Zofia Dudek Is Getting Hard To Beat

Zofia Dudek has followed her Foot Locker win with a sequence of strong track races in Michigan. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

ZOFIA DUDEK (Pioneer, Ann Arbor, Michigan) never looked back after the crack of the gun. For 1600m on an oversized track in Saginaw, she ran as a woman possessed. The rest of the field watched her go—she was on her own as she produced a 4:41.85 (worth 4:43.49 for a mile) to win by more than 20 seconds. That’s how much of the winter has gone for the Foot Locker XC champion.

Six days later on another big track, she blistered 3200 in 9:56.72 (worth a list-leading 10:00.19 for 2M) to win by 28 seconds. The only time anyone has gotten close to her this winter was when she ran an 800 PR of 2:08.34 leading from wire-to-wire. She had a 1.16-second margin there.

“It’s definitely more challenging for me just because I feel like I can go faster if I have competition, but I guess I’m used to it,” she says. “It’s all just about the mentality and trying to go through the race and just think about going faster even though there’s nobody really next to me.”

Dudek’s emergence as one of the nation’s top preps followed a unique path. Her father’s work as a visiting Economics professor brought the family from Poland to Purdue when she was in the 7th grade. Without much athletic background, she started running at West Lafayette Middle School. “The first time running cross country,” she admits, “was very difficult for me.” By the end of the year she had clocked about 5:30 for 4 laps.

The next two years she spent back home in Poland, running with her club, Polonia Warsaw. By the time she returned to the U.S. as a soph, she had clocked 4:39.53 for 1500 and 9:55.91 for 3000. In the 10th grade, she found herself in Ann Arbor, where her father took an appointment with Michigan. She joined the powerful Pioneer team, coached by Nancy Boudreau (who as Nancy Schafer was 4th in the ’68 Trials 400 and 4th again in ’72 in the 800) and Ian Forsyth (who ran on Michigan’s ’95 NCAA-winning distance medley).

That year, with a best of 5:00.77 for 1600, Dudek finished 11th in the Michigan state meet. She returned to Poland in the summer, with the family not knowing if her father’s job in Ann Arbor would be renewed. At the last minute it was, and Dudek surprised many when she raced again for Pioneer’s cross country team in late September.

Though she improved to 17:55 in cross country, she only managed 18th at the Foot Locker Midwest meet. In track, though, she improved dramatically, bursting onto the national radar with a 4th-place finish in the mile at New Balance Indoors (4:44.88). Outdoors, she hit 4:41.34 to win the Brooks PR mile with a stunning 65.3 kick. Her summer season in Poland went even better, and she found herself wearing a gold medal atop the 3000 podium at the European Junior Championships. “Winning that was a huge moment for me,” she says. “I guess it made me feel that all the hard work I did actually paid off.” She adds, “I would not be able to do anything as good as I am without my coaches and teammates and family.”

Last fall Dudek went undefeated on the prep scene, running 16:45 to outkick Pennsylvania’s Marlee Starliper at Foot Locker. “Just knowing the history of Foot Locker made me think that it wasn’t really a place for me to win just because of all the amazing runners who have come down through that race,” she says. “I knew I was in shape that I could win it. That was my plan—well, that’s what I was shooting for. To actually have it happen is another thing.”

She followed up with a 5th-place in the Euro Junior race in Lisbon. “It’s a little bit tiring when I have to fly to places all the time,” she says, “but it also just makes it more exciting.”

This winter, the Stanford signee won’t meet any national-level competition until the New Balance Indoor, and there she will likely run three relays before she gets to an individual event. “I’m thinking of doing the mile,” she says. “It’s a lot of nerves and excitement but I think there’ll be a great, great time.

“I’m definitely very excited just to see how the rest of the season goes. My success has been helping me have more motivation for more racing. I’m definitely happy with how it’s turned out so far.”

Already Dudek is looking ahead to outdoors. Her primary focus will be on her final races in her high school uniform. The post-season could be a balancing act as she hopes to make the Polish team for the World Juniors in Nairobi. “That would be an amazing experience,” she says. “We’ll see how it goes.”