How a drive to be different powers Emma Borowicz's hurdling career

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Emma Borowicz qualified for the state championship in the 300-meter hurdles as a sophomore in 2019, her first season competing in the event.

The meaning is right there in the name of the event: the hurdles, as in obstacles or difficulties. Emma Borowicz has never seen it that way.

When Borowicz first started running hurdles during her sophomore season, she was more enthused than challenged by the three-foot-tall barriers positioned equidistant from each other around the track. 

"I really had a go-at-it attitude," she said. "It was something different, it was something that I'd wanted to do for a long time. Getting the chance to do it made it fun. I think it was just that excitement that drove me."

It drove her to qualify for the Minnesota Class A State Championship as a sophomore, where she finished eighth in the finals of the 300-meter hurdles. It's driven her to the next level: she'll be attending Minnesota State next year and and running track for the Mavericks, one of the top NCAA Division II programs in the nation. 

Borowicz likes running, of course, but what she really enjoys is using her athleticism. Not that she doesn't do that when she runs other events, like the 200-meter dash. But in her words, hurdling allows her to "mix it up." It takes a regular old sprint and transforms it into something a little more exciting, something different.

As a seventh-grader, Borowicz joined the Crookston girls' track and field team and was immediately placed in sprints and mid-distance events. She primarily ran the 400 meters but occasionally ran the 200 and 800 in addition to pole vaulting. She qualified for state as a member of their 4x800-meter relay team as an eighth-grader in 2017. 

She was one of the Pirates' brightest young stars. Still, she had yet to find her true passion.

On a winter afternoon before her sophomore season, that all changed.

Borowicz usually competes in the 300-meter hurdles, 200-meter dash, 4x200-meter relay and pole vault for the Pirates.

The Pirates were practicing indoors at CHS. Borowicz, who wasn't doing any workouts or reps at the moment, had a little time to kill. She meandered over by teammate Breanna Kressin, who was practicing hurdles out in the hallway, and joined in.

Harley Stahlecker, Crookston's veteran hurdles coach, soon caught sight of Borowicz. "You are hurdling this year," he told her simply. Then he went and told the Pirates' other coaches that that's what she'd be doing. Borowicz was finally who she'd always wanted to be.

"I wished I would have known that earlier," Stahlecker said. "Because I could have done something about that."

The decision came quickly, and maybe that's because when Stahlecker saw Borowicz, he didn't just see a sprinter messing around in her free time. He saw a promising natural athlete with solid form already.

In truth, that afternoon wasn't Borowicz's introduction to hurdles. She had wanted to run them her entire career and asked to get the chance a number of times, but was still put in other events.

She still hoped she would get the call someday. She and her parents made hurdles out of PVC pipe and set them up outside, where she practiced in the meantime.

Perhaps for that reason, Borowicz wasn't totally surprised — "yes and no," she says when asked — when she ran a 47.26 in the 300 hurdles at the Section 8A meet that spring to take first place in the section and advance to state. 

Stahlecker was more surprised, but the initial reaction wore off quickly. Since then, he's been relentless in trying to get Borowicz to become the best hurdler she can be — such as doubling down on her current strong areas, such as strength and endurance, by running 400s in practice.

One of the defining characteristics of Stahlecker's coaching is brutal honesty. Take Borowicz's most recent race — May 15 at the True North Conference meet — in which she placed second in the 300 hurdles to Thief River Falls' Brooklyn Brouse, finishing .89 seconds behind. 

"I told her it sucked," Stahlecker said. "She did suck. That was sucky." Later on, he'll add he was "disgusted" by her performance.

But if Stahlecker seems excessively harsh, it's more a representation of the high standard he holds for Borowicz and where he thinks she can get to. He doesn't want to sugarcoat things — "that's not life," he says — and he knows that Borowicz can accept criticism as she, too, has the same lofty goals for herself.

Borowicz, whose fastest time in the 300 hurdles is 47.20 seconds, can run even faster if she gets over a fear of making mistakes, according to her hurdles coach Harley Stahlecker.

Stahlecker thinks Borowicz, whose fastest time this season is 47.20, can lower her time into the 45-second range, but only if she eliminates most or all of her hiccups. In every race, he says, she has at least one. In Thief River Falls it was a lazy trail leg, the main thing coach and athlete worked to correct two days later during practice. Bring the knee up, clear the hurdle, put it right back down and accelerate into the next jump.

Stahlecker also sensed some hesitancy in Borowicz's race in Thief River Falls. She was cautious at the start, not approaching the first hurdle at full speed, seemingly with a "mental block" between her steps. He wants her to trust her natural sprinting speed rather than dwelling on any potential errors.

"I've told her, 'you're afraid of making mistakes,' " Stahlecker said. "It's a natural fear, but you've got to overcome that. The hurdler you're going against wasn't making mistakes because she doesn't think about it. I said, 'you didn't lose that race by her running fast, you lost that race by slowing down.' She's as good as that girl from Thief River."

Lowering her time by a second and a half might be attainable for Borowicz but will certainly require its fair share of work, especially considering all of her other events she has to balance. In addition to hurdles, she also competes in pole vault, the 200-meter dash and on Crookston's 4x200-meter relay.

Her class schedule allows her to arrive at the track 30 to 45 minutes before practice, during which she gets her warmups done. Then she'll work on her form and speed with 100s before moving onto 200s, 300s and 400s and hurdles, and if she has time, makes it to pole vault towards the end.

Pole vault seems to be Borowicz's other best shot, along with the 300 hurdles, at making it to state individually — she hasn't lost in the event this season. In the West Marshall Invitational on May 7, she cleared nine feet, four inches, setting a Crookston school record. 

Borowicz is drawn to pole vault for the same reason she enjoys hurdles: it's different, an event of its own, derived from or precursor to nothing. She's always wanted to be a gymnast, and pole vault, with its flying and contortions, is maybe the closest thing to that.

Borowicz cleared nine feet, four inches in the pole vault at the West Marshall Invitational on May 7.

"There's a lot of technique and skill that go into it," Borowicz said. "I'm nowhere near that yet, but just working to get there and get better every day."

Ultimately she'd like to get to 10 feet, six inches. That's the height at which, she says the coaches at Mankato have told her, she'd have to vault to compete there for the Mavericks. 

But Borowicz's goals for her senior season take precedence for now. Hurdles is her main event — it's what Minnesota State recruited her to run primarily — but she wouldn't turn down a trip to St. Paul in anything. To qualify for state again in any event, she will need a top-two finish at the Section 8A meet on June 8 in Park Rapids.

"I don't know what competition she has this year, that Thief River girl is up here, but we got all those schools in the south and I don't know what times they have," Stahlecker said. "I'm surprised at what she did (in 2019), but I want something better for her this year."

Whatever happens over the next month, though, Borowicz's future path is laid out ahead of her. And even if it doesn't include the same level of success from here on out, it's a path that's entirely her own: challenging, exciting and most importantly, different.

Says Stahlecker: "She's doing what she wants to do."

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