LONDON — The biggest moment of Erik Kynards life felt like a Tuesday. Thats essentially his explanation. How does this happen? Thats what people kept asking him. Thats what people will keep asking him. How did you do this?
Kynard is 21 years old. Hell be a senior at Kansas State in the fall. Calling the Summer Olympics the biggest stage hes ever been on is a bit like one of the kids on American Idol saying the same thing. And it was a wild night in London too. How did he not get caught up in it?
Eighty-thousand or so packed Olympic Stadium, roaring like they just won the war whenever a Brit cleared the high jump bar or landed in the long jump pit or finished even a semifinal race. The reigning world champion in the high jump, a good friend of Kynards named Jesse Williams, was eliminated way earlier than anyone expected and laid motionless right there on the track, inconsolable. Ivan Ukhov, the Russian and favorite in the field, literally lost his shirt at one point.
Kynard never flinched. Instead, he pulled up the stars-and-stripes socks his cousin sent him and became the second-best high jumper in the world, clearing 7 feet 7 3/4 inches. Kynard thinks hell give the silver medal to his mom. He gives everything to his mom. How does this happen? How does a college kid handle the grandest stage his sport can offer and beat grown adults in front of the world?
Olympic Stadium is a big stage, Kynard says. But Im a big guy, so I let it fit me.
Its not quite that simple, of course. Later, Kynard will admit that hell probably be up all night thinking about what he just did. There are moments that he lets you in, just a bit, a sliver that tells you he understands what happened here. Its just that he seems to be able to put all that stuff in a metaphorical box and forget about it when he needs to.
This isnt normal. Sports psychology is a growing industry because so many athletes are incapable of doing what Kynard seems to do naturally. The particulars have to do with heart rate, and being sturdy enough in confidence that you dont end up second-guessing when it matters. In other words, you dont change based on the environment.
A discipline like the high jump is particularly precarious because a gust of wind or a fast run or a slow run or any one of a million different problems can throw the whole thing off. Kynard just didnt seem to care about any of that. Athletes play all kinds of tricks to do this. Some psych themselves up with loud music. Others listen to pep talks. Kynard seems to think of every day like Tuesday.
You might know that Kynards life changed here in London, and did even before he won the silver medal. It happened at some point during the opening ceremonies, when LeBron James noticed Kynards distracting resemblance to Kobe Bryant. So LeBron took a picture of Kynard and Bryant, sent it out to five-point-something million followers on Twitter and nothing is the same for Kynard anymore.
My life has been crazy, is how Kynard puts it.
If it bothers him, he doesnt show it. This must be part of the trick. He jokes that he wanted to win gold so I could let the world know my name is Erik Kynard, Jr., and not Kobe Bryant, Jr., then says he hopes people can appreciate silver so maybe he can still be called Erik.
He must know that nobody really expected him to do this. He must know that five others in the finals have cleared a higher bar than he ever has: Ukhov won the gold by jumping 7-83/4, three-quarters of an inch higher than Kynards personal best. He must know that four of them did it this year. He must know that the field included two world champions, an Olympic gold medalist and a world silver medalist. And he must know that many in the high jump community believe he has a promising future, but that that future was largely thought to still be, well, in the future.
He must know all this. Hes a sharp guy.
He must just not care.
Kynard says he never thinks about how big a crowd is, only if they can clap. Hes taken to wearing flashy shoes or socks. This helps him feel comfortable, helps him downsize the venue. You remember what he said, right?
Olympic Stadium is a big stage. But Im a big guy, so I let it fit me.
I let it fit me.
Theres a lesson in there somewhere. Kynard just wrestled the biggest stage hes ever been on into the biggest moment hes ever had. To hear him tell it, he did this with a killer mix of belief in himself and denial that anything else matters. When it happens like this, it almost makes you wonder what the big deal is.
Almost like it really was just a Tuesday.