USD 231

GEHS senior, Kendra Wait, has been selected as this year's Kansas City Star Scholar-Athlete of the Year!!! Amid a pandemic-altered schedule further scrambled by rain delays and disrupted by headwinds, Kendra thwarted — or perhaps harnessed — the elements to command the day about everywhere at once during the Kansas state track and field meet on May 27 at Cessna Stadium in Wichita!

Courtesy: Kansas City Star

Lending fresh context to the notion of … hurry up and Wait, here she was at the 100-meter preliminaries, then literally sprinting to shot put, skedaddling to long jump and hustling to pole vault. In perpetual motion, half the time she didn’t immediately know where her throws or jumps stood in the rankings.

Next thing you know, assistant track coach and math teacher Curtis Pahls recalled, she’s running to medal stands and getting her picture taken before resuming action in another part of the stadium.

By the time the dizzying sequence was over, Wait stood in an unprecedented realm.

In about a three-hour span, she became the first girl to win four individual gold medals in Kansas Class 6A track history. She also became the only one of 18 girls to win that many in any class with the disparate disciplines of pole vault and shot in the quadfecta. 

The achievement and the scene were unique and indelible. And maybe all the more so considering it was her last meet: In a few months, she’ll begin a volleyball scholarship at Creighton, which has no track team.

Momentous as the day was, though, it might also be seen as a mere microcosm of the versatility and breadth of accomplishments (including finishing fourth in her class of 399) that make her The Star’s 2021 Girls Scholar-Athlete of the Year award winner. (This year’s Boys Scholar Athlete of the Year is Blue Valley Southwest’s Yaseen El-Demerdash.)

Indeed, Pahls saw it as a snapshot within a bigger picture of a young woman who says she constantly seeks to “make every minute of every day worthwhile.”

“For some, chaos will do them in,” Pahls said. “It wasn’t chaos for Kendra but just multitasking. Being involved to that level, she just embraced it.”

With the same zeal and aptitude academically and inter-personally, it turns out, and not by coincidence. 

Those are concepts essentially entwined by a family way in which she said performing up to standards meant “you compete hard. You work hard. You’re nice. You’re kind to people.”

That emphasis also flashed by example before her in older siblings Kyle and Cassie, who blazed what might have been intimidating trails to follow.

Kyle also was an accomplished student (top 10 in his class) who won a state championship in the pole vault and three Big 12 titles in the event at Kansas State; Cassie was a three-time state champion in pole vault who went on to play an integral role in KU’s first Final Four volleyball appearance in 2015 and valedictorian of her class at Gardner Edgerton who was named The Star’s 2013 Girls Scholar-Athlete winner.

(Perhaps oversimplifying their parental influence, father Darrell Wait, a teacher and coach, said their children were self-motivated and “we’d just say ‘do the right thing,’ and they’d do it.” His wife, Linda, a project manager at Garmin, said the children seldom had to be disciplined. With a laugh, she added, “We didn’t even have to tell them to go to bed, because they wanted to go to bed.”)

The sisters are believed to be the first siblings to have received the award since its inception in 1984 — something they spoke about at Cassie’s wedding last week, when she joked that she got her surname changed (to Valentine) just in time so Kendra could have more of the limelight to herself.

Never mind that Cassie is part of Kendra’s story, too. Which helps explain why, after it was all over that day at Cessna Stadium, they both cried as they hugged. (Alas, Cassie was unavailable to be interviewed this week during her honeymoon.)

“I always admired how much she cared about school and sports; she’s very smart but competed her butt off,” Kendra said. “I saw that, and I said, ‘I can do that also, and I want to be just like her when I grow up.’ ”

With her own flourishes, she’s grown up into a young woman that volleyball coach and teacher Hannah Berry in her nominating letter called “the perfect representation of a well-rounded individual with excellent character.”

She’s become a young woman Pahls says is a “10 times better person” than she is student or athlete. And pole vault coach and math teacher Thane Nonamaker calls her “a once-in-a-lifetime kid” and a “phenomenal teammate” — which translates in other ways.

Those characteristics of caring about the world around her are evident in her plan to study nursing in college. But maybe they are more vividly apparent in the way she explains how far back and deep-rooted her interest in medicine is.

Since she always liked the idea of helping people and understood that doctors help people, she used to practice medicine on her dolls “to help them feel better.”

Which is to say ...

“Most of the time it was (giving) shots, then I’d have to hug them and care for them because they would start crying,” she said, laughing as she thought about the toy syringe or pencil she might employ mostly so she could later console them.

It’s a funny and sweet story but one that Pahls also figures epitomizes her. Because it stands for something that many see in nearly every gesture of hers.

She’s the one, Linda Wait said, “always wanting to make sure that everybody is comfortable” and constantly concerned about the feelings of, say, the kid nobody else is playing with. That sort of consideration means she doesn’t need to “crow” about anything, as Nonamaker puts it, and you’d never know how good she is by hearing it from her.

“She was one of those who would pull others up as she was climbing up the ladder,” said Pahls, who taught her in two math classes and noted that she knows she’s only really competing with herself.

Part of her perspective and equilibrium also stems from appreciation of all she’s been given, from her coaches and teachers and teammates and family — including her genes.

Each parent was a three-sport athlete in high school back in Frankfort, Kansas. Darrell Wait was a high-jumper at K-State, and Kendra will tell you she got her speed from her mother.

Between that and the ever-present example of siblings excelling, no wonder she gravitated to sports about the same time she took to pretending to inject shots in her dolls.

With Cassie playing and her dad coaching the high school team at the time, that meant playing volleyball casually “very, very early,” she said, before becoming seriously competitive … in second grade.

And it meant heading over to the pole vault pit to watch her brother and sister work out with Nonamaker by the time she was 9 or 10. (Since 2004 at Gardner Edgerton, Nonamaker has coached 73 state qualifiers in pole vault, with 59 earning medals and 13 winning state championships. One year, that included freshman Cassie and senior Kyle. So … “five of those 13,” he said with a laugh, “are out of the Wait family.”)

Soon, she was getting into the basics herself.

“I definitely saw that they could do it,” she said. “So that just made me think, ‘Oh, I can do it.’”

That’s turned out to be true in numerous ways over the last few years thanks also to an abiding perfectionism that fuels her work ethic and drove her to take part in student council and community service activities.

Her character and mental strength also enabled her to find the perspective to deal with a heavy challenge distinct to this senior class: a year-plus of dealing with COVID-19.

Among its other burdens on students, the virus wiped out state track altogether last year — something she thought wistfully about on its scheduled 2020 date as she sat on the back deck with her family.

Over time, though, she believes contending with the fallout taught her a lot about life and “made me grow as a human, made me grow as a student and made me grow as an athlete.”

And she came to feel a renewed love of track and field even as she was preparing to bid it goodbye with what turned out to be a farewell anyone might envy.

Not that she necessarily expected that going in.

She knew competition in the 100 was going to be rugged, for instance. And did we mention that she only took up the long jump this year after Nonamaker suggested she just go try it one day as they looked toward the possibilities at state?

“It’s not going to work out,” she remembered saying.

Still, she did what she always does: went ahead and gave it her best. And working with assistant coach Joe Leiker, suddenly she’s setting a school record in her first meet as another leap toward something no one ever has done before.

And something anyone would be hard-pressed to ever repeat, especially given the bewildering broader circumstances and considering the exotic dimensions of the pole vault and the shot put (as coached by John Yockey) in an event she undertook in earnest only two years ago.

“I would hope that she is included as one of the best all-time,” Gardner Edgerton track coach Larry Ward told the Wichita Eagle. “I’ve never had an athlete do what she’s done in my 45 years. And to do it in 6A and in a one-day, condensed format, it’s just amazing.”

Especially considering it’s arguably her second-best sport … and that she’s just as good a student … and a better person yet.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve said ‘phenomenal.’ But phenomenal, there’s that word again,” Pahls said. “She’s going to do great things.”