MANHATTAN — He is featured on billboards. He can be seen on TV. He is the star of a viral Internet video. He receives fan mail at his unlisted apartment. And LeBron James posts his picture on Twitter.
He is in London, rubbing shoulders with the worlds top athletes while preparing for the biggest competition of his life that begins Sunday.
He is Erik Kynard, a Kansas State high jumper, and he knows exactly how to describe his journey to the Olympics.
My life, he says, has been like a movie these last few weeks.
Nowhere was that more evident than during a recent trip to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. So many strangers recognized him that he had trouble shopping for shoes and grabbing a slice of pizza at the mall. Working out wasnt easy, either. His former high school coach had to help him reserve a private gym.
Kynard had just qualified for the Olympics, and everyone was taking notice.
One woman even asked him to kiss her baby, said Kynards mother, Brandynn Adams. He told me he was ready to go into politics after that.
This sort of thing has happened to Kynard before, but never in his hometown and rarely for the right reasons.
You see, Kynard is often mistaken for Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star. They share the same hair style and body type, have similar tattoos and wear Nike clothing. They have such a striking resemblance that the 6-foot-4 Kynard once had to run from a mob of autograph seekers in China.
When they came face to face at the Olympics opening ceremony, James noticed the resemblance and snapped a picture. He later shared it with the world, labeling them Kobe 1 & Kobe 2.
But there was no such confusion in Toledo. Those well-wishers knew exactly who he was.
For the first time, people were beginning to see Kynard for who he is: the nations best young high jumper. With his Olympic debut jump rapidly approaching his first qualifying jump comes Sunday, with the finals Tuesday he has accomplished too much to be mistaken for anyone else.
There are probably 10 guys in the world capable of doing big things in this event and he is one of them, said Jesse Williams, who won gold at the 2011 World Outdoor Championships and will also jump in the Olympics. For as young as he is 21 years old that really says something.
If Kynards life truly was a movie, a director would have to spice up the opening by scripting the beginning of his high-jump career.
Maybe it would go like this: After learning of his fathers background as a successful sprinter at Toledo, he wandered on the track at a young age and fell in love with the sport. He ran fast, jumped high and practiced every day until it was time to head home for dinner.
With the right actor and musical score, you would have an inspiring moment. Much more inspiring than the story Kynard tells, anyway.
According to him, he got into high jumping for one reason: hes lazy.
He says he showed up for a middle-school track tryout unsure of which event to compete in. He was with his best friend, and they were tired. So they started looking for the least-demanding activity. High jumping seemed perfect. Other than a short sprint to the bar, there was no running involved. They were sold instantly.
I didnt want to run, Kynard said. That was the least-strenuous thing back in the day. If I would have realized it took all this work, maybe I would have ran.
Not exactly movie magic. Good thing Kynards mother tells a more exciting version.
According to her, he got into high jumping on a dare.
She says Kynard wandered out to a track practice with a friend when he was in eighth grade. They werent on the team, but they saw the high-jump bar hanging 5 feet off the ground. Kynards friend bet him the change in his pocket he couldnt leap over it. Kynard responded by interrupting practice, hurdling over the bar and collecting a fist full of quarters.
The nearest coach dropped his jaw and begged Kynard to join the team.
He literally stumbled into the high jump, Adams said. He didnt try out for it or anything like that.
Whatever the real story is, Kynard chose the right sport. With virtually no training, he went on to win all but one event that year. When he finished second in Toledos middle school championships, every high school track coach in the city called his house.
He never thought about other sports again.
As soon as I started doing it, I was in it for the long haul, Kynard said.
The rest of Kynards story would have no problem entertaining a movie audience.
After deciding to enroll at a nearby high school, where he continued to succeed against lesser competition despite poor technique, Rogers High track coach Eric Browning, a former jumper who runs the citys top track and field program, convinced him to transfer.
Kynard was so physically gifted that he could win regardless of his form, but Browning pushed him. He jumped alongside him in practice and encouraged him to do more than win the next meet. He wanted him to break records.
Thats why he can sometimes be pissed off even when he wins, Browning said.
It wasnt long before Kynard challenged Browning directly. When he learned Brownings best jump was 6 feet, 10 inches, he said he would top it. Browning liked the ambition, and told him he wouldnt consider Kynard a quality high jumper until he did.
Kynard didnt back down. Not only did he tell Browning he would clear his record, he told him he would do so quickly and by a wide margin. Kynard predicted a jump of 7 feet in his first indoor meet as a sophomore.
Browning had never heard a student speak so confidently.
I told him he may break my record, but it wont be that fast, Browning said. I was joking with him and said, If you jump 7 feet the first meet out, I will drink bath water out of your shoe and buy you a pizza every day for the rest of your life.
Browning paused to chuckle.
Thank goodness he didnt hold me to that.
Indeed, in his first meet in a Rogers uniform, Kynard cleared 7 feet.
I was 15 and I jumped 7 feet, Kynard said. Thats unheard of. I remember that day well.
Everyone who saw the jump went bonkers. Most college high jumpers struggle to eclipse 7 feet. Yet there was Kynard doing it before he could drive.
He soaked up the atmosphere while he celebrated, and told Browning the toppings he wanted on his first pizza.
Browning couldnt tell if he was joking, and switched subjects. He told Kynard to worry more about the rush of girls that would now want his phone number.
From that point on, competitions were different. Kynard made the front page of the Toledo newspaper and people began lining up to watch him jump. He was suddenly the star of the local track scene.
For the first time, the Olympics seemed possible.
That was when we realized he was going to be great, Browning said. I went over and had a talk with his parents and said, Hes going to be famous.
In high school, no one was better than Kynard at the high jump. Browning considers a highlight tape of his meets so entertaining that he still watches it from time to time.
Kynard won city, state and regional meets, and then began traveling across the country. As the competition improved, so did Kynard. He won everywhere, often waiting to attempt his first jump until the rest of the field was whittled down to a lone competitor.
He was never there just to win, said his father, Erik Kynard Sr. He was there to dominate.
And dominate he did. He began jumping higher and higher, good enough to earn a spot in the Olympic Trials at the age of 17 before becoming the top-ranked prep jumper in the nation.
Wearing his trademark brightly-colored striped tube socks, he was impossible to miss.
If Kynard has a passion beyond jumping, it is for fashion. His former K-State roommate, Jeffrey Julmis, who will compete in the hurdles for Haitis Olympic team on Tuesday, tells stories of Kynards closet overflowing with clothes.
If he wasnt an Olympian, he would be a clothes stylist, Julmis said. When hes not practicing, hes online shopping for new shoes. Those are just about the only two things Ive ever seen him do.
Kynard plans to wear something new at the Olympics, but he wont say what.
He isnt big on celebrations wearing a cardboard crown after defending his NCAA championship with a jump of 7 feet, 8 inches aside and fashion is one of the ways he makes a statement without saying a word.
That combination of talent and style attracts big crowds. As the crowds grew larger in high school, his divorced parents could tell he was destined for something special.
Once he got really serious about it, I told him he had two options, Kynard Sr. said. He could either get an athletic scholarship or join the military. Those werent really his only two options, but I pushed him. I knew he could handle it. I wanted him to succeed.
No problem there.
Usually when someone has the kind of talent Erik does, the talent ruins them, because they dont have to work hard to win, Browning said. But Erik has never lost sight of the big picture. I have never had anyone more talented. I have never had anyone work harder.
College coaches noticed and started calling, some with over-the-moon recruitment pitches. But Kynard had strict criteria for his college choice. He refused to consider any track program with a high-jump record lower than his own, and rejected most schools immediately.
But K-State offered something unique in track and field coach Cliff Rovelto.
While Kynard competed in the 2008 Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., he asked his fellow competitors for college recommendations.
Everyone told him to go to Kansas State, Kynard Sr. said. They all said if he wanted to be good, Rovelto was the best college coach and he could help him.
When word reached Rovelto that the top prep high jumper in the nation was interested in K-State, he called Browning to set up a visit. Browning told him he wouldnt need one. If Rovelto was willing to offer a full scholarship, Kynard was ready to commit.
Coach had some questions when I told him that, Browning said. He warned us Manhattan could be a shock for a city kid, and said he would have to work real hard at Kansas State, but I told him not to worry. Erik was going to Kansas State because he wanted to be the best high jumper there is.
Whenever Kynard fails to win a meet, there is a set procedure that needs to be followed.
His mother calls him immediately, and asks if he remembered to pray before and after his jumps. His father calls him later and demands answers. His friends keep their distance.
Kynard doesnt lose often he has won two NCAA championships and four Big 12 titles -- but when he does, this is how he copes.
Im never satisfied with second, Kynard said. Who is? I never go into a meet and say, Lets go lose, or I hope to get third. No. Thats not how it works. I go in with the mindset of winning. Thats it. Im not a happy camper usually when I lose.
All competitors carry that mindset into events, but few do so to the extreme Kynard does.
When he fails to clear a height, he slowly stands up, looks at the fallen bar and curses. Then he verbally abuses himself until its time to jump again.
Perhaps that harsh attitude stems from his demanding father, who always thinks his son can do better.
Im his toughest critic, Kynard Sr. said.
Even after defending his NCAA championship in June, Kynards father sent him a text message asking why he didnt perform flawlessly.
He had his crown on and he had won, but he missed going for (7 feet, 9 inches), Kynard Sr. said. I told him next time you jump (7 feet, 9 inches) and make it you can put the crown on. Until then youve got to wear a tiara. Dont put on the crown until you clear the height youre trying to clear.
Or maybe it comes from the challenges he faced as a K-State freshman.
After years of winning high school meets simply by showing up, he finished 11th at the indoor NCAA championships and sixth when he moved outdoors. For a guy who doesnt tolerate finishing second, those results were crushing.
For the first time, Kynard was losing. He hated every second of it, and briefly considered quitting the sport.
Instead, he vowed never to let that happen again.
He decided he wanted to be the best in the world at this, Adams said. Look at him now.
To be continued
Kynard has spent the majority of his life working toward this moment. But now that it is here everything is changing. His life is different. He faces a much more hectic schedule and a larger taste of fame.
The days of Kynard being mistaken for someone else are coming to an end.
The days of jumping for his country on the worlds biggest stage are about to begin.
Hes dreamed about this since he learned to flop.
Its an exclusive club, Kynard said There are not many people who can say they made the Olympics.
Fewer can say they won a medal. Kynard hopes to join that club on Tuesday. He certainly has the proper mindset. Two days before leaving for London, he said he wasnt traveling overseas as a tourist. He is there to win.
Though he is not considered the favorite, he is hoping to reach the finals. If he can leap higher than 7-7, which he has done several times, he thinks he will get there.
If Im in the final, Kynard said, Im in the mix.
Few are picking against him.
This guy is the real deal, Rovelto said. He wants to be No. 1 in the world.
Regardless of what happens this week, that is Kynards ultimate goal. His parents say he is set on graduating from K-State next May and pursuing a professional track career afterward. His former high school coach says they have already discussed a four-year plan leading up to the 2016 Olympics.
For now, the plan is to enter the next summer games as the unquestioned favorite. From there, he could win a gold medal or end up on the cover of a cereal box.
From here, anything is possible.
The sequel possibilities are endless.