24: Sowinski Runs for Gold, Grandpa

Feb. 24, 2010

24 Hawkeyes to Watch: E. Sowinski

Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Wednesday, Aug. 12, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2009-10 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Erik Sowinski will compete at the Big Ten Conference indoor track and field championships this weekend in Minneapolis where the University of Iowa sophomore will demand the attention of the top middle distance runners in the nation.

He will also be watched closely back home by family and friends in Waukesha, Wis. Sowinski runs for more than conference gold; he also runs for his grandfather, Cliff George.

“We have a really small family. Both my parents are only children and my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer,” Sowinski said. “One of the ultimate things is I wanted him to see me succeed academically and athletically.”

With his grandfather viewing a video stream of his last 800-meter run Feb. 13 at the Iowa State Classic in Ames, Sowinski pulled away down the stretch to win in a school-record and NCAA provisional-qualifying time of 1 minute, 48.9 seconds.

“They’ve kind of put a timeline on things,” Sowinski said. “He’s holding on and I’m glad he’s gotten to see me do the things I’ve done so far. I always think about him before a race. He’s been such an influence on so many aspects of my life. I’ve had a strong relationship with him and knowing that he’s holding on is giving me strength to do what I’ve been able to do.”

Sowinski is currently ranked 15th in NCAA Division I and fifth in the Big Ten in the 800. He also holds the Iowa record in the 600 (1:18.05), set in 2009 at the Big Ten championships at Penn State. Sowinski has run 1:19.38 in the 600 this season.

His 800 times have been consistent and impressive this winter, running 1:49.21 at the Meyo Classic in South Bend, Ind., on Feb. 6, which at the time was also a school record. Sowinski’s best 800 time as a freshman was 1:52.7 indoors and 1:51.1 outdoors.

“Erik is a guy with a lot of heart,” said Larry Wieczorek, UI head men’s track and field coach. “Obviously he’s got talent. Last year he broke our school record in the 600 and that was a lead-up to running an even faster 800.”

“A lot of it has been strength,” Sowinski said. “I didn’t lift weights at all in high school, so coming here, that was definitely a big transition. Strength is a big factor and just being a year smarter in racing and having more experience has also been a big factor.”

When Sowinski began his freshman year at Waukesha West High School, his primary sports were soccer and basketball.

“I was always a soccer player when I was growing up,” Sowinski said. “After freshman year I decided on cross country and that’s when all the running came in.”

It was a slow, steady progression to success for Sowinski, a four-year honor roll student and member of the National Honor Society. As a junior in high school, Sowinski wasn’t even one of the top 15 half-milers in the state of Wisconsin. His time of 1:59.69 placed 16th in Division 1 and he led off the 4×800 relay for West, which did not place in 8:02.74.

The next season, Sowinski was champion in the 800 (1:54.29), anchored the 4×800 relay that finished second (7:50.96) and led off the 4×400 relay that placed fifth (3:22.08).

“I won conference my senior year in the 400 and 800 and that’s when I realized I was taking things to a new level,” Sowinski said. “At the state meet I was fortunate enough to win that and then I finally started getting looked at by some Division I schools.”

One of those schools was Iowa, thanks to alumnus Matt Esche, who ran for Wieczorek after also prepping at Waukesha West.

“With Iowa wrestling, they talk about being in a room with a lot of good guys and you come out of there just that much better when you’re pounding on each other in the room. I think the same thing in track. When you have a good group of guys pushing you each day I think that makes a big difference. We have a good training group there, so I think they contribute to each other.”
UI head coach
Larry Wieczorek

“Matt kind of nudged (UI assistant men’s) coach (Joey) Woody to take a look at me, otherwise I don’t think I would have ended up here if it wasn’t for Matt,” Sowinski said. “So, it’s a big thanks to him.”

Track was just one reason Sowinski chose the University of Iowa. An integrative physiology major, Sowinski said he liked the compact UI campus and the fact the UI Hospitals and Clinics is on campus.

“I’ve been around medicine all my life,” Sowinski said. “My mom (Jane) is a cardiology nurse and I was hurt a lot as a kid, so I was in the hospital a lot. The hospital being right on campus was another big factor. A also wanted to reach out and meet new people.”

Although he doesn’t compete in cross country for the Hawkeyes, Sowinski trains between 60-70 miles a week with his high school coach back home in the summer. When he returns to Iowa, one of his training partners is senior Adam Hairston, the former school-record holder in the 800, who was a semifinalist at the 2009 NCAA outdoor national championship with a qualifying mark of 1:48.53.

“We push each other during practice,” Sowinski said. “Healthy competition is always a good thing. We’re pushing each other and making each other work hard and I think the results have definitely shown that.”

“With Iowa wrestling, they talk about being in a room with a lot of good guys and you come out of there just that much better when you’re pounding on each other in the room,” Wieczorek said. “I think the same thing in track. When you have a good group of guys pushing you each day I think that makes a big difference. We have a good training group there, so I think they contribute to each other.”

Even with a rapid personal-best reduction in the 800, Wieczorek is more surprised by Sowinski’s emergence as a sprinter. Once looked at as an alternate for a 400 spot, Sowinski has developed into the anchor on a 4×400 relay that has run 3:09.83 and also provisionally qualified for the NCAA championship.

“He’s now the mainstay on that relay,” Wieczorek said. “He and coach Woody have teamed up to be a pretty good combination coach and athlete there. Coach Woody has gotten him stronger and more powerful in the weight room, which is one of coach Woody’s strong points as a coach.”

Sowinski has experienced success in the 400, 600 and 800, but he said he still prefers the 800.

“It’s more tactical than the 400 or 600,” Sowinski said. “The other two are just an all-out sprint, where the 800, you have to figure out where you’re going to sit and when you’re going to make your move. It’s a fun race.”

If Sowinski has his way, the 1:48.9 is a temporary milestone.

“I definitely want to run faster,” Sowinski said. “It’s an honor to have the record; all the guys who have gone through here and to realize that I could be on that level is pretty surprising. It’s fun looking forward to the future.”

The next stop is Minneapolis for the Big Ten championships. Sowinski doesn’t know for sure what events he will be entered in, but the objective remains the same:

“Hopefully podium in whatever event coach puts me in at indoor Big Ten’s, podium in the 4×400 and then make it to Fayetteville (Ark., site of the NCAA indoor championships) in the 800 and 4×4,” Sowinski said. “Those are the ultimate goals for the indoor season.”

When he toes the line this weekend, Sowinski will think about more than race strategy and qualifying times. He will also have Grandpa Cliff on his mind — and running for him has already produced record-breaking results.