Meet ambitious high jumper and Olympic silver medallist Erik Kynard. The bright young thing talks to SPIKES about high jumping away from danger, London 2012, and why winning gold means everything.
Erik Kynard, 22, recalls the moment with clarity. As a 12-year-old boy growing up in Toledo, Ohio, he hopped over the fence to retrieve a ball and was confronted with a barking dog.
Frightened, he leapt with one stride about six feet high into a tree. From that moment he knew he could jump: his future career path mapped out by one very impressive danger induced leap.
“It was unreal,” says Kynard. “From then on, I thought I could fly.”
Kynard, not one for self-doubt, took up the high jump at middle school. By his sophomore year in high school, aged 16, he had cleared seven feet (2.13m). His rise continued after a brief blip in college.
“My first year at college in 2009/10 was a tough year. I had a hard year adjusting like any first year student but the next year I was firing on all cylinders: raring and ready to go,” he says. “I was that much more mature. I had a great year.”
In 2011 Kynard arrived as an international performer, improving his indoor personal best by 0.08 to 2.33m, winning the NCAA title and making the US team for the World University Games (Summer Universiade) and World Championships in Daegu.
He finished last in the Universiade final, and missed out on a place in the World Championship final on count back.
Kynard proved himself mature enough to withstand the agony of failure but hungry enough to let it spur him on.
“I wasn’t satisfied,” he says. “I wanted to make the final. You have to make the final to be in the mix. I’d never not made a final with an American team.”
Kynard, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to NBA star Kobe Bryant, returned to winter training with renewed focus. He trained harder, became a student of the sport and worked hard on his consistency. So is there anyone else he styles himself on?
“Everyone is different,” he says. “That’s the nature of the event. I may not be a conventional jumper. I carry a lot of speed to the bar but high jump is not like hurdles, where everyone takes three steps between each hurdle.”
Under the coaching of Cliff Rovelto, the same man who also guides world high jump champion Jesse Williams, Kynard blossomed in 2012.
He landed a personal best 2.34m to win the NCAA title, finished second at the US Olympic Trials and, resplendent in star spangled socks, took a shock silver medal in London ahead of more experienced rivals.
Yet such is his unshakeable belief, even winning Olympic silver aged 21 is a source of regret.
“I didn’t exceed my expectations as I wanted to win the gold medal,” he says. “I knew after my performance in the preliminary rounds [he cleared 2.29m to qualify third equal] I would come home with a medal. That was the bottom line.
“In the final I was just forced into a position I’d never jumped at before. I jumped at 2.36m, 2.38m: tough bars to make with just one attempt. I made a respectable effort at 2.40m,” he says. “I’m looking at doing some amazing things in future.”
Kynard and Russian Ivan Ukhov were the only men to clear 2.33m, and Ukhov proceded to clear 2.38m to take gold.
He returned to his college studies as an Olympic silver medallist, where adjusting to life as just another student have been tricky. With success comes an added responsibility.
“My life is a lot more complicated now,” says Kynard, a Kansas State University business student who graduates in December. “It became more difficult to go to a grocery store or to a party.
"I’m now an Olympic silver medallist at a party, so I have to be more conscious of the environment I’m in. I never put on a negative image before but I have to be sure I display a positive image.”
Indoors this winter, his form was solid. Competing exclusively in his homeland he won five out of seven competitions. He was consistent, with a best of 2.33m. Only five jumpers in the world went higher.
Double time: Kobe Bryant watches on as his lookalike Erik Kynard competes on day nine of the Olympics in London
Outdoors, he has set in his sights on more ambitious goals.
“I hope to jump high, make my first World Championship final and win a medal,” he says. “I definitely expect to jump well.”
“I think my patience has improved and I’m definitely mentally stronger and also physically a lot stronger at 22 than I was at 21.
“Really, though, it is always about the gold medal: first place. It is never about second.”
And what about being compared to Kobe Byrant? Does he enjoy that?
“I’ve been hearing it for while,” he says. “It is annoying. I’d rather be known as Erik Kynard rather than looking like Kobe Bryant.”