Sprinter Kenny Bednarek’s meteoric rise impresses 200-metre Canadian champion

When Kenny Bednarek signed with Nike and moved to Florida in the summer of 2019 to work with coach Dennis Mitchell, new training partner Aaron Brown saw a raw talent that didn’t know a lot about sprinting.

Bednarek had flown under the radar early in his career at Indian Hills, a small junior college in Ottumwa, Iowa. But he raised eyebrows as a 20-year-old in May 2019 when he won the 200 metres in 19.82 seconds at the National Junior College Athletic Association national championships.

Bednarek also ran 44.73 at the event in the 400 to become the second man ever, and first American athlete, to break 20 seconds in the 200 and 45 seconds in the 400 on the same day. A year earlier, he was winning multiple state titles for Rice Lake High School in Wisconsin.

“He was gifted and I couldn’t believe how fast he was running his workouts every day,” Brown, the two-time defending Canadian champion in the 100 and 200, wrote in an email to CBC Sports on Wednesday from Doha, Qatar, where he will race Bednarek at Friday’s Diamond League meet.

“I always thought once he figured out the specifics of his race strategy, he would be very tough to beat.”

CBC Sports will have live streaming coverage of the competition beginning at 12 p.m. ET, with the men’s 200 featuring Brown and Bednarek scheduled for 12:42 p.m.

By the time Brown saw Bednarek stop the clock in 19.80 last August at the Montverde Academy in Florida, the American speedster had matured as an athlete with the ability to execute his race pattern.

Pulled away from field in Gateshead

Brown is 0-for-3 this outdoor season against Bednarek, now 22, who was born in Tulsa, Okla. The closest matchup was at the USATF Golden Games on May 9 when Bednarek was edged at the line by reigning world champion Noah Lyles (19.90-19.94) in Walnut, Calif., with Brown finishing fourth in a season-best 20.26.

Last Sunday, Bednarek opened a lead off the curve in the rain in Gateshead, England, and increased it over the final 50 metres to clock a 20.30 winning time in a headwind to beat Brown (20.79) and fellow Canadian Andre De Grasse (20.85) at the Diamond League season opener.

“What he’s been doing is not a surprise to me at all. His ability to run great curves is unique to this season,” Brown said of Bednarek, who also runs the 100 and 400. “He can also finish with that 400-metre strength endurance to pull away at the end [of races]. His ability to [compete] from 100 to 400 metres like some of the other great athletes makes him a threat in the 200.”

WATCH | Brown, De Grasse place 2nd, 3rd at Diamond League opener:

Toronto’s Aaron Brown and Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont. placed 2nd and 3rd in the 200m race at the Diamond League stop in Gateshead, United Kingdom. 1:53

De Grasse, the 2016 Olympic triple medallist, has split two races with Bednarek this season, having also finished second in the 100 at the Tom Jones Memorial Invitational in April in Gainesville, Fla, where Bednarek was third.

After flashing his potential early in 2019, Bednarek suffered a hamstring injury at U.S. championships in July and failed to advance beyond the first round at worlds two months later because of a nerve flare-up. But it could be a different story this July at the Tokyo Olympics should Bednarek remain healthy, given his success this season.

Brown, meanwhile, is working on fixing “technical errors” in the 200 before facing a loaded field on Friday that features world No. 2 Ramil Guliyev of Turkey — the 2017 world champion — 2019 world 100 silver medallist Justin Gatlin, 39, making his 200 season debut, and eighth-ranked Adam Gemili of Great Britain.

“No Olympic medals will be awarded [Friday] so even though you always want to win and do your best, the important thing is to get better each race and work on the technical parts of the race,” Brown said. “It’s definitely a strong field and I’m excited to test myself against them.”

Two other Canadians will compete at Qatar Sports Club in the 25th edition of the Doha meeting:

Derek Drouin, men’s high jump, 12:05 p.m. ET

The reigning Olympic champion from Corunna, Ont., returns to Diamond League for the first time since his third-place finish at the Bislett Games on June 15, 2017 in Oslo, Norway, where he cleared 2.25 metres.

WATCH | 2016 Olympic win a day Drouin ‘will never forget’:

Derek Drouin of Corunna, Ont., looks back at his gold medal performance in high jump at Rio 2016. 0:57

Injuries have limited the 31-year-old to four competitions since April 2019, including last week at the Toronto Track and Field Centre, where Drouin took 12 jumps and cleared 2.24. The automatic entry standard for the Tokyo Olympics in July is 2.33.

Drouin won a bronze medal in London in 2012, became world champion in 2015 and soared 2.38 to the Olympic title the following year in Rio. His 2.40 personal best was achieved on April 25, 2014, and stands as the Canadian record.

Alysha Newman, women’s pole vault, 10:58 a.m

Friday will mark the Canadian record holder’s first high-level outdoor competition since the world championship final on Sept. 29, 2019 in Doha, where the London, Ont., native cleared 4.80m to place fifth.

The 2016 Olympian didn’t compete outdoors in 2020 after making a last-minute decision last August to not travel to Europe and compete in a Diamond League exhibition street event in Lausanne, Switzerland, stating it wasn’t worth risking her health and safety during a global pandemic heading into an Olympic year.

Newman, who had an indoor season best of 4.65 this past Jan. 2, recorded a no-height at the May 2 high-performance outdoor meet in Chula Vista, Calif., meaning she failed to clear any bar in the competition.

The world’s third-ranked women’s pole vaulter will be part of a stacked field on Friday that includes world Nos. 1 and 2, Anzhelika Sidorova of Russia and Katerina Stefanidi of Greece, along with Americans Sandi Morris (4th) and Katie Nageotte (5th), and Holly Bradshaw (6th) of Great Britain.

On Aug. 24, 2019, Newman cleared a personal best 4.82 at the Meeting de Paris to beat Stefanidi — the 2016 Olympic gold medallist and three-time Diamond League champion — for her first-ever victory on the Diamond League professional track and field circuit.

WATCH | Why Diamond League is so important heading into Tokyo 2020:

With just under 9 weeks until the Tokyo games kick off, Diamond League is a final opportunity for athletes to meet qualifying times, and make their mark on the Track and Field world before The Olympics. Anastasia Bucsis is joined by Perdita Felicien to talk about the upcoming events. 2:34

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