Former Illinois track star David Kendziera fulfills childhood dream, prepares to make Olympic debut


Photo Courtesy of Brian Cassella

David Kendziera rides in a car during a fourth of July celebration in Mount Prospect. David Kendziera will be competing in the 400-meter hurdles for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.

By Claire O'Brien, Sports Digital Content Editor

After watching the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremony with friends in middle school, David Kendziera knew he wanted to make it there someday. Now, he’s making that dream a reality.

“I remember, I think I had a friend over, and we were all watching the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics,” Kendziera said. “I was awestruck, and I thought it was super cool. Just opening ceremonies, especially, then seeing all the athletes walk out. So that kind of sparked my interest, like one day, you know, I totally want to be an Olympian like this seems so cool. And then, kind of over the years, it began to evolve.”

He began his journey to the Olympics competing in cross country and track in sixth grade, originally starting off in distance races. Once cross country races increased from one mile to two, Kendziera realized he preferred shorter races. He didn’t like all the running, so he eventually made his way to shorter races and doesn’t plan to go back. In fact, he hates distance running so much he doesn’t plan to run long races for fun once he’s done running competitively.

“Long distance is not really my cup of tea,” Kendziera said. “ It’s not something that I’ve found very enjoyable yet. Sometimes people are always like, ‘Oh, yeah, so once you’re done running, we think you’ll do a marathon.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I’m gonna steer clear from that as much as I live.’”

He kept running, and by the time the 2012 Olympics came around, Kendziera’s dream was a little more concrete. He was a little more analytical watching the track events, taking note of how fast the Olympians were running.

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    He was also in high school, looking at colleges. He estimated he reached out to about 10-15 colleges and mostly got interest from smaller schools. 

    When it was time to select a college, his finalists were Illinois, Nebraska and Loyola University Chicago. He went with Illinois, and then-Illinois coach Adrian Wheatley played a pivotal role in getting Kendziera to attend the state’s flagship institution.

    “Coach Wheatley, he was (a) great guy, he was very personable, and I felt that he had my best interest,” Kendziera said. “They have everything that I’m looking for. And the other thing, too, that Coach Wheatley had, which is kind of a bonus, was his coaching philosophy was very similar to what my high school coach’s was. So that was also, just an automatic, ‘OK, yeah, we gotta go with Illinois.’”

    Kendziera’s freshman year at Illinois was the most memorable for him. He enjoyed his teammates’ company and had a memorable spring break trip to Tennessee with them.

    On the track, he had a pretty solid season. He was on the cusp of making the conference team and needed a strong performance in the final meet of the season.

    “(Coach Wheatley) said, ‘Hey, we have one more indoor meet before the conference meet. And I mean, this is kind of your deciding factor. If you run well, you’ll make it, and if not, I mean, we’re just gonna, you know, keep you at home,’” Kendziera said. “It put a lot of pressure on that race. But, you know, I went out, I gave it my best and I ran a PR at the time in the 60 (meter) hurdles.”

    He secured a spot on the team.

    Later, his younger sister, Brenda, joined the Illinois track & field team. David was a senior in high school when Brenda was a freshman, and the two carpooled to school together. David’s senioritis put a strain on the sibling relationship. Many mornings, David, who had a free period at school, was in no hurry to get to school while Brenda needed to get to class. But things turned around once the siblings reunited at Illinois.

    “Once we got to Illinois, we started getting a little closer, kind of just having deeper conversations where we really got to know each other,” David said. “And (it was) a blast, because I could see her compete at all the meets, and then she could see me compete as well.”

    After his time at Illinois, Kendziera realized he could run professionally. When Wheatley took a job at the University of North Carolina, Kendziera relocated to Chapel Hill to keep training with his college coach.

    As the 2016 Olympics approached, Kendziera had a shot to make it to the Olympics. He took a redshirt year and focused on trying to make the team in Rio. The move paid off, as he was able to compete at the Olympic Trials.

    Going into the meet, Kendziera and his coach knew making the Rio team was a long shot, so instead they emphasized getting a feel for what the road to Tokyo would be like.

    “He wanted me to get that experience of just seeing the Olympics, or like the Olympic Trials format, seeing the crowd that the Olympic Trials kind of brings in and experience it as a whole,” Kendziera said. “I felt that that was very helpful, because this year or this time around, I mean … I didn’t have any nerves. The only thing that was really going through my body was just adrenaline and then just confidence. So it was really exciting. 

    “I think that opportunity to be at the 2016 Olympic Trials really gave me a boost of confidence and energy when I came around again.”

    When 2020 rolled around, Kendziera had a good feeling about the Olympics. Kendziera’s lucky number is 25, and he was 25 in the summer of 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the possibility of the Olympics being canceled came up, Kendziera didn’t think it would happen.

    “Getting ready for the 2020 Olympics, like I thought about the years before, I would be 25 going into the Olympics and everything,” Kendziera said. “So I was like, ‘Oh my God, what are the chances that I’m going to be 25 going for the Olympics?’ And that’s my lucky number. So just on like superstition, things were like no, like, there’s no way it’s canceled because this is supposed to happen, like this is almost destined.”

    But the universe had other plans. The Olympics got pushed back to 2021, and Kendziera’s season got postponed as meets kept getting called off. He ended up running some races in Europe in late summer 2020.

    “Meets just continued to get postponed,” Kendziera said. “So we kept on training, thinking that there was going to be a race. And then finally, toward the middle of August, my agent said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be able to get you overseas and be able to get like a mini season.’

    “So I ran about 14 races in a six-week span. And I mean, it was pretty tough just because we were going meet to meet to meet and having one to two days of rest in between. So it was pretty taxing, but at the same time, I was glad that I was able to get that competitive, (those) competitive opportunities out there.” 

    Not only was Kendziera able to stay competitive in 2020, he also was able to see what sort of COVID-19 restrictions would be in place for 2021 meets.

    One major difference between 2020 and 2021, in the United States, was the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine. Though the majority of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, most people in the world have not. COVID-19 cases are still on the rise in Japan, and the pandemic has had a serious impact on the Games.

    Kendziera is fully vaccinated, but guidance for vaccinated people has changed since the Olympic Trials. He said during the Trials, vaccinated people wouldn’t need to take any additional precautions if they were around unvaccinated people who tested positive for COVID-19, but at the Games, it’s a different story.

    “They have asked us to download a tracking app,” Kendziera said. “And it will just be while we’re in Tokyo, or while we’re in the Olympic Village, it will be just seeing where our whereabouts are. And it’s mainly for contact tracing, where if I’m close to someone that says positive, then I will go into contact tracing, even if I have the vaccine, (which) I do. 

    ”For the Olympic trials, they said if you had the vaccine and someone close to you tested positive, you’d be OK. … But now, at the Olympics, that rule is kind of, that rule is not in place.”

    Kendziera also had to take two COVID-19 tests leading up to his departure and will test daily in Tokyo. Opening ceremonies happened on Friday, but his flight for Tokyo is set to depart Saturday.

    “It’s been tough because almost every day, there’s something new that is there that they’re restricting almost,” Kendziera said. “So first it was, alright, no foreign spectators, then it was no spectators, then it’s like, ‘Oh, you can’t leave the Olympic Village.’ And while those things are all very challenging and tough, where it’s like, ‘Man, that’s supposed to be part of the experience.’

    “I mean, we’re not even getting out there for opening ceremony. So, we travel the day after opening ceremony, so they’re kind of taking away all these experiences from it.”

    Athletes aren’t allowed to leave the Olympic Village, which hampered Kendziera’s plans to do some sightseeing around town. He also doesn’t have much time to explore, heading home two days after track events conclude. He won’t be around for the closing ceremonies.

    The restrictions might have put a damper on the full Olympic experience, but Kendziera is focusing on the experience he will have in Tokyo: the chance to fulfill his dreams of competing at the Olympics.

    “I’m still excited just to get out there to experience what I can and then also get out there and compete,” Kendziera said. “I’m very excited about that. I think it’s gonna be a really cool opportunity. And since it’s been a dream and goal of mine, that’s what I’m mainly focused on.”



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