Nearly one year ago, scarfing down cheeseburgers and donning the paper Burger King crown became the buzz at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. Wordsmiths crafted tales about Erik Kynard, his diet, and celebratory antics after he defended his national crown in the men's high jump.
Well, things have changed in the past year. The paper crown turned into an Olympic silver medal in London. And Kynard, who flies to Eugene, Ore., on Thursday to participate in the Prefontaine Classic on Saturday, will carry a healthy appetite in preparing for a killer field of men's high jumpers at the NCAA national meet next Friday.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Kynard, whose clearance of 7 feet, 8 inches (2.34 meters) ranks No. 1 in the world this outdoor season, has graduated from cheeseburgers.
"Nooooo, no, no, no," Kynard says. "I've done a lot better on my diet. No cheeseburgers this time. None at all."
In popular modern sports vernacular, Erik Kynard, Jr., is doing what they call "eating well."
For the past 720 days, Kynard has maintained his spot as the NCAA's outdoor high jump king. This season, he's been known as No. 1 in the world. When he left that podium in London last August, he earned the lifetime title of Olympic medalist.
At the tender age of 22, Kynard already is just one of seven outdoor men's high jumpers in the commonly-regarded modern era to earn NCAA titles in consecutive years.
Richard Douglas "Dick" Fosbury invented the unique "back-first" technique coined as the "Fosbury Flop," which forever altered the sport and defined the modern era for the men's high jump. Fosbury won consecutive NCAA titles as a junior and senior at Oregon State in 1968 and 1969.
Five other men's high jumpers duplicated the feat in capturing consecutive NCAA outdoor titles before Kynard joined the party by defending his own title last year.
All Kynard wants is to earn this third straight NCAA crown in his final meet as a member of the Kansas State track and field team. That's all, he contends.
"I just do what I do and compete to win," he says.
Kynard had no idea until the day before departing for Eugene that he stands on the cusp of becoming the first men's high jumper to capture three consecutive NCAA outdoor titles since a guy named Ken Wiesner of Marquette did so in 1944, 1945 and 1946.
Sixty-seven years ago.
"This is the first time I'm even aware of that," Kynard says. "I'm going out to win every time, so whether it's the first time, or the first time it's been done in 70 years, it doesn't matter much to me, because I'll be doing it for the first time myself."
Yet in the next breath, Kynard understands there's a bigger picture at play here. That this'll be his final time competing as a K-State athlete. That he can go out on top with a feat never achieved in the Fosbury modern era. That even though he already leaves a legendary legacy, yes, Kynard, indeed, can add to this current chapter of a story that'll continue long after he peels off those purple-and-white striped socks for the final time.
"Accomplishing things that no one has done in a long time is a great feat, but before I can accomplish something no one else has done, I have to accomplish something that I myself haven't done. You know what I mean?" Kynard says. "I can't focus on the fact nobody else has done this in like 70 years. I must only focus on the fact that I haven't done it yet. There's a reality to the situation here.
"When it comes, it comes. That's it."
In the 91-year recorded history of the NCAA outdoor men's high jump championships, only Dave Albritton (1936-38) and Wiesner (1944-46) have captured titles in three consecutive years.
Also, in the 91-year recorded history of the NCAA outdoor men's high jump championships, only Hollis Conway of Louisiana-Lafayette in 1989 has cleared a bar higher than Kynard to win a title. Conway's clearance of 7-9 3/4 remains the NCAA record.
Kynard won the title last year by clearing 7-8 in Des Moines. He soared over that exact same height to tie his personal best and claim the world's top spot this outdoor season at the Mt. SAC Relays in California on April 21. He won the Mt. SAC Relays by out-leaping a handful of past Olympians, including 2011 IAAF World Champion Jesse Williams, who prior to Kynard was the last to win back-to-back NCAA outdoor titles in 2005 and 2006.
However, competition has been a struggle this year. And that's an odd suggestion given the magnitude of this climb. In truth, Kynard has often grown bored during this outdoor season. To wit: by the time he warmed up to capture the R.V. Christian Track facility record of 7-5 on May 11 in Manhattan, three of five competitors had finished their afternoon with none even clearing 7 feet.
Kynard won a league-record third consecutive Big 12 Conference outdoor men's high jump title at 7-6.50 on May 4 in Waco and qualified for the NCAA Championships with ease.
Which is why Saturday's performance at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene six days before the NCAA Championships becomes a red-letter date of sorts on Kynard's itinerary.
He'll face nine others in the talent-packed field at the Prefontaine Classic. That includes 2012 Olympic gold medalist Ivan Ukhov of Russia and all three bronze medalists. It also includes Jesse Williams, who like Kynard, is mentored by legendary coach Cliff Rovelto. The field also includes Indiana senior Derek Drouin, who is jumping for Canada. Remember the name Derek Drouin: He entered the NCAA outdoor championships last year as the favorite but could only watch as Kynard took the crown, and is considered to be Kynard's greatest competition next Friday.
"There's not many times I get to compete against these guys," Kynard says. "I've had two competitions this season where I've been able to compete basically -- Texas Relays and the Mt. SAC Relays. I had the home meet in Manhattan and conference championship, but that wasn't much of a competition. It was me going out to jump. I haven't been able to really have anybody push me along and it's been rather boring. It'll be interesting to have some people up there."
The Prefontaine Classic will be televised live nationally on NBC from 3:30 to 5 p.m. CT Saturday with the men's high jump starting at 2:58 p.m. (Check your local listings.)
"That the NCAA meet is a week after, to even contemplate letting a collegiate do this, they have to be at such a ridiculously high level to come off the travel from (the regionals) in Austin, and then the next weekend compete at a meet, and then come back for the NCAA meet," Rovelto says. "That's a pretty big load on someone's plate."
Kynard intends to show the nation a little bit of what to expect at the NCAA Championships.
"Oh yeah, I definitely want to showcase what's coming up next," he says. "I can't show them too much, though. I've got to keep a little bit in the tank for next weekend.
"It's good to get a competition in before (the NCAAs). I don't imagine I'll do much at practice next week besides getting my body ready to compete again. My primary competitor, my primary competition (Drouin) is jumping also, so we're going to be doing a double-header. It'll be good for both of us."
There will be no cheeseburgers. And there will be no paper crown.
"Last year, I wasn't jumping as well early on in the season and was in a little bit of a slump, so to speak," Kynard says. "I was winning, but as far as jumping high, I wasn't jumping high. The guy from Indiana was jumping pretty high and everybody was saying he was going to beat me, blah, blah, blah.
"I just thought the crown was funny. It was a joke. That's all it was."
And, to ultra-competitive, ultra-intelligent Kynard, who maps out his days well in advance -- "I know which days I can eat gourmet and which days I eat peanut butter and jelly," he says -- it was about making a statement without saying a single word to the world: Until further notice, he's king.
"I don't have to earn my stripes, they've already been given," Kynard says. "Last year was one of those things where I felt I was being counted out. Sometimes you have to make a statement for yourself, and can't wait for the world to recognize you, or your feat. Sometimes you have to say statements by saying nothing at all. That was one of those times.
"I said nothing at all, but everybody understood."
And the NCAA outdoor high-jumping world understands this: No program has recorded more individual success in the last 15 years than K-State. Under legendary head coach Cliff Rovelto a K-State high jumper has won four of the last six NCAA outdoor titles. Scott Sellers won it as a sophomore in 2007 and as a senior in 2009. In all, a K-State high jumper has won the NCAA outdoor title five times in the last 15 years. Southern California and Texas come the closest to the Wildcats. They each won three titles over that span.
Along with everything else, Kynard could add to K-State's nation-leading trend at the NCAA Championships next Friday. Except he isn't thinking about that. And he isn't stressing over heights or really anything else.
"Honestly, I'm not worried about this weekend or the NCAA Championships," he says. "I've been feeling good, healthy, 100 percent, and I'm just going to do what I do. I have enough motivation intrinsically and enough on the line extrinsically to just go out there and get it done. I'm not worried about it, or anxious. It's not oh-my-goodness nervousness or anything.
"I'm young but I've been doing this for a while. I've been competing at a high level. I'm ready to lay it on the line and lay it all out there on the track."
During this crazy time with Kynard's college career coming to a halt, things can sometimes seem to creep along (see the past few months of the outdoor season) and move rather fast all at the same time. Football players talk about it. Basketball players talk about it.
Kynard understands as much, too.
"Yes, time moves fast," he says, "but everything happens for a reason, and I just work hard, and try to display more positive energy than negative energy, and I'm optimistic, and I have faith about my abilities, and I just go out there and do what I do."
And then next Friday in Eugene it'll all be gone in a flash. That's when he'll strip off the purple-and-white striped socks for the final time. And that is actually something he's thinking about, mentioning unprompted that "I'll be retiring the purple-and-white striped socks -- that's a done deal after next week," amid the whirlwind of these final days.
And so the question becomes this: After the end, after the conclusion of a legendary college career, one already thick with feats achieved by only six other high jumpers in NCAA outdoor history, what might the K-State icon ponder while peeling off those trademark socks, the ones he'll never wear again?
"Aw man, it's going to be interesting," he says. "I haven't decided what's going to happen to them or even my uniform, for that matter. It's not just the socks. I won't wear the K-State uniform again after the NCAA Championships. I don't have any plans for it. It just won't be in that rotation of my wardrobe here coming up pretty soon."
And neither will the paper crown. Which is the way he wants it.
"No," he reiterates, "no crown."
While Saturday's outing at the Prefontaine Classic offers an appetizer, Kynard next Friday could scarf down history on the final day of his college career simply by "just doing what I do."
If successful, no crown will be needed in accompanying Kynard's title as the undisputed NCAA outdoor high jump king of the modern era.