Dec. 6, 2013
By: Kristin Jensen
Editor's Note: This is the third and final piece in a series of alumni profiles leading up to the 2013 Loyola Track & Field and Cross Country banquet. For the first time in program history, all alumni are invited to attend the event on Dec. 8.
The course is muddied and rain-soaked. An oppressive humidity hangs in the air, enveloping the runners on the Notre Dame Golf Course. It is the 34th annual National Catholic Championships, and the Loyola University Chicago cross country team is looking for a victory.
Junior Sam Penzenstadler has spent the first four kilometers of the men's 5-kilometer race chasing a pack of Notre Dame runners, who are ranked No. 18 in the national poll. But now Penzenstadler has just 800m to go, and he's ready to kick it into high gear.
Slowly, the Loyola junior begins to pick off the Fighting Irish, one by one. There are six total, and Penzenstadler doesn't stop until he's overtaken the last man in Blue & Gold. Even then, he continues to push ahead.
He's putting distance between him and the Notre Dame pack. The finish line is right before him, and he leans. He crosses with a time of 24:55, a full ten seconds in front of the second-place Irish runner to win the event going away.
With the victory, he leads the men's side to a runner-up finish behind host Notre Dame and becomes the first Loyola runner to win the National Catholic Championships since Eddie Slowikowski in 1987. "There was a lot of great competition so it was really cool to win," Penzenstadler said after the race. "It was pretty muddy, so the race was a lot harder than everyone thought."
Slowikowski, in fact, won the National Catholic Championships three years in a row. A three-time All-American who ran the fastest collegiate indoor mile (3:58) in 1990, Slowikowski comes from a prestigious era for Loyola cross country and track & field, and will be replacing Loyola legend Tom O'Hara as the keynote speaker at this year's banquet.
When Slowikowski stepped on campus as a freshman, he joined his sister Eileen who was a sophomore on the team and became the third Slowikowski to run for Loyola. His father Norb was a 1961 graduate and former Rambler runner on the same team as O'Hara. At the time of Slowikowski's freshman year, Gordon Thompson was entering his second season as head coach of the program and trying to renew the level of tenacity that existed when O'Hara set the precedent a decade earlier. Thompson's passion was infectious, and Slowikowski bought in right away. "Gordon, he was 24 at the time, he was just full of passion and energy, and I immediately connected with him," said Slowikowski. Because they did not have their own indoor training facility, Thompson rallied his teams to build an indoor track inside Loyola's Alumni Gym in order to stay on campus to train on winter days. Looking back on the experience now, Slowikowski says that track was the turning point for the program. "If you build it, they will come," he joked.
In his effort to run a sub-four minute mile, Slowikowski regularly crawled up the fire escapes and through the windows of Alumni Gym at night--boom box in hand--to get extra training sessions in on the new track. One night, Thomas heard the music from inside his office and came to investigate the commotion. When he saw Slowikowski, he simply stood silent in the stairwell, and then left without a word. The second time it happened, Thompson again stayed in the shadows.
By the third time, however, Thompson brought a stopwatch with him and began timing Slowikowski's runs. On the fourth night, he couldn't help but coach. And on the fifth night, he told Slowikowski that the rest of the team better be working out alongside him the next time he found him training late.
"It ended up become a second interval," Slowikowski recalled. "It was mandatory. We all started running great and started seeing our times really come down. I accredit it to that track that did it; me sneaking up there and the rest of the team having to do it with me."
Following his freshman year, Slowikowski represented the United States in the 1987 Pan Am Games. He would be named the most outstanding runner at the Horizon League Indoor Championships in 1989 and 1990 and to this day, he still holds the conference championship meet record in the mile.
But Slowikowski wasn't the only one earning All-America status. Alongside him were 4x800m relay members Marc Burns, Bill Cull and Andre Fomby, as well teammate Jim Westphal. Slowikowski's team grew incredibly close, volunteering at a local homeless shelter as a group, as well as at Loyola's Hunger Week. It was at the university's event that Slowikowski first started choreographing lip sync dance routines for the squad to perform; a talent that he incorporates into his renown presentations as a motivational speaker today.
After earning a gold medal in London, England as a member of the 1990 U.S. Track & Field team and competing at the 1992 Olympic trials, Slowikowski decided to pursue motivational speaking. For more than 20 years, his presentations on empowerment and leadership have been regarded as dynamic and inspirational. When asked about his success, he credits Loyola.
"Coming to Loyola was the key that really set up the rest of my life," said Slowikowski. "My dad was a senior when Tom O'Hara was a freshman. They had a proud tradition before O'Hara came, and then O'Hara put Loyola on the map. The seventies crew had an incredible team and then we were the eighties crew. Each era is significant and has its own unique story and little family. There's something about the magic of Loyola that helped create that."
In 1998, Slowikowski was inducted into Loyola Athletics Hall of Fame, cementing himself as an integral part of the history of Loyola cross country and track & field that has made the program what it is today.
"I see Loyola as this little gem in the city of Chicago," said Slowikowski of the program's recent success on the track and in cross country. "We're seeing that Loyola magic is rearing its head again in the world of running."
Loyola Track & Field and Cross Country's third annual banquet will be held on Sunday, December 8 in the Damen Student Center (6511 N. Sheridan Rd.) The event will begin with a social at 11:30 a.m., followed by the banquet at 12:00 p.m. Eddie Slowikowski will serve as the keynote speaker. More information can be found online at http://luc.edu/XCTFBanquet.