but winning. That's the mindset you have to have."
It's all so delicate and at times mentally grueling. The runway for the high jump is 15 meters long. Competitors can place as many as two markers along the runway. Kynard takes a 10-step approach, so he measures out where his fifth step is supposed to be -- where his left foot is supposed to go -- and affixes a small white marker to the track.
"It's very precise," Rovelto says.
The final five steps are up to Kynard before his takeoff. His finish line? A crossbar measuring 4 meters long that he cannot touch.
The question, on this sweltering June afternoon at the R.V. Christian Track, becomes this: Who will win in the Olympic Trials? The 21-year-old wearing a black Chicago Bulls ball cap, a dark blue Nike t-shirt, black gym shorts, black socks and black track shoes during this afternoon practice? Or the bar?
The right foot. Yes, the right foot is what Erik Kynard, Jr. can control. He has five steps to go before (hopefully) clearing the bar. He must make the most of every step along the way. It starts with the right foot. This is his world, his domain.
With his height, weight and leaping ability, the common question among those mainstream sports fans that spend Saturdays at Bill Snyder Family Stadium and winter nights at Bramlage Coliseum is this: Why not play football? Why not play basketball?
No. No way, Kynard insists. He won't allow anyone else to be in control.
"I mean, I always played sports, whether it was organized or whatever," he says. "I played basketball as a freshman for about two weeks. And I hated it. I like football better than basketball, honestly. I was pretty good, but I was pretty slim. My first game in football I broke my (left) ankle. The only problem I have with football, being a wide receiver, I hate wasting my efforts, you know?
"I should've been the quarterback. I couldn't handle not being in control of my own destiny. Running a route and being overthrown? Or being underthrown? Or the ball not coming to me at all? No, I'm not like that. Basketball? I have a more dominant personality. I like to be the master of my own fate."
Track and field does that. Track and field allows Kynard to be his own master -- to be in control.
He enters the air-conditioned meeting room adjacent to the men's locker room at the R.V. Christian Track Complex and slides his frame into a folding chair. He wears a dark blue Nike t-shirt, black gym shorts hanging off his knees. Black Nike socks are pushed up his calves and his feet occupy untied black Nikes. A yellow Livestrong bracelet offers the only hint of brightness upon his body. The Bulls cap is black with a red, flat bill, with those beady eyes from the Bull logo staring at you.
Kynard's eyes look up from beneath the ball cap.
"I didn't have an issue with football," he says, "it was just physically, my make up back then. If I knew as much as I do now about the body, and knew that I would've been able to put on weight and gave it time, I definitely would've stepped it up on the field."
A 6-foot-4, 193-pounder catching passes from Collin Klein while his body nearly parallels the crossbar of the upright? Could you imagine?
Instead, shortly before 4:30 p.m., Kynard walks out of the meeting room and begins the long walk down the infield grass to the end of the track where the high jump mat is positioned. He sits on a purple metal bench artfully designed with his name and image painted next to the words "2011 NCAA HIGH JUMP CHAMPION." He exchanges his Nikes for black track shoes while still wearing the Chicago Bulls cap and takes a swig from the squeeze bottle.
"You have to be mentally sound," he says. "You have to be mentally strong, man. To be 6-foot-4 1/2 and to look at a bar that's 7-feet-8 or 7-feet-9, and be like, 'Man, I've gotta throw my body over this,' you've gotta be mentally sound. I won't even say it's 50-50 because it's not, but it's pretty close, man, the mental and physical percentage for the event. You have to be tough.
"It's a more graceful event. It can be aggressive. I've been known to be an aggressor at the event sometimes, when I get pumped up and ready to go."
The left foot. Think about all the pounding that left foot has taken through the years. Heck, yeah, the high jump is a graceful event. Truth is, most high jumpers aren't necessarily fast. Most are fluid. Erik Kynard, Jr. is both. During his practice runs, he bolts down the runway over and over again, each time swerving on a dime near the mat's edge before downshifting his gears and completing a crescent moon-shaped path. That within itself is an art.
Rovelto stands in a purple K-State polo, arms crossed, observing each of these strides through his dark sunglasses. Only once did he comment, "You're a little ahead."
Rovelto is painstakingly humble, but the list of accomplishments under his tutelage cannot be overstated. Truth is, K-State is one of the elite high jumping schools in the nation with six NCAA Champions in his tenure. He has coached 45 All-Americans and 26 conference champion high jumpers.
High jumpers Ed Broxterman and Connie Teaberry participated in the Atlanta 1996 Olympics and Nathan Leeper represented the United States in the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Rovelto has coached others outside of K-State as well. Jamie Nieto took fourth place in 2004 while Matt Hemingway took the silver medal. Jesse Williams competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is currently the defending world champion.
"As good as they all are, I think at this point in time, in terms of his age and training age, I think Erik is the best of all of them," Rovelto said. "That doesn't mean he's going to go on and do -- I don't know, we'll see what he does going forward. But I think at this point in time, he's accomplished more, he's done more, he's jumped higher.
"Innately, and in a lot of ways, too, they all worked hard. None of it came easy. But I don't think he takes a backseat to anybody in terms of work ethic, either. He's a good one to work with, there's no question about that."
Yes, the left foot has taken a pounding. Kynard recounts the tale of how he broke his left ankle during his first high school football game.
"Then I had to take a fitness test in gym. You can't fail gym class," he says. "To pass gym in the state of Ohio, you had to run a mile. I actually crutched a mile in 11 minutes, or something like that. I did all kinds of things to try to not be handicapped. Those were some tall crutches, some tall, wooden crutches."
By now, Kynard had already started his love affair with track and field. As an eighth grader, he jumped 5-foot, 10 inches and didn't win the city championship.
"I lost," he says. "I took second. It was my first time losing. That's when I realized that I didn't ever want to lose again. That's how it all started."
In 2008 and in the summer before his senior year at Robert S. Rogers High School, Kynard was the only high school high jumper at the 2008 Olympic Trials. He went on to become a two-time state champion in the high jump, won the Nike Indoor National title twice and the Outdoor once, was a two-time USA Junior National runner-up, competed in the 2008 World Junior Championships and was the runner-up at the 2009 Pan America Games.
"I remember my dad told me when I was about to be a freshman in high school, 'I don't have any money for college, so you better be good at something,'" Kynard says. "Those were his exact words."
Erik Kynard, Sr., rarely watched his son compete in high school.
"Somebody asked him one time why he doesn't go to meets," Kynard says. "He said, "I know he's going to win. The only question is how high he's going to jump.'"
But Kynard, Sr., watched his won at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. He saw Kynard, Jr. clear 7-feet-8 and defend his crown.
"I actually didn't see him because I had drug testing (immediately after the event)," Kynard says. "My father had to get back on the road. He sent me a text. He said, 'Trade the crown in for a tiara until you jump 7-9.' He was proud of me."
The K-State media guide says Erik Kynard, Jr. is the son of Erik Kynard, Sr., and Brandynn Adams, and lists that he has six sisters and two brothers.
"That's not right. That's changed," Kynard says, counting on his hands. "I have three brothers. My dad just had a son. My mom and dad weren't married, so it wasn't wild and crazy. My dad has his kids and my mom has four. It wasn't anything wild. I have a lot of people looking up to me, as you can imagine. I have one older sister. She's short, so she even looks up to me.
"We were a blue-collar family, middle class, nothing extravagant coming up, and nothing to poverish. I just work hard. I lived primarily with my mother, two half-brothers younger than me, and a little sister."
Asked whether he got his competitive fire from his mother or father, Kynard replies, "I don't know whom I get it from, honestly. Maybe from both. Maybe it's something Erik Kynard, Jr. just came up with on his own. My dad is competitive but he also thinks I do too much. A lot of people think I do too much, that maybe I work too hard. He's scared that I might work myself into the ground. Hey, I'm 21, and I'm going to be working until I can't work no more."
The right foot comes down again and with two steps to go, Kynard remains focused but instinct slightly takes over. Yes, he's a mixture of speed and grace. More times than not when he's sprinting down the runway, the crowd observes something else along the way: His socks.
Years before Robert Griffin III unveiled the Superman socks, Kynard was sprinting down runways as a blur in an assortment of different decorative socks. In May 2009, as a senior he won the city league championships in the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles and won the long jump, but those were hobbies. The high jump remained his specialty. He cleared 6-feet-10 with ease for the title. Then he cleared 7-1. Then he went for the state record of 7 feet, 3 1/2 inches. No problem. He raised his arms in celebration after winning his fourth city league title in a week.
And he wore a blue sock with stars on his left leg, and a red sock with stars on his right. That captured its share of attention, too.
"Man, high school uniforms are plain," Kynard says. "There's no swag to them. I had to switch it up and personalize it. It might've been something that sparked in me. I'm not a fan of conformity, not at all. I think it's for the weak."
Kynard's desire for total individual control is revealed in various forms. The customized purple-and-white striped socks that he wore to defend his NCAA Championship in Des Moines underscores his individuality, as does the cardboard crown that he wore afterward. For as much as Kynard seeks control, he seeks to entertain and keep it fun, as well.
He'll yell obscenities at the bar just before heading down the runway, then once on the mat, yell again, before rising and sprinting down the track in celebration. The highlight tapes reveal as much. And he makes no apologies for his excitement, passion or confidence.
A crown sitting atop a cursive capital E is also tattooed upon his right shoulder.
"I wouldn't say I'm backwards, but I carry myself, and it's not intentional, no snide arrogance or cockiness, but I have a certain confidence about myself," Kynard says. "One of my favorite quotes is by Marcus Garvey: 'Without confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life.' When I walk into a meet, it's not an option of whether I win or lose. The only outcome is winning. That's kind of how I live myself.
"I don't have to walk around and broadcast, 'I'm built Ford tough.' I don't have to walk around like I'm a Mercedes or a luxury sedan. You just see me and say, 'Hey, that's the best.' It's no question. You don't even have to speak on it. You just know. The crown and the E? Hey, to me in my world and my kingdom, I'm King Erik Kynard, Jr. and that's all there is to it."
During one of his early attempts in practice, he kicked the bar while attempting 6 feet, 11 inches. He swung around returned to the bench -- "It's like a damn oven out here," he says -- took a swig of water, and in his best Henry Winkler impersonation from The Waterboy, whined, "Gaaaa-tor-aiiid!!" before returning to the runway.
"What are you telling him?" he said to Rovelto, who was speaking to a visitor.
"How I beat you," Rovelto said.
"In a hotdog-eating contest?"
"Oh," Kynard said, stung by humility. "You will beat me in chess."
Kynard lines up again as voices abruptly hush. He takes off, clears 6 feet, 11 inches with ease, lays on the mat and yells.
What's he mad about?
By now when the left foot hits the track, it's all about pressure and placement. After all, the next step is takeoff. A bad placement can cause catastrophe. And in the battle with the bar, there's no place for that. None.
Kynard recalls the path to him finding his place in a college program.
"I competed in the Olympic Trials in 2008 and I was one of the guys who could virtually go to any university he wanted to," he says. "I jumped 7 feet when I was 15 years old. When I finished high school, my PR was 7-4 1/2. You may know how recruiting is. You've got people eating out of the palm of your hand. I knew I was good. Looking at schools, this was back when they still sent out media guides. I remember I'd open a media guide, look at the school record, and if I'd already beaten that school record, I'd toss it to the side. I needed to go somewhere where I could follow some footsteps and do greater things. I didn't want to go to a campus and already be the big man. I wanted to learn and take over.
"I jumped in the Trials in 2008 and I was searching for a university to attend and Coach Rovelto's name came up. I mean, when you're at the Olympic Trials when you're 17 years old, my coach was asking around, 'Where should he go? Who's a great coach?' Coach Rovelto's name came up."
Kynard took a recruiting visit to K-State. By now, of course, he'd seen things and had done things. He'd taken visits in search of his college home.
"When I came to my visit here, I didn't go to a football game," he says. "I didn't go anywhere. I didn't take a campus tour. I came on my visit and they asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to stay in my hotel. I didn't need anybody to try to occupy me or distract me from what's going on around me. I just wanted to sit here. I sat in the hotel.
"They always ask you, 'Can you see yourself being here?' So I sat in my hotel room because I knew that's how it was going to be. It was going to be solitary. I just sat in that room and said, 'OK, this is what it's going to be like. You're going to be in your dorm and it's going to be just like this. Can you do it? Can you be successful with this environment around you?' I decided I could."
Rovelto saw Kynard jump in the 2008 Trials. But this was something new. It could be something special.
"Well, to be really honest, guys like Erik were ranked about the very best coming out of high school. Historically, we haven't gotten a lot of those guys. They go to USC or Arkansas, or those places. We certainly were aware of him. We saw film of him and then we saw him jump in person in the Trials when he was still in high school. I really think Erik and his high school coaches did such a good job of researching programs. When it got right down to it, we were probably higher on their radar screen than he was on ours not because we didn't recognize his talent but because we were being realistic in terms of our chances of getting him to come to school here.
"But once he made the decision that this was going to be a good fit for him, obviously, we were more keen to actively recruiting him. After he had an opportunity to talk with our jumpers -- Scott Sellers and the older guys that jumped with us, that was when he started to think more seriously about Kansas State. I'm not saying he recruited us, but he was just attuned to what was important, then he researched it and that's what kind of led him to us."
Once upon a time, Erik Kynard, Sr., ran track and field, and played football in Toledo and sought a college, as well. And here comes an interesting twist to the Kynard story.
"My dad played football and ran track and actually came on a visit to Kansas State," Kynard says. "He was supposed to come to K-State for track and he was going to try and play football as well, but he had me. So he went to the University of Toledo and ran track and didn't play football. Growing up, he always said he should've gotten away from home and gone to Kansas State. Low and behold, that's where I ended up."
Kynard always aspires to greatness but he adds, "I must live up to my own expectations first. At the end of the day, I do this for Erik Kynard, Jr. not Kansas State University, not Coach Cliff Rovelto. First and foremost, I have to do what I came here to do. I've got K-State across my chest.
"It's always great coming back to Manhattan and seeing yourself on a poster or billboard, or seeing people tweet me. It shows how proud they are of me and it does make me proud and excited to put on a purple uniform."
And the purple-and-white striped socks to go along with it.
It's the final step. And there's no turning back now. For a split second, as Erik Kynard, Jr. it doesn't appear that he pounds the ground. It's more like a departing love tap with the track before he bounces, springs and begins his climb through the air.
The only place to go is up.
And Kynard has certainly carved out an identity.
Truth is, a segment of Kansas State fans likely didn't know Kynard until the weeks leading up to the Big 12 Outdoor Track and Field Championship at the R.V. Christian Track during the first weekend in June. That's when a promotional video went viral across the Wildcat Nation, when fans saw Kynard high jump over close friend Jordan Henriquez, a 6-foot-11 senior center on the K-State men's basketball team.
"It was cool," Kynard recalls. "It wasn't that big of a deal to me. It was fun seeing his reaction. That was more fun than anything. We did like three takes. He flinched a couple times, so?"
Kynard laughs and shakes his head. Yet he remains unable to shake the facial features that bear resemblance to a high-flying identifiable star in a different sports arena -- Kobe Bryant.
"I met Jordan (Henriquez) in the dorms, actually," he says. "That's going to be the rave of all of the basketball players, obviously, when you look like Kobe. Most athletes hang out with each other. More so than anything, Jordan and I have mutual respect. I have a lot of respect for him as a person and athlete. He's really cool. That's how the friendship started."
Kynard prides himself in being in control and being an aggressor. So does he see some Kobe Bryant-like characteristics in him?
"Um, not necessarily," he says. "They say everybody has a twin -- whatever. They say great minds think alike. When you aspire to do something, when you're very passionate about what you do, whether it's on the basketball court, football field or on the track, you share some characteristics with great people. The physical attributes? Hey, that was just kind of a shot in the dark. As far as our aspirations for our craft, it's just something that happens, I guess."
Everybody has dreams. The question to Kynard, who has done so much, is this: What do you dream about?
"I really don't dream much anymore," he says. "I dream and now I'm living my dream. Now I have to find the motivation to dream. When you're a kid, you dream about going to the Olympics, you dream about doing these great things in athletics. Then when you start to see them unfolding and start seeing your dreams come true, you have to make adjustments.
"I'm still adjusting. That's it."
And out on the track during the June afternoon practice, Kynard makes an adjustment to his routine in order to dream a little bigger: He sets the bar at 8 feet, 6 inches, and positions the training ramp in front of the mat.
"If I make this, I'm done for the day," he announces.
Except he doesn't clear it. He yells at himself on the mat, then rolls off, and storms back to the bench. Another swig of water. Then comes off the t-shirt. He throws that to the ground. Then he throws on his Chicago Bulls cap. Marches to the runway. Stops. Pauses. Looks at the bar. Throws off the cap.
He lines up, takes two breaths, and is off.
Then comes the landing, the yelling, the jumping, the bouncy steps back to the bench, smiling and victorious.
"How high is that box?" he says, assumingly half-jokingly. "I may have the world record."
Highest jump ever in Kynard's life?
"Off a ramp?" he says. "Yeah."
It's what it's all about. Practicing for new heights.
Practicing to defeat the bar.
Kynard understands there's so much left. So much farther his jumps can take him. So much more than those five final steps.
"Obviously, I want to make this team and go to London, but that's not it," he says. "I don't aspire to only be an Olympian. It's just like going to an NCAA meet. I don't aspire to make it to nationals. I don't aspire to settle for things. I don't aspire to just go to the Olympics. I want to jump and make the finals, and hey, if I jump well, I can be in the mix. Anything can happen in athletics, especially in track and field, and especially in the high jump.
"I never want to finish second to anyone. I don't like losing. I'm not going into the Trials saying my goal is to make this team. I want to win this thing. I expect a lot out of myself. I don't work hard and I'm not out in the sun training and I'm not in the weight room lifting for no reason. When I go into a meet and win, it's just my expectation. That's it. One thing I've had to deal with is I never appreciated winning until I lost.
"I do appreciate winning a lot."
Similarly, Kynard aspires for something else in his life: a college degree. He recently announced on Twitter that he would return for his senior season at K-State. And that's remarkable and admirable as well. He reveals that he's going to slow down his course load and expects to graduate next summer or in that following fall.
"People say, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to take a year off and come back,' but it hardly ever happens," Kynard says. "I figure, I'm almost done, I'm going to stay. I don't feel like I'm ready to be out in Europe on the track and field circuit. I'm a student of my craft. Once I exhaust my eligibility or turn in my chips, that's it.
"You've got one shot at college, basically."
No telling what Kynard might accomplish as a senior. Heck, no telling what he might accomplish at the Olympic Trials, and perhaps, beyond.
It all starts at the Olympic Trials. And just how well he can make the most of those five final steps down the runway.
But he has some unfinished business to take care of before that. He throws on his t-shirt and straightens the Chicago Bulls cap.
"I gotta go do some homework," Kynard sighs a few minutes after jumping higher than he ever has in his life. "I have to take a test before I leave for the Trials."
His major? Business Entrepreneurship.
The plan after attaining that degree?
"No idea, honestly," he says.
"But as you can see, I'm not a big fan of limiting myself."