IOWA CITY — Like so many millions of children growing up in the world, Erik Sowinski had a dream of professional sports stardom.
Sowinski grew up with a passion for soccer, but as a 5-foot high school sophomore he was cut from the Waukesha (Wisc.) West varsity team after being told he was too short to play.
His dreams of becoming a professional athlete were not be crushed so easily, however.
Sowinski quickly turned his attention to cross country and track and field.
Over the next several years, the now 6-1 Sowinski steadily improved as a runner, culminating in a state championship in the 800 meters as a senior. After an impressive four years as at the University of Iowa, Sowinski turned professional and has found life as a pro athlete is not as glamorous as he was led to believe.
Sowinski is one of the top middle distance runners in the United States, with a lifetime best of 1 minute, 44.58 seconds in the 800. He also once held the U.S. national indoor record in the 600 and was a five-time All American at Iowa.
Sowinski is one of seven current or former Hawkeyes competing this weekend at the USATF Outdoor National Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, vying for spots on Team USA for the World Championships in Doha, Qatar later this fall.
Thirty-two runners qualified in the 800, and Sowinski will run in one of four quarterfinal heats on tonight at 6:47 p.m. If Sowinski can place well enough, he will advance to one of two semifinal races on Friday.
The final eight runners compete Sunday night.
The top three make the U.S. team.
“In all reality this might be my last U.S. Championships at Drake Stadium,” Sowinski said earlier this week before at workout at Francis X. Cretzmeyer track. “It would be big to make the team.”
Despite holding the highest participation rate of any high school sport, pro track and field does not hold a candle to leagues like the NBA or NFL in terms of popularity or television ratings.
When Sowinski began his professional career, he lived with three other roommates and worked 40 hours a week at a local running store in Iowa City, in addition to his training. After a couple of solid outdoor performances in the 800, Sowinski got a call from Nike, which set him up with a professional contract.
Nike supplies its professional track athletes with virtually unlimited gear and support, but offers no coaching or training.
Sowinski has relied heavily on his former collegiate coach, Iowa head coach Joey Woody, to prepare his practice schedules and set his routines.
“Sometimes we’re separated for three or four weeks so that can be kind of rough,” Sowinski said. “All my training is in his hands and I think the results show for themselves how much of a feel he has for the 800.”
Nike prefers to keep its endorsement deals with track athletes relatively private, but it has been estimated an average professional track and field athlete makes no more than $100,000 in sponsorships. Performance-based bonuses also can be allocated in addition to the prize money athletes can receive for winning races.
Athletes who don’t have a salary outside of their sponsorship are dependent entirely on their prize money, which usually cannot support their basic needs.
“I couldn’t train without Nike’s financial support,” said Sowinski, wearing Nike shoes, jacket, T-shirt and pants. “Having that guaranteed money coming in every week makes it easier.”
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Sowinski is fully aware life will continue after he is done running, which means he will have to find a way to support himself once Nike pulls its contract. For the last three years he has been earning money as an assistant coach at Davenport Assumption.
On the track, qualifying for the World Championships has been one of Sowinski’s main goals this outdoor season, one he hopes will set him on a path to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Sowinski has seen some nagging injuries surface as he approaches nearly a decade of professional level running and, at 29 years old, he is fully aware this could be his final legitimate shot to make the Olympic team.
When not racing this time of year, Sowinski can be found at the Cretzmeyer track, going through rigorous workouts while sporting Nike from head to toe. In addition to proper nutrition and sleep, he attributes his consistent hard work to his prolonged career.
“I’ve had a lot of different coaches with a lot of different philosophies, and I’ve run well under every single one of them because I’ve bought into the philosophy,” Sowinski said. “The 800 is 75 percent mental, and if you don’t believe in the training the results aren’t just going to show up.”