Timing is everything: Prospect graduate David Kendziera hopes to earn a return trip to the Olympics

Athletes like David Kendziera typically have some amazing feats that portended their success at the highest levels of their sport.

Tales such as easily beating kids twice his age, receiving college scholarship offers from powerhouse schools before entering high school or never losing a race.

There are some remarkable stories about Kendziera’s early days in high school track and field at Prospect. But they aren’t what one might expect for someone looking to make his second trip to the Olympic Games in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles.

“I’ve always joked that I would show people his 100- and 200-(meter) times as a freshman and sophomore and they wouldn’t believe it because he got so good,” said Mike Kamedula, Prospect’s coach when Kendziera posted rather pedestrian performances.

“I give him a lot of credit because (Kamedula) pushed me into the hurdles,” the 29-year-old Kendziera said earlier this week from his home in Raleigh, N.C. “Freshman year I really didn’t have a spot on the team and I was trying out all the events.

“I had a growth spurt from 5-foot-8 to 6-2 and he said, ‘You should try the hurdles.’ I said OK.”

The rest has been much better than OK for Kendziera. He has gone from state champion hurdler at Prospect as a senior in 2013, to 10-time All-American at the University of Illinois and now his third trip to the U.S. Olympic Trials, which start Friday at the University of Oregon’s famed Hayward Field.

Kendziera won’t arrive in Eugene until Monday, since the 400 hurdles preliminaries aren’t until next June 27. The semifinals are June 28 and the finals will be the last event of the Trials on June 30 to determine the three U.S. representatives in Paris from July 26-Aug. 11.

David Kendziera scored 18.25 points at the Big Ten Championships, winning the 400 meter hurdles in 50.88 seconds and taking second in the 100 meter hurdles in 13.47 seconds. Photo courtesy Ken Moreland

“I feel I’m in a really good spot,” said Kendziera, who nearly reached the finals of the 400-meter hurdles in the Tokyo Games held in 2021. “I’m excited to see what I can do this upcoming week and I’m not too nervous about it at all.”

Erin Reese, who was the girls Class 3A discus champion for Prospect in 2014, is competing in the hammer throw on Friday with the finals Sunday. Reese just missed making the Tokyo Olympics when she finished fourth in the 2021 Olympic Trials.

And 2007 Jacobs graduate Evan Jager is coming back for another run at the 3,000-meter steeplechase with his first race on Friday and the finals Sunday. The 35-year-old Jager won a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Games and was sixth in 2012 in London.

Kendziera has been driven by just missing the chance to run in the medal race in Tokyo in 2021. The top two finishers in each of the four semifinal heats qualify for the finals and Kendziera was third in his heat with a personal-best time of 48.38 seconds.

“It’s something that really irked me because I felt if I got to the final anything can happen,” Kendziera said.

A coaching change was a big thing that happened right after the 2021 Olympics. Adrian Wheatley, who coached Kendziera at Illinois and was an assistant at North Carolina, got a head coaching job at Ball State. Kendziera didn’t want to leave Raleigh, so Wheatley helped him get connected with Mark Mueller, the associate head coach and sprints coach at Duke.

“Usually it takes two years to transition to a new coach’s philosophy and training group,” Kendziera said of Mueller. “There were definitely some growing pains that first year, but after the first year things really started to click and it’s been a great transition since then.”

Kendziera said he had a great fall and indoor season and likes his progression of times entering the Trials of 49.65, 49.31 and 49.29. He isn’t concerned about minor ankle and Achilles injuries that kept him from running additional races. He won’t be awestruck by his surroundings since he also competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials.

Prospect High School Alum, David Kendziera, waits to compete in the 400m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics.David Kendziera

He also wants to get the full Olympic experience in Paris since the Tokyo Games in 2021 had COVID-19 restrictions that included his parents being unable to watch him compete in person.

“I really want to go to the Olympics so I can actually explore the city,” Kendziera said. “I want to enjoy this experience again and do it full out.”

Which is basically how Kendziera rose to success from his slow start at Prospect. He laughed about initially getting “fired” after his first day with the hurdlers because hurdles and head football coach Brent Pearlman liked the crew he had. Kamedula insisted that Kendziera stick with the hurdlers and he ultimately wowed everyone with his work ethic that also led him to become the team’s best high jumper and triple jumper.

Kamedula said if he forgot to send over a weekly off-season workout he’d get a text from Kendziera that said “where’s the workout?” Kendziera also gravitated to older teammates like six-time sprint and long jump state medalist Nick Batcha.

“I had great teammates I looked up to as role models and saw what they were doing, and coach Kamedula emphasized what they were doing,” Kendziera said. “I made a positive circle of teammates and friends who all pushed each other to our max potential and it really worked out.”

Especially since it connected Kendziera to Wheatley and ultimately the Olympics. Wheatley and then-Illinois head coach Mike Turk came to the sectional to watch Kendziera and were so impressed after his 49-second leadoff leg to help Prospect’s 1,600-meter relay qualify for state they immediately upped their scholarship offer to 50 percent.

“The kid has worked his butt off and earned everything he’s got,” said Kamedula, who is hoping to fly out to see Kendziera compete next week. “It’s fun to watch someone who gives everything they’ve got get rewards. No one handed him anything. He just worked for everything he got.”

David Kendziera hopes it works out with a ticket to Paris.

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