When you first meet Erik Sowinski, he displays a personal characteristic that is immediately noticeable - he seems to smile all of the time. And given the events in his life over the last 60 days, it is most understandable.
A household word to only the most hardcore track & field fans as the new year began, Sowinski has since rung up electrifying wins in the Millrose 600 and the USA Indoor Championship 800 to demonstrate that he will be a bona fide competitor for a spot on the U.S. national team that will compete in the World Championships later this summer.
And while Sowinski's emergence this winter may have caught virtually everyone by surprise, a look back upon his collegiate progression suggests that his undercover performances this winter should not have been so unexpected.
Sowinski put together a very good - but not particularly spectacular - high school middle distance resume. As a senior, Sowinski captured the Minnesota state title in the 800 in 1:54.29. A good time, to be sure, but not the type of mark that would suggest what awaited. At the University of Iowa, Sowinski soon found his plate filled with plenty of mileage. "The first year of college was definitely a big adjustment," notes the Waukesha, Wisconsin native. "At the end of my sophomore year, we started to get pretty intense with the mileage and the workouts and that was when we started to see dividends."
Guided by Iowa's middle distance coach Joey Woody - a world class 400 hurdler with World Championship medals of his own - Sowinski began to see the development of the over-distance mileage base begin to pay off. During his stint at Iowa, Sowinski worked with Woody to move his mileage from 30 miles/week to 70 miles/week. "I think it definitely helped me gain strength in the latter part of my race."
The stopwatch - which never lies - affirmed that Woody's roadmap had Sowinski on the right path. As a freshman, Sowinski chipped his 800 time down to 1:51.1. As a sophomore, he improved to 1:48.0. And by the end of his junior year, he had run the 800 in 1:47.7. But in his senior year at Iowa, the young middle-distance specialist made the type of breakthrough that should not have been overlooked. Breaking the 50-year old Iowa 800 record three times outdoors, Sowinski shined in the NCAA 800 final, closing hard over the final 200 to claw past Oregon's Elijah Greer for 2nd [in a PR time of 1:45.90] and to put a little scare into the winner - UC Irvine's Charles Jock. "Traditionally, I run from the front. Last year, at the NCAA's, I assumed Charles [Jock] would take it out," explains Sowinski. "Before the final, I think I led every single 800 I ran last year."
Once his college career concluded, Sowinski headed to Eugene to take his best shot in the Olympic Trials. He had run at Hayward Field before, but not when it was packed with 21,000+ rabid and knowledgeable track & field fans. He turned in a commendable performance - and gained valuable experience - in tackling the 800's three-round war of attrition. But he fell short of advancing to the finals. In one of the larger understatements, Sowinski observes, "It is different than a lot of other track meets."
As last summer's track season concluded, Sowinski experienced a little dose of reality. It was back to Iowa City where he began 30-hour per week stints at Running Wild, a family-owned running store. All the while Sowinski held onto his dream - he continued to train under Woody's guidance and he retained experienced sports agent Robert Wagner to help him guide his post-collegiate career. "I actually applied to medical school in this fall," revealed Sowinski, who is an excellent student. "But after my running got better, I decided to hold off for a while."
After a fall of focused training, Sowinski was ready to perform when this year's indoor season opened up. During a three-meet European junket arranged by Wagner, Sowinski set an indoor 800 P.R. of 1:47.21 in Linz and then turned some heads in Moscow when he posted a most impressive 600 time. His 1:15.99 immediately vaulted him to #5 on the all-time U.S. list. A change of fortunes was in the wind.
An oft-quoted expression proclaims that "luck" is when preparation meets opportunity. And after Sowinski's Moscow performance, he was prepared for the opportunity he saw before him: the Millrose 600. "I had my agent in communication with them, but they didn't have any lanes open at the time," explains the former Hawkeye. "When I heard that Nick and Duane were running, I was like, 'Hey let's try to get into this race.'" But disappointment turned to opportunity after all when Belgium's Kevin Borlee was forced to withdraw 4 days before the meet. That same day, while Sowinski was toiling at Running Wild, his cell phone went off. It was New York calling - a lane was available. "It was an opportunity that you definitely can't turn down," smiles Sowinski. "We had changed our workouts a little bit that week since we weren't planning on racing until U.S. Indoor nationals. We had worked out pretty hard Monday through Wednesday. So we just adjusted the training." And just like that, Sowinski was on a plane bound for New York's signature indoor meet and a date with destiny.
Erik Sowinski winning Millrose,
photo courtesy of John Nepolitan/Armorytrack.com
Sowinski arrived at the Armory below the radar. The 600 had been billed as one of Millrose's marquee events - touted to be a mano a mano square off between Olympians Nick Symmonds and Duane Solomon and their dual assault on the American record. But the young underdog had a plan. "I knew that Duane was going to take it out fast. So I just wanted to get on his shoulder," offers Sowinski on his strategy. "I was third through 500 meters feeling pretty good, so I just made my move off the curve." And it proved to be a move that was both decisive and perfectly timed. Flying off the final turn, Sowinski accelerated first past Jarrin Solomon and then past Duane Solomon - both unable to respond - as he hit the line in 1:15.61. The American record that was forecasted to be the grand prize of the Symmonds/Solomon showdown now belonged to Sowinski. His unexpected victory - the kind that sends announcers scrambling for their notes - was not lost on one track & field's most celebrated journalists. "There wasn't even a broadcast mention of Sowinski until the final 100 meters," exclaimed an astounded Jim Dunaway.
The sneak attack launched by Sowinski in the Millrose 600 is the type of unexpected race tactic that usually is effective only infrequently. It seemed unlikely that the finalists in the U.S. Indoor 800 championship race - a field that included veteran racers Matthew Centrowitz and Robby Andrews - would get caught off guard again. But when the Millrose 600 champ uncorked an explosive move just before the bell lap, it appeared that Sowinski had jumped his competitors once again. Besting a pair of feared kickers in Centro and Andrews, Sowinski covered the final circuit in 26.2 to capture the win in an indoor P.R. time of 1:47.09 - holding off a fast-closing Andrews by inches. "Initially, I was planning on leading the race, but the others got out pretty fast, so I decided to sit on it for 600," the joyful champion offered in the mixed zone. "I was kind of afraid kicking against Robby and Matt, but I had it today." So how does the Iowa City shoe salesman feel about his first national title? "I can't even put it into words right now. The last couple of weeks have just been a whirlwind." And flashing that trademark smile, Sowinski adds, "But I'm having fun out here and that's what it's all about."
Sowinski's pinnacle performances this winter evoke memories of Martin McGrady - another indoor runner perfectly crafted for those special middle distances. In the '60's, during the indoor season, McGrady - the original Chairman of the Boards - would regularly have his way with eventual 400 Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Lee Evans. But when spring arrived and the sport moved to the big oval, McGrady could never quite find that outdoor distance that suited him. Will Sowinski sidestep the quagmire that troubled McGrady? Or will he find an effective way to channel that under-distance speed in a way that can make him an authentic threat in the 800? These unanswered questions - which will be answered this summer - are the type that track & field fans savor.
And so Sowinski continues to work at Running Wild - hawking shoes and eking out a living. Yet all the while he continues the pursuit of his middle-distance dream - honing his 800 meter skills under the careful tutelage of a World Championship medalist who knows what it takes to get there. It is curious to note that the tag line of Running Wild is "Choose Your Path. Run Wild." As the recently-completed indoor season has proved, Erik Sowinski is doing just that.