Amery native Alicia Monson (in sunglasses) qualified for the 10,000-meter event at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, in late June. (Submitted photo)
Catholic Herald Staff
Two athletes from Diocese of Superior parishes are headed to the Tokyo Olympics later this month. Both happen to be first-time Olympians, up-and-coming track stars and coincidentally, in this year Pope Francis has dedicated for renewed to St. Joseph, their hometown parishes in Rice Lake and Amery are both under St. Joseph’s patronage.
Twenty-three-year-old Alicia Monson, a long-distance runner living and training professionally in Boulder, Colorado, graduated from Amery High School in 2016. Monson qualified for the Olympics with a third-place finish and will compete in Tokyo running the 10,000-meter race scheduled for Aug. 7.
Monson ran both cross country and track for UW-Madison, where she earned a degree in nutrition science in addition to her multiple athletic titles. These include 2019 Big Ten Indoor Track Athlete of the Year, 2018; Big Ten Cross Country Champion; a five-time All-American; and multiple other regional and national honors.
Kenny Bednarek, 22, is a sprinter from Rice Lake. Finishing fourth in the men’s 100-meter dash during qualifying trials in Oregon, Bednarek made the 4×100 relay team. He then qualified with a personal best in the 200-meter race, finishing inches behind fellow American Noah Lyles, who is the reigning world champion in the event.
Lyles is considered a top contender for the gold medal, as Jamaica’s legendary Usain Bolt (gold medalist in 2008, 2012 and 2016) retired in 2017. Considering Bednarek finished only .04 seconds behind Lyles in qualifying – and he beat Canada’s Andre DeGrasse, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the 200 meter— Bednarek is a definite medal hopeful.
The men’s 200-meter final is scheduled for Aug. 4.
Bednarek made headlines as a top-recruited sprinter when he graduated from Rice Lake High School in 2018. As a freshman at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, he broke onto the national scene, winning and setting records, which led to his signing as a professional athlete.
The Monson and Bednarek families have known of and cheered for both athletes, now Olympic teammates, as they won state championships in their events, competing in overlapping years during high school.
Alicia’s parents, Jay and Beth Monson, who bought tickets to Oregon before they even knew if they would be allowed to be spectators in the stadium, were able to watch their daughter’s qualifying event on the 111-degree day in late June.
Mary Ann Bednarek, Kenny’s mom, was unable to attend the qualifying events at Hayward Field in Eugene, as she was recovering from emergency surgery and a broken leg, but the Monsons were in the stadium when he ran his 200-meter final, which had been delayed because of the excessive, record-setting heat.
In interviews with the Catholic Herald, both athletes’ mothers noted the overwhelming number of requests for interviews Alicia and Kenny were receiving. They also acknowledged an appreciation for the chance to broaden the focus from the Olympians’ athletic abilities to who they are holistically and the role their Catholic faith has played in their lives.
Beth shared that Alicia, the Monsons’ third child, started running because her older sister participated in the sport. By time she was entering ninth grade, “The high-schoolers had their eye on her,” and Alicia joined both the track and cross country teams at Amery High School.
“She’s an Olympian,” Monson said, adding that her daughter’s calm, collected personality and ability to focus were there from the get-go.
“We’re talking about a kid who when she was little was just this sweet, meek and mild, skinny little blonde girl … And spent her life with a sweet little smile, didn’t fuss about anything and just took it all in,” she said.
Alicia received her sacraments at St. Joseph Church in Amery, was an altar server for many years and occasionally played the piano for Saturday evening Masses.
Monson also played basketball, participated in Girl Scouts and was active with French club and music in band, choir and playing piano.
Her mother noted that Alicia’s disciplined focus – something her piano teacher also saw early on – is what has allowed her to achieve her level of success with running.
“She takes whatever she’s doing so seriously and is so focused,” she said, adding that her strength as a runner comes from her ability to “block out all the other clutter.”
When asked when it clicked for Alicia that she could be an Olympian, Beth Monson replied that it was a gradual process, with incremental growth at each stage of her athletic career.
“She didn’t start out saying, ‘I think I’ll go to the Olympics.’ She did well and then took on what was next.”
Beth also said Alicia has always responded well to her coaches – when they recognized she could run faster and set a new goal, she would say “okay” and find a new level in her running. The Monsons saw this at the Olympic trials in June.
From the stands, in the oppressive 110-plus degree heat, they could see their daughter was “tank empty” throughout the 31-minute race. Afterwards, Alicia told her parents that she’d gotten to a place she’d never gone before in her performance, that she focused on that and went for it.
Beth said her exhausted daughter surmised, “Wasn’t this a good day to do it!”
Beth sees the influence of Alicia’s Catholic upbringing in many ways; parenting with rules and guidelines both finds its foundation in faith and supports children’s maturing into responsible and giving adults.
“That discipline comes from our Catholic faith as well. If you keep doing things for the right reason, for the good of others,” the fruits don’t take long to surface.
“What does running have to do with serving others?” she asked and answered her own question, “We’re seeing just that.”
Especially on the heels of the pandemic, Monson is grateful for and moved by the sense of community, support and prayer that is rallying around her daughter in this Olympic dream. She mentioned one elderly gentleman parishioner in particular, who specifically prays his rosary for Alicia, and she believes his frequent prayer is helping make her strong.
Monson continued, “That is the core of Alicia. She gets it, that she was given these physical skills and talents, but that it’s for a bigger reason. It’s so much bigger than her running a race.”
Both parents never doubted their daughter’s athletic future, but hearing time and again the compliments Alicia receives as the kindest person others have known is what brings them the greatest pride and joy.
“For an athlete at that level – with the drive they have to achieve this level – that’s big for me,” Beth stated.
She said her daughter has always treated others with respect, seeing them as equals, simply other children of God.
Monson did add, “Once the gun goes off, then it’s ‘game on’ and she’ll do her darnedest to beat you,” and quipped that that is what the sport is about.
Mary Ann Bednarek moved to Rice Lake from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, when Kenny was entering sixth grade. Having other family in the area, she has stayed put while her children have grown and moved into their adult lives.
The mother of four – all adopted, but whom she says with conviction are simply her children – is keenly aware of the gift of the Catholic foundation she has given them.
Kenny, who was baptized at St. Joseph’s in Rice Lake during a family visit while the Bednareks still lived in Oklahoma, completed his religious education and was confirmed at the Rice Lake parish. The three youngest (her oldest was already 19 when the family moved north) were all involved with the parish youth group and attended Catholic summer camps and events.
Admitting that her son might not be called a “poster-boy Catholic” with his intensive training and race schedule as a professional athlete, Bednarek affirmed, “God is still important in his life.”
“We don’t all live faith the same way,” she said, but she noted he makes an effort to get to church when he can.
In addition to support and prayers from communities and Catholics in northwest Wisconsin, Kenny Bednarek has a rallying prayer chain in Oklahoma. He was born in the state, and St. Brigid Catholic Church in Tahlequah was the family’s parish before moving to Rice Lake.
“They all remember him from when he was little,” Kenny’s mother commented, adding that his love for running started when he was introduced to the sport as a child.
Bednarek knew her son was fast but hadn’t realized “just how fast” until he began competing and was “always way ahead of everybody.”
This led to a special nickname, one that Kenny understood when his mom took the family to the theater to watch “Secretariat” for its 2010 release. The young teen got excited watching the scene where the legendary racehorse wins the 1973 Belmont Stakes, and the coveted Triple Crown, by a record 31 lengths.
“He has always been my Secretariat,” Bednarek iterated. She called him “an all-around good kid” and shared that she and Kenny talk or text almost daily. In fact, the interview call took place while she was checking out at the grocery store, getting supplies to send Kenny a care package before he leaves for Tokyo.
She said she had mixed feelings about her son’s choice to run professionally after his breakout freshman season, during which he broke a number of records.
“He just shot out and then went pro,” Bednarek recalled, noting she felt strongly about him continuing his education.
“It’s called strike while the iron’s hot,” she said, adding that she knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Both Bednarek and Monson have found themselves with the rare ability to make careers out of their talent and love for running. Rarer still is the athletes’ opportunity of a lifetime in becoming Olympians.
Whether one or both Team USA members make stadium appearances in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, their families know that thousands in northwest Wisconsin will be cheering their children on among the millions watching the games worldwide.
Knowing that countless prayers will be offered up alongside the support their children are receiving is just as valuable to the Bednareks and Monsons – even more so.
The athletes’ Olympic bios can be found at teamusa.org/athletes. On each individual’s page, there is an option to sign up for updates.
Rice Lake High School graduate Kenny Bednarek will compete in two Olympic events in Tokyo, the 200-meter sprint and the 4×100-meter relay. (Submitted photo)