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Originally published June 25, 2012 at 9:44 PM | Page modified June 26, 2012 at 12:17 PM

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U.S. Olympic track trials: Unlikely entry Mark Wieczorek places seventh in 800

Gig Harbor coach insists he is not disappointed after failing to qualify for London. He would like to run in the European circuit this summer, and oh, a sponsor would be nice.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Thursday

U.S. Olympic track trials, Eugene, Ore.

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EUGENE, Ore. — The shirt looked like something you might see on your neighbor at a backyard barbecue, a V-neck of blue and green horizontal stripes.

"Cotton, polyester, something like that," shrugged Mark Wieczorek.

Here at the Olympic track trials, Wieczorek, the distance coach at Gig Harbor High School, pretty much stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. He was already a good story, but he couldn't author another magical chapter in the 800-meter final Monday night.

Wieczorek, the rare national-cum-world-class runner who doesn't have a sponsor, who coaches on the side and trains solo, finished seventh in his bid to make the London Games. He ran in the back of the pack of eight competitors over the first lap and tried to make a move in the late stages, but it wasn't to be.

"I think they were just going too fast," said Wieczorek, who ran 1:45.62. "I don't think I could have gone out much faster. I didn't have that kind of time in me today."

Then again, those guys were all wearing dry-fit singlets.

"It was a random selection," said Wieczorek, referring to his shirt. "Just to find something to distinguish myself. I wanted to have something that said, 'Hey, this guy isn't sponsored.' "

Wieczorek, 27, was the only runner competing unattached in the final. A thread earlier this year on a running website — "How is Mark Wieczorek not sponsored?" — reflected his improbable story.

A product of Oklahoma, he took up running at MidAmerica Nazarene, an NAIA school in Kansas. He was a late bloomer, running 1:48.07 in 2007. Increasing his mileage for the first time running for the Oregon Track Club, he was injured and sick the next couple of years and his career seemed to have tapped out when he missed the final at the USA nationals in 2010.

That was the year Wieczorek lost his funding.

Then his saga turns storybook. He went to Craiglist, hoping to find a job that would give him access to a track. Wieczorek got an assistant high-school coaching position in Southern California.

Two big things happened in 2011: He ran 1:46.00 and was just two places from qualifying for the world championships. And Gig Harbor High, which had undergone a coaching churn despite a talented corps of distance runners, lured him north to coach their team.

All the Tides did last fall was become the first 4A boys team west of the Cascades to break a 25-year stranglehold on state titles by programs from the east side. Gig Harbor also won the 2012 state track title recently.

"They were all calling me, texting me," Wieczorek said after his race. "It's awesome, seeing them progress through the season, and then to have them supporting me, coming right back around, it's cool.

"I love the coaching. It's the highlight of my day."

But Wieczorek's way of doing this is both sustenance and albatross. Training by himself is a challenge, even apart from the financial burden without a sponsor.

"This is the easy part, honestly," he said. "The harder part is getting through December or January, those dead months when there's not much competition to look forward to.

"When you're running by yourself, writing your own workouts, not accountable to anybody, it's hard to get yourself out the door."

As good as his year 2011 was, this one has been tougher, with sciatic and ankle problems. Now Wieczorek hopes he's done enough to get to the European circuit this summer.

"Right now I'm not disappointed," he insisted. "Coming into the season, I wanted more, but my training just didn't allow it."

Nick Symmonds, the ex-Willamette University runner, won his second straight trials in the 800. He's the guy who's been recently dating Paris Hilton.

Mark Wieczorek is the one in the American Eagle shirt, hoping somebody will appreciate his enterprise.


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