A Puncher's Chance at Millrose
Feb. 19, 2013
Editor's Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa's Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Erik Sowinski is to track and field what Rocky Balboa is to boxing, with one major exception: Sowinski's story isn't fiction.
The University of Iowa record-holder in the indoor 600 and 800-meter runs was a late addition to the 106th Millrose Games in New York City, where on Feb. 16, he stunned two members of the 2012 United States Olympic team and won the 600-meter race in an American record-time of 1:15.61.
Sowinski runs professionally, but without a shoe contract. To make ends meet he works 30 hours a week at Running Wild in downtown Iowa City, while he continues training with UI assistant track and field coach Joey Woody. Sowinski worked exceptionally hard Feb. 11-13 since he had no scheduled competitions until the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships from March 1-3 in Albuquerque, N.M.
But on Feb. 13 -- three days before the Millrose Games -- Sowinski's agent, Robert Wagner, received a call from meet director Ray Flynn. A competitor, Kevin Borlee, dropped out of the 600 and there was an open lane if Sowinski could get to New York in time.
Early Thursday morning, Sowinski received his flight schedule. He left Cedar Rapids on Friday morning and once in New York, he shared a hotel room with two-miler Leonard Korir. The Mel Sheppard men's 600-meter run was scheduled to begin Saturday at 7:50 p.m. (CT).
"It worked well," Sowinski said. "It was a little surprising because I worked out pretty hard a couple days leading up to finding out, but I knew I was in pretty good shape going into it, so I wasn't too worried."
Sowinski was familiar with his competition. He raced against Duane Solomon, Nick Symmonds, and Michael Rutt at the 2012 United States Olympic Trials last June in Eugene, Ore. Solomon and Symmonds made the Olympic Team in the 800. Solomon finished fourth in the Olympic 800 final, and on Jan. 26, he set the American record in the 600 in Glasgow, Great Britain, with a time of 1:15.70. The previous mark held for 26 years.
"I had the opportunity at the Millrose Games, I just needed to put all the pieces together," Sowinski said. "I knew Solomon would take it out pretty fast, so I put myself in a good position through the first 500 meters. Then I took it over from there. I felt good, I started moving on the outside, and I was confident at that point that I would be able to pass those guys and take it. It was exciting and surprising at the same time."
Woody, a self-proclaimed Twitter hold out, signed up for the social media service Saturday, and started following FloTrack and RunnerSpace.com to receive tweet updates on Sowinski's performance. After the race, Woody was able to watch a replay on his computer.
"It's the satisfaction to help these young guys, not only throughout their (collegiate) career, but also help them reach their goals after college," Woody said. "I was blessed to have great coaches who helped me after college, and they didn't get much in return except the satisfaction. This is my opportunity to give back in that area as well."
Sowinski's entire career mirrors the Rocky theme. He came to the UI from Waukesha, Wis., on what he called a "very, very small scholarship." By the time he left in 2012, Sowinski held school records in the indoor 600 (1:16.91) and 800 (1:47.62) and the outdoor 800 (1:45.90). He won his preliminary heat and placed third at the 2012 NCAA Indoor Championships in the 800 (1:48.93), following that with a runner-up finish in the 800 at the 2012 NCAA Outdoor Championships (1:45.90). During the 2012 Olympic Trials, Sowinski ran 1:47.30 to advance to an 800 semifinal.
Even after establishing an American record, Sowinski still has the word "unattached" next to his name. Shoe deals are scarce, especially since the next Olympic Games are in 2016.
"I love the sport, I love to compete," Sowinski said. "When you've had success and you still know there's more in the tank, it's hard to step away. I have my eyes set on making the Olympic team in a couple years, that's a big driving force. It also helps having a supportive group of family, friends, and coaches; you know they want you to complete all your endeavors, and they're behind you 100 percent."
While his coach is new to Twitter, Sowinski is not. After the race, he was acknowledged by Symmonds and former Northern Iowa middle distance standout Tyler Mulder, both runners for Nike/Oregon Track Club Elite.
"...always an honor to be a part of an American Record. Congrats @esowinski," Symmonds wrote.
"Huge win out there @esowinski Congrats on the AR!" Mulder added.
"Those guys are pretty elite 800 meter runners; they are great guys on and off the track," Sowinski said. "It was fun racing them, and hopefully I'll get to have a couple good races against them the rest of the year. It's a good feeling to be recognized by some of those guys and to be congratulated by them."
Up next for Sowinski is the first round of the 800-meter run at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships on Saturday, March 2. Until then, he will return to training in relative obscurity in the UI Recreation Building or on Cretzmeyer Track.
And lacing up a few pairs of shoes for customers at Running Wild.