Donnie Cowart, the Happiest Man Not Going to London, by Jon Gugala, note by Larry Eder

Jon Gugala's column today is on Donnie Cowart, who we will watch for Rio 2016.  Donnie Cowart met with Jon Gugala, in a typical post event watering hole, and this is the piece that Jon came up with for today.

Jon Gugala is one of our newest finds, a frequent contributor to Runners World, Running Times and I believe, Competitor magazines and online. A keen observer of the sport, Jon has a whimsical writing style and a wry sense of humor.

How can you not like someone who thanks the media center for the fruit supplied to media each day, as it protects him from scurvy?

Huling_DanQ-OlyT12.JPGHuling and Cowart, 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Steeplechase
Photo by

By Jon Gugala

EUGENE, Oregon
June 30, 2012

Here's how an Olympic trials final works: the race ends, the first three places take their victory lap (signing autographs, kissing babies, pointing to all the little people, etc.) and the rest of the field relegates themselves to the incessant post-race interviews which always center on What You Saw Out There and What Went Wrong and What Do You Take From This. We in the media ask the Tough Questions, saltshakers jiggling over skinned knees. Your goal as an athlete: speak your peace and GTFO.

On Thursday evening the men's steeplechase final was won by Evan Jager in personal best 8 minutes, 17.40 seconds. Don Cabral was next (8:19.81), followed by Kyle Alcorn (8:22.17). The three will make up the 2012 U.S. Olympic team for the event.
If there was anyone who should be the most ready to drown himself in the water pit, you could bet it would be fourth place finisher Donnie Cowart (8:27.49), who lives in Charlottesville, Va., and runs for Ragged Mountain Racing.
But Cowart was nowhere to be found.

As Jager and Co. basked in their accomplishment under the eyes of Hayward Field, reporters lined the metal railings in the mixed zone as the rest of the field straggled in. One by one, they slipped away. Cowart still hadn't come in.

But before we get to where he was and was not (in the stands with his mom and sister, "celebrating," he says), a little background info: Cowart is a 2009 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, during which he only made the NCAA championships in his event once--his fifth and final year. Before college, he was a 4:22 miler in an underwhelming prep career.

In a bar later that night of the steeplechase final I'd meet a man named Jeff Jacobs, a coach at Coastal Carolina University, who remembers Cowart in the NCAA Big South Championships meet that final year. Cowart was entered in the 800-meters, 1,500-meters, steeplechase, and 5,000-meters. "And I talked to him before the meet and I go, 'You're not really going to quadruple?'" Jacobs says, whose school was in a tight conference race with VMI. "I thought he was just joking. He had to run five races in two days."

VMI beat CCU by two points, Jacobs remembers. Cowart had scored 30 points himself during the meet, with a runner-up in the 800-meters, a win in the 1,500 and the steeple, and sixth in the 5,000-meters.

But back to the trials and the sad parade of non-Olympians that had slackened: in runs Cowart, lunging at me from across the railing like a spider monkey (also should be noted: Cowart is five feet, five inches, and as wiry as a coat hanger). He nearly pulls me across.
So, uh, how was fourth?

"Oh, man, it's huge! It's huge!" Cowart yells. "I don't care that I was one spot off; it was fourth. Fourth is fourth, and I was so amped when I saw fourth coming back to me. I was like, 'We're going to get him. Whatever it takes, we're going to get him.'"

Dan Huling, a two-time USA Outdoors runner-up and the 2010 U.S. champion, was the poor bastard in fourth going over the last water barrier. The wheels were coming off his race so bad that he seemed to come to a complete stop in the water pit. Cowart was closing.

"Over that last hurdle, [Huling] moved out to lane two. I was like, 'I'm coming in lane one, baby!'" Cowart says. He is still yelling.

Two more things should be noted. The first was that Cowart had such a poor prelim round (sixth, 8:31.51) that he only advanced into the final by time. The other was that he was ranked eighth in the U.S. this year and that, saying his name to a bunch of steeplechase fans, the most common response is "Who?"

Brad Hunt, Cowart's coach and the assistant coach for Wake Forest, began coaching Cowart after his collegiate career ended. Since the pair lives in different states, it's meant that Cowart hammers out miles largely unsupervised. Hunt describes him as "a workhorse."
"I think it's just been so much what he's put in himself," Hunt says.

For all the downsides to fourth, one of the upticks is that it doesn't look too shabby to a meet director. Cowart, who heads to Belgium in another few weeks to race another steeplechase and a 1,500-meters, knows this makes his chances of getting into meets even better.

Also, fourth place, paired with Cowart's young age (26), can look pretty darn good to a potential sponsor.

Four more years until the next U.S. Olympic team trials is a long time to wait for your next shot at an Olympic team. But when you've surpassed an entire country's expectations, it softens the blow.

 "I'm a big picture guy. I'm thinking toward 2016, and to be in the mix for 2012, and to be fourth . . . I'm right there," Cowart says. He is still yelling. He will probably be yelling for the next Olympic cycle. "I'm on the cusp. Look out the next four years, baby. I'm coming. I'm hungry."

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