Going for gold: Former Prospect and Illini track star Kendziera going to Tokyo
Not everything can be easily explained.
Not even in a cut-and-dried sport such as track and field.
In track and field, you either run faster, jump higher or throw farther than everyone or you don't. Simple as that.
And yet, David Kendziera is still searching for answers.
He's curious, and he can't help himself.
It's a conundrum as to how the former Prospect track star who won Big Ten championships and NCAA medals in the 400-meter hurdles at the University of Illinois could post some of the slowest times of his career months before attending last week's U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
At the Trials, Kendziera was suddenly on point.
In fact, Kendziera was so on point that he raced a personal-best 48.38 and placed third in the 400-meter hurdles to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, which begin July 23.
It will be the first Olympic Games for Kendziera, who graduated from Prospect in 2013 as a state champion in the 300-meter hurdles, and was Big Ten track athlete of the year in 2017.
So what was the difference? What made Kendziera go from "not too hot," seemingly overnight, to "on fire" just before the Trials?
"That's the thing I'm asking myself, 'What did I do?' And the thing is, I still don't know," the 6-foot-4 Kendziera said with a laugh. "I'm still trying to figure it out."
Kendziera's best guess is he didn't overthink his race at the Trials, didn't try to do too much planning.
"I think it was just having an empty mind," Kendziera said. "The only thing on my mind was trying to run my fastest and win. I wasn't thinking about my positioning and how to try to finish in the top three. I wasn't worrying about anything other than running fast and I think that gave me the mental focus to put my best race out there."
In the months before the Trials, Kendziera started his training with a bang. He notched one of his best times in the 400 hurdles (49.73) since his sophomore year at Illinois when he took the Big Ten by storm and recorded a 49.56 to take third place at the NCAA Championship meet.
"But then, after I got that 49.73, in my next races, I was getting a 50.5 and a 51.2. I was heading in the wrong direction and my coach and I were really stressing," Kendziera said. "Those were some of my slowest times in four years. I was freaking out. I was like, 'What am I doing? How do I get better?' "
Kendziera had a two-week break between his last practice race and the Trials.
He focused on his eating and sleeping, and he worked.
"I trained really hard over those two weeks," he said.
In his preliminary run at the Trials, Kendziera ran his season-best time by a half-second.
"I felt so good after that, so confident," Kendziera said. "Track is so crazy that you might feel upset if you add a half-second or a second to your best time. But if you beat that time by even a hundredth of a second, you couldn't be more excited.
"Running so well in the prelims was huge because that took me right into the semis feeling good, and then I made it to the finals, and I just kind of put it all together."
One of the first things Kendziera did after finishing third in the finals was rush to the side of the track to hug his mom Maureen. It was also her birthday that day.
"It made the day so much more special," Kendziera said. "It was just such a roller coaster of emotions. It really wasn't sinking in what I had just done.
"It's definitely been a dream of mine to be an Olympian, for almost my whole life. To walk on that track (in Tokyo), I'll be pretty excited and amped up."
Kendziera is aiming for a sub-48 seconds in Tokyo. He thinks that could be a "podium time."
"My mentality going into the Olympics is that I want to make the podium," Kendziera said. "Being an Olympian has been a huge goal, but it's just a step to the athlete I want to be.
"If I can run in the 47s, I think I will give myself an opportunity to make a real statement."
Kendziera is still doing that, making statements, that is, at Prospect, where he still holds records for the 110 hurdles (14.08) and the 300 hurdles (37.28). (Likewise, he also holds the 400-meter hurdles record at Illinois with a 3:06.56.).
Every year, Kendziera goes back to his high school to speak to the track team about his experiences, and to encourage a whole new crop of athletes with aspirations.
"Dave stops by school every time he's in town to talk to the team. About a month ago he missed his flight for some races and used his time to give the team a pep talk before the conference meet," Prospect boys track coach Jay Renaud said. "He's always been that type of giving person."
Kendziera figures it's the least he can do. He remembers looking up to older guys on the team when he was just starting in high school track.
"The coaches would always use the athletes ahead of us as role models and I looked up to them right away," Kendziera said. "They were good motivators and now that I'm in that position, I want to try to help as much as possible, and be a guide for upcoming athletes.
"It's a way of paying it forward."
It's no wonder Kendziera still has a following in the Mount Prospect area.
When he qualified for the Olympics, Kendziera says his phone blew up, with messages and texts from old friends, teammates and coaches.
"I had like 120 messages," Kendziera said. "I told my mom that, and she said that her phone blew up, too, but that she had 230 messages.
"I was like, 'What? How is that possible?' That was pretty funny.
"But it was very cool to hear from so many people back home, and this has just been a dream come true. I'm going to try to go over there and represent the United States, and myself and my coach and my family and my hometown the very best I can."