Finding rhythm: Illini hurdler set for college finale

Finding rhythm: Illini hurdler set for college finale

EUGENE, Ore. — David Kendziera watched Aries Merritt closely during warmups for the 110-meter hurdles at the Mt. SAC Relays in Torrance, Calif. The Illinois redshirt senior took in everything Merritt did at the April meet, looking for any tips or tricks he could incorporate into his own training.

Studying Merritt wasn’t a bad idea. The former Tennessee hurdler was the 2012 Olympic champion in the 110 hurdles. A month after winning gold, he set the world record in the event at 12.8 seconds — a record he still holds to this day.

But Kendziera did more than just watch Merritt that April day. He also beat him, coming from behind for a victory by 0.02 seconds in a confidence-boosting win that set him on course for a return trip to the NCAA outdoor championships in both the 110 and 400 hurdles starting today.

“It was huge for him,” Illinois coach Mike Turk said. “His confidence, I don’t want to say it was shot, but it definitely took a little bit of a hit indoors when we went to the national meet. He couldn’t quite put out the kind of performance he’s accustomed to and that he wanted to.

“I don’t think he was ever quite right indoors even though he ran really well all year. We never really saw it where he put it together. When we got outside, that started to happen. The race with Merritt was really the first race where he was under some pressure against really good hurdlers, and he was able to put that out there and execute.”

Kendziera watched Merritt pull away early in their April race. He expected it. But when Merritt began to chop hurdles later in the race, Kendziera knew he had an opportunity to close the gap. Ultimately beating Merritt also proved to Kendziera that he belonged among the elite hurdlers.

“It was definitely a confidence booster and definitely something I’ve used like a backbone to go into my races,” he said. “Like, ‘You’re not just some average person out here. You’ve beaten people that have unbelievable careers and a huge name behind them. You can definitely go out there and do something big yourself.’”

That’s Kendziera’s goal in his return to historic Hayward Field on the Oregon campus. He set personal-best times in both hurdle events at last year’s NCAA outdoor championships, finishing third in the 110 hurdles and seventh in the 400 hurdles.

Topping those times isn’t necessarily the goal. Topping last year’s finishes is. Kendziera has the fourth-best time nationally this spring in the 110 hurdles behind the SEC trio of defending NCAA champion Grant Holloway (Florida), Daniel Roberts (Kentucky) and Ruebin Walters (Alabama) and the sixth-best time in the 400 hurdles.

“I think it’s right there for him,” Turk said. “The big thing is just go out there and compete. We don’t really focus on what kind of numbers. The biggest component for David as a hurdler is really being able to focus on his technique.

“It’s a rhythm event. Being able to really stay in focus, get his step pattern down to the first hurdle and get in that rhythm, that’s really the key. If he does that, his body knows what to do from there. I think he’s well prepared, especially mentally, to go in and do this. He’s very experienced. It’s just going to be about him keeping his focus on simple things.”

This week’s NCAA outdoor championships will be the last meet of Kendziera’s Illinois career. It won’t be his last track meet ever, though. He intends to compete at the USATF outdoor championships in Des Moines, Iowa, later this month — the next step in his track career with an eye toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Kendziera doesn’t have a definitive plan for his Olympic training. He’ll return to Illinois for the 2018-19 school year to finish his master’s in human resource development while continuing to train. But his focus now remains on what he wants to accomplish in Eugene.

“Everyone has kind of asked me (about my plan),” Kendziera said. “I tell them I want to focus on the present and focus on my college career. It means a lot to me still.”