Photography: Akila Fields

Physical skill is only one of the ingredients for becoming a successful athlete. High jumper and Jordan Brand family member, Erik Kynard Jr., likens the real athletic X factor to pure genius, a mental strength that relentlessly perseveres through adversity. Erik has continued to excel through setbacks, including a serious Achilles injury in 2018, ever since he stepped foot on the world stage as a teenager.

Now 30 years old, Erik grew up the oldest son of nine siblings in Toledo, Ohio. Gifted with a tall, lean build and awe-inspiring aerial abilities, he could have pursued almost any sport. He found himself drawn to high jump’s culture of self-reliance and quickly elevated to the top of his school, state and eventually, the U.S. In high school, he surpassed his own coach’s record before successfully competing in global contests.

At Kansas State, Erik set indoor and outdoor high jump records as a senior. He also set the Indoor Big 12 Championship high jump record and earned All-American honors eight times for indoor and outdoor play. This culminated in winning two outdoor championships with jumps of 2.28m/7-06ft in 2011 and 2.34m/7-08ft in 2012. Recently, Erik was recently upgraded to gold for his performance at the 2012 games in London.

Participating in U.S. competition, Erik won the 2013 outdoor championships with 2.28m/7-5.75ft, the 2014 indoor championships at 2.30m/7-6.50ft and the 2015 outdoor championships with a personal best record of 2.37m/7-9.25ft. His tremendous run led to competing in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro and placing third at the 2016 indoor championships.

High jumpers are used to managing the peaks of clean, sublime flight and the valleys of knocking the bar down. Through it all, Erik competes knowing he’s here for a reason. We caught up with him to talk about his upbringing, flight and the new Jordan Air NFH.

You have a big family with a lot of siblings. What was growing up in that environment like?

My mother had me when she was 16, so I grew up with my parents, in a way. As the oldest son, I was forced to lead by example. I’m the only athlete out of my nine siblings, so it was trial-by-fire, as most things are with two young parents in the inner city. For some of my siblings, I was more than a big brother, I was like a second dad or an uncle. We were all able to learn from and grow through each other.

Your talent and athleticism can be applied to many other sports. How did you land in track and field?

I landed in track and field solely because I’m a super competitor. That competitiveness made it a little volatile to be in team sports. I had the attributes for high jump — height, jumping ability and running. I was 6’5″, 175 pounds in high school, so I naturally had the build.

I played football for a bit, wide receiver, but it didn’t work out. In almost every other sport, you have to depend on another person. In track and field, you never have to depend on another individual to determine how successful you are in competition. You are the determining factor in your successes and failures. There’s just an intrinsic focus on you.

When you were in high school, you broke your coach’s school record. How would you describe those early development years and proving to yourself that you could go far in your discipline?

I competed in the Olympic trials when I was still in high school, at the age of 17. I also won a few national championships in high school. I think those were the telltale signs of being a once-in-a-generation talent, one who could succeed far beyond the successes of the people who led me there. I was surrounded by a good team of individuals; my coaches and family members just knew early on. They were like, “You are truly gifted at this, and you have a huge responsibility to care for this gift and apply your talents to this event.”

What was it like to experience that kind of traction and momentum at such a young age, at 17?

It meant that I started traveling the world at age 17. I was competing in Europe, the Caribbean and so on. I made my first Olympic team at age 21. I started to look at the world through a different lens. I changed my relationships with people drastically. When you get into a position where you’ve seen more than your parents and your grandparents, your perspective on things changes.

How have you dealt with pressure or finding motivation during hard times?

One of the greatest gifts of being an athlete is the ability to succeed through adversity. We’re professionals at dealing with adversity. An athlete’s genius is succeeding through anything, no matter what it looks like. It translates to the ways in which athletes are stepping into different markets and being afforded new opportunities. More people are starting to see that athleticism is genius. It’s brilliance. It’s exemplified through sport, but it goes beyond it, too. It thrives in many different arenas.

The toughest adversity I’ve ever faced is dealing with an injury. Rupturing an Achilles in any sport can be career-ending. Dealing with an injury of that magnitude, and returning from it, was eye-opening as far as the potential and resilience I have to succeed.

“More people are starting to see that athleticism is genius. It’s brilliance.”

What do you think people, including sports and track and field fans, misunderstand about high jump?

Most people are not well-versed in the event. It’s one of the most mentally strenuous events on the track, and it’s extremely technical. It’s a solo act, you and the bar, and the bar always wins. You compete until failure every single time. Then, when you fail, you have a new measuring stick, or a new perspective of the opportunity for you to succeed.

High jump is a little more mentally invasive, and it’s really like torture, to be honest. At the end of the day, you’re always put in a position to fail. It’s not like other events where someone runs faster than you, and you say, “They beat me.” When you knock the bar down it’s more like, “I beat myself.”

You’re not passing the baton to anybody, so when you leave and go home, that’s what you take with you. How you deal with that and cope with that determines your continued success or failure.

In a recent interview, you said that you have to live out your imagination, not your history. Can you explain more about what you mean by that?

So I learned that from Henry Ford. I read a book where he said that if he asked people what they wanted, they would tell him a faster horse. Sometimes, people’s perspectives don’t matter. You have to live out of your own imagination, not your history.

I’ve never been a slave to my accomplishments, ever. If I accomplish something, I move on to the next thing. If I lament the circumstances of my successes or failures, I’ll be prevented from achieving more. You can either be content, or you can continue, but you can’t do both. So athletically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, whatever the failure or accomplishment, I keep that perspective.

What does it mean to you to rep Jordan Brand in this unique capacity?

As a kid, I used to compete in jumping meets, and my dad would reward me with Jordans. It’s a dream come true. I could only try to emulate success in my particular field, to be worthy of this Brand’s legacy. It’s such an elite family of individuals doing everything we can to represent. I’m the only male track and field athlete in the family, so that’s huge. Repping the Jumpman out there and in photos is just one-of-a-kind.

What do you like about the new Jordan Air NFH shoes and 23 Engineered apparel collection?

23 Engineered is my favorite gear because it’s practical for the movements I’m doing day-to-day. As far as the Air NFH, it represents the fact that design and technology are always evolving, including for lifestyle. They’re very comfortable. It’s great to see Air technology used in this kind of Jordan silhouette that has both running and basketball DNA.

There’s a natural parallel between you soaring through the air and MJ soaring through the air. Can you describe the sensation of jumping that high, for those of us who won’t ever know the feeling?

Honestly, it’s one of the closest things to literal flight. Dunking the basketball is comparable, but the ball has to make it into the rim. In high jump, you have to actually make it over an obstacle. It’s one of the most peaceful and poetic forms of the human experience.

The Jordan Air NFH is available starting August 20 from and select retailers.

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