SUPERIOR, Wis. | Two athletes from parishes in the Diocese of Superior are headed to the Tokyo Olympics as first-time Olympians and up-and-coming track stars.
Alicia Monson, 23, a long-distance runner from Amery, 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 the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a degree in nutrition science in addition to her multiple athletic titles.
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 4x100 relay team. He then qualified with a personal best in the 200-meter race, finishing inches behind fellow American Noah Lyles, the reigning world champion.
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 meters -- Bednarek is a definite medal hopeful. The men's 200-meter final is scheduled for Aug. 4.
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, bought tickets to their daughter's qualifying event in June before they even knew if they would be allowed to be spectators at the Eugene, Oregon, event which took place in 111-degree heat.
Mary Ann Bednarek, Kenny's mom, was unable to attend the qualifying events because she was recovering from emergency surgery and a broken leg.
In interviews with the Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Superior, both athletes' mothers 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.
Alicia, the Monsons' third child, started running because her older sister participated in the sport. By time she was entering ninth grade, she joined both the track and cross country teams at Amery High School, Beth Monson said.
"We're talking about a kid who when she was little was just this sweet, meek and mild, skinny little blond 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. She 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."
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 "OK" and find a new level in her running.
She also said her daughter's Catholic faith gave her the discipline of working to help others.
Right now, she is grateful for and moved by the sense of community, support and prayer that is rallying around her daughter. She said one elderly parishioner prays his rosary for Alicia, and she believes his frequent prayer is helping make her strong.
She said her daughter "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."
Mary Ann Bednarek moved to Rice Lake from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, when Kenny was entering sixth grade.
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's current schedule prevents him from getting to his home parish, St. Joseph's in Rice Lake, but she said: "God is still important in his life."
In addition to support and prayers from communities and Catholics in northwest Wisconsin, Kenny also 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.
Mary Ann knew her son was fast but hadn't realized "just how fast" until he began competing and was "always way ahead of everybody." She nicknamed him "Secretariat" after the 1973 Triple Crown-winning horse.
She said she had mixed feelings about her son's choice to run professionally after his breakout freshman season, during which he set a number of records.
"He just shot out and then went pro," she said, noting she felt strongly about him continuing his education. "It's called strike while the iron's hot," she said.
The two Wisconsin athletes have found themselves with the rare ability to make careers of their talent and love for running and the chance of a lifetime of being Olympians.
For their families, knowing that countless prayers will be offered up alongside the support their children are receiving is equally valuable.