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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Scaling new heights: Personal growth helps Kynard fulfill potential at Kansas State

BY DONALD EMMONS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Erik Kynard had the second highest jump in the nation during the indoor track season. He jumped 7-7¾ at a meet in February. Erik Kynard had the second highest jump in the nation during the indoor track season. He jumped 7-7¾ at a meet in February.
KANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY Enlarge
Erik Kynard leaped into the outdoor track season a few weeks ago in sunny San Diego at the Aztec Invitational.

And what a performance it was for the Kansas State sophomore.

The Rogers graduate and two-time Division I state high jump champion dominated the competition by clearing 7 feet, 5¾ inches for first place, besting the field by eight inches.

"My opportunity is track meets," said Kynard, the 6-foot-4, 188-pounder. "My opportunity is training, and college is my opportunity. A lot of my friends at home don't have these opportunities. I'm doing this because it was a gift, and I have to work with it."

Kynard, 20, is not only one of the top high jumpers in college, he's already proven himself as one of the best in the nation.

He set a Kansas State and personal record by scaling 7-7¾ during an indoor meet in February. It ranks as second best in the nation this year among all high jumpers, amateur or professionally. Jesse Williams, who competes as a pro for Nike, has the top U.S. mark this year at 7-8.

Clearing 7 feet has become commonplace for the Toledo native, whose introduction to track and, particularly, the high jump event, came about as a challenge from one of his best friends in junior high.

In indoor meets this year he has first-place finishes at the KSU All-Comers (7-5¼), the KSU Invitational (7-3¾), the Big 12/SEC Challenge (7-6), the Tyson Invitational (7-7¾), and the Big 12 championships (7-4¼).

Kansas State's Cliff Rovelto has spent 30 years coaching in college and has worked with his fair share of outstanding high jumpers, including past Olympian and 2010 U.S. outdoor champion Jesse Williams. Rovelto served as one of the U.S. men's track and field coaches in charge of jumps at the 2007 World Track Championships in Japan.

"I've worked with some extremely talented high jumpers, and some not as talented but who worked really hard," Rovelto said. "From pure athletic ability and pure jumping ability, at this same age, Erik is the best I've worked with."

Rovelto saw plenty of potential and ability in Kynard while recruiting him. However, he didn't realize how committed Kynard was to wanting to become the best.

In fact, the Wildcats coach said Kynard compares with Scott Sellers, a former Kansas State three-time NCAA champion in his work ethic.

"Erik wants to learn, and he wants to understand, and he's not afraid to work," Rovelto said.

Erik Kynard, who won state titles at Rogers in 2007 and 2008, credits a conversation with his barber for his better attitude this season.

Erik Kynard, who won state titles at Rogers in 2007 and 2008, credits a conversation with his barber for his better attitude this season.
JOHN PETERSON Enlarge
Rovelto has worked with jumpers who have cleared 7-9, but none got as high as 7-2 as a freshman or 7-4 on average halfway through their sophomore years.

"He certainly has those kinds of tools [to clear 7-9]," Rovelto said. "He's doing things at practice that I haven't had other guys do at this time of year and at this stage of his career.

"I can't say he's better than them, but I can say the door is open for him to prove he's better."

Kynard, who finished a disappointing third at the 2011 NCAA indoor championships with a jump of 7-2½, has tried to maintain the same approach to competition in college that he thrived on in high school.

"The goals change, but the reality and the situation is the same," Kynard said. "I want to win."

During his freshman year, he admitted to being a bit homesick while attending school in Manhattan, Kan., about 120 miles west of Kansas City. Hundreds of miles away from family and friends affected his overall focus. He spent plenty of time talking on his cell phone to family and friends in Toledo.

"It was one of those things where I wasn't really having fun with it," he said. "It was new to me, and it was an adjustment. It was like I was working, and I forgot that I liked to do it. It was not like high school where you go to class and then to practice."

Kynard still managed to earn All-American status as a freshman after placing sixth at the NCAA outdoor championships with a jump of 7-1½. His season-best effort was 7-4½.

It wasn't until after completing his freshman year and returning home for the summer when it began to sink in that Kansas State was meant to be for him.

He returned for his sophomore year with a new attitude.

Among those who helped him regain focus last summer was his longtime barber, Racole "Coco" Hill, who was fatally shot last September.

Kynard said Hill always encouraged him to make the most of his talent.

"I came home during the summer and had a conversation with her. She had been cutting my hair for 19 years and was a longtime family friend," Kynard said. "She was cutting my hair one day and she told me, ‘You just need to quit worrying about things, and you just need to go jump.'

"We talked about life, and she really shared with me to just relax and go have fun and do it. It was some of the same things that I had talked to my parents about, but it was different hearing it be told by someone else. She said I better live it up, and I better have fun, and I better jump as high as I can, and I better seize the day."

Hills' words have remained in Kynard's thoughts.

"It opened my eyes to a lot of things," Kynard said. "She said, ‘Just jump, you're blessed.' You never know what or who can impact your life."

Kynard also keeps in contact with Rogers track coach Eric Browning.

A week doesn't pass without at least a brief call or text messages exchanged between the two, often following one of Kynard's competitions.

"I know how he's done based on when I get the call," Browning said. "If he calls not long after the event has been completed, I know he did well. If it's much later, I know he didn't do as well, and he needed time to calm down and think about it.

"All the technical stuff is handled with his new coach. I just talk to him about having the right frame of mind, that's my only job."

Browning, who was also a state high jump champion when he was at Rogers, guided Kynard to state high jump championships in 2007 and 2008, as well as winning the Nike indoor national title twice and outdoor championship once.

Those efforts even earned him a trip to compete in the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials.

Kynard's prominence in high jumping took off when he placed fourth at the Division I state meet as a freshman after clearing 6-6.

"There was plenty of pressure for him even in high school," Browning said. "He was supposed to win every single meet and supposed to break every single record, and it was my job to keep him mentally together."

Browning said he wasn't surprised Kynard went through the adjustment period at college, but he's also not surprised with how well Kynard has done this season.

"He understands the bigger picture unlike most kids his age," Browning said. "He wants to seize the moment."

Contact Donald Emmons at: demmons@theblade.com or 419-724-6302.



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