DES MOINES (24-Jul) -- Despite finishing second at the 2012 NCAA Championships in the 800m and making it to the semi-finals of the USA Olympic Trials, Erik Sowinski's professional running career got off to a decidedly slow start. The University of Iowa star, who finished his collegiate career with a 1:45.90 personal best, couldn't get an agent or a shoe company to look his way, even for a moment.
PHOTO: Erik Sowinski in Downtown Des Moines in advance of the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"I was second at NCAA's, I ran under 1:46, and had no offers from any companies," Sowinski told Race Results Weekly in an interview here on the eve of the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium. "I e-mailed the entire list of athletic representatives on USATF's website and I didn't get a single response."
So, like so many other aspiring runners before him, Sowinski took a job at a running store, the now defunct Running Wild in Iowa City where he still lives. He worked morning and night shifts so he could get in his afternoon training with coach Joey Woody. It was exhausting, and he wasn't getting where he wanted to be.
"I was working 40 hours a week at the time," he continued. "That was paying the bills but not the kind of a lifestyle that I wanted to live. So, racing helped me make money and the more races you could string together in a trip, the travel was covered so I didn't have to worry about that."
Little did Sowinski know at the time that he would become one of the most prolific 800-meter runners in American history, traveling the globe to ply his trade, both indoors and outdoors. In 11 seasons the 29 year-old, originally from Waukesha, Wisconsin, has recorded 180 marks at 800m in 72 cities in 21 different countries and territories, according to an analysis done by Race Results Weekly using data from the respected athletics statistics site Tilastopaja Oy and the Race Results Weekly Athlete Performance Database. To put that in perspective, Johnny Gray, the American record holder who competed at a high level for 19 seasons, has only 123 marks in the Tilastopaja Oy database.
Even more remarkable is the consistent quality of those performances. Sowinski has broken 1:48.00 131 times, 1:47.00 86 times, 1:46.00 35 times and 1:45.00 four times. He's won three national titles (800m indoors in 2013 and 2014, and 600m indoors in 2017), has an IAAF World Indoor Championships bronze medal from 2016, made it to the semi-finals of the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Athletics, and set an American indoor best for 600m of 1:15.61 in 2013 (since surpassed).
Sowinski made his first trip to Europe in 2013 for three indoor meets in Linz, Moscow and Düsseldorf. Things did not go as smoothly as he had hoped. He only got his passport back from the Russian embassy with his visa 36 hours before he left home, and in Russia he got stranded on a highway for six hours due to a snow storm. His driver only spoke Russian.
"Our cell phones weren't getting any service so we had to just sit in the car waiting," Sowinski recalled. "I had never even been out of the country (before)."
In May of that year, he landed his first professional sponsorship contract with Nike (still his sponsor), which took off some of the financial pressure.
"I signed my contract in May of 2013," Sowinski recalled. "I was still working a solid 25 hours a week then, but I was at least able to cut back a bit."
That summer he made two more trips, the first to England and France for two meets, then the second to the Netherlands, Italy and Austria for four meets. His agent at the time, Robert Wagner*, was great at helping Sowinski string meets together and have all of his travel and lodging paid for. Sowinski now plans for extensive travel each year and, by his own reckoning, has accumulated over 750,000 frequent flyer miles on his primary carrier, United, which he has never touched. He said he plans to take his girlfriend on a special trip using those miles after he retires.
"We usually plan on one indoor trip overseas and two to three outdoors,"
Sowinski explained. "Obviously, we have to make it work where there's multiple races in a row to get get the training aspect of it. Also, you're a business and trying to financially make it make sense. At the same time, you don't want to spend so much time away from home because training is never the same."
In 2018, where there was no global outdoor championships for Americans, Sowinski hit the road hard, competing 28 times at four different distances in 22 cities in 10 countries. He has a more focused program planned for this year because he is trying to qualify for the IAAF World Championships in Doha in September. If he finishes in the top-3 here in Des Moines, and attains the qualifying standard of 1:45.80 during the meet, he will qualify. He certainly has a shot, but the competition from athletes like Donavan Brazier, Bryce Hoppel, Clayton Murphy and Isaiah Harris will be stiff.
"I think the biggest thing for us is getting through the rounds comfortably," Sowinski said. "I don't think it's a secret that I like to lead the prelim and the semi-final race, to get myself out of trouble and to just get into the final. Hopefully, it will be my 14th straight final, indoors and outdoors. Some of those guys are running really well, Donavan, Clayton and Bryce Hoppel. They're definitely going to be tough to beat. But, if you get yourself in the final anything can happen that day. Year-in, year-out, there is something that always happens that people don't expect."
Despite all Sowinski has accomplished, he is not the most prolific USA 800m man in history. That distinction belongs to the now-retired Khadevis Robinson who, over 17 seasons recorded 214 marks according to Tilastopaja Oy. Robinson broke 1:45.00 28 times between 2002 and 2012.
Sowinski, who said he likes to "play the frequent flyer game" didn't earn any miles coming to Des Moines. He drove from Iowa City, a trip of only 90 minutes.
*Wagner was provisionally suspended in 2018 by the Athletics Integrity Unit for suspicion of procuring drugs for athletes; Sowinski's current agent is Tony Campbell