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Former Falcons track star returns to coach team

September 18, 2019

When Colleen Sowa was a student at UW-River Falls, she participated in track and field and competed not only on a conference level, but also on a national level. Now, she is returning to UWRF as the new head coach of the track and field team for the 2019-2020 season.

Since the time that Sowa was in eighth grade, she was recognized as a gifted athlete. Initially, Sowa was interested in basketball and softball growing up. She had never planned on doing track and field until a coach reached out to her.

“I was planning to play softball all spring, but in Minnesota, they have the exceptional athlete rule,” Sowa said. “Meaning, if you’re in middle school you can join the varsity team. A track coach reached out to me and said, as an eighth-grader, we would like you to come up, we believe you can do track.”

Right around that same time, Sowa discovered what she wanted to do with her life.

“I knew from the very beginning since eighth grade, there was a guy named Andy Olson, he was the high school track coach and I was in his class,” Sowa said. “he told me I should consider track. I knew that since then, that was the job I wanted.”

Once Sowa joined track and field, she had immediate success which continued for all five years that she was on the team. Following her senior year of high school, Sowa decided that she wanted to continue her track and field career and compete at a collegiate level.

Although Sowa toured many schools, ultimately, she decided that UWRF was going to be her home.

“I have lived here for 13 years; I absolutely love this town. I was able to get a great degree here, I was able to participate in track and field, I had success here, I also met my husband here,” Sowa said.

During her time as a track and field competitor at UWRF Sowa began as a participant in the multi event, specifically, as a heptathlete; a competition that is comprised of seven different events. During her first significant meet as a freshman, Sowa placed in the WIAC multi event. From there she knew that she needed to continue her hard work and make a run at winning the WIAC the next year.

“My sophomore year I battled some injuries,” Sowa said. “I came back for my sophomore year of eligibility and was able to win the multi in the WIAC, and that was the turning point for me, realizing what I had worked so hard for.”

From there Sowa went on to compete at the national meet and compete. The bright lights and the high stakes were something that she wasn’t used to.

“The first time seeing that stage I was a little overwhelmed, but once I finished that meet, I knew that I could do more,” Sowa said.

As a junior, her goal was straightforward, to be an All-American. This was the year where she could accomplish that. After all, she had gained the experience that she had previously lacked when going into larger meets in the WIAC championship and also on a national level.

That is until one moment changed everything.

“Our conference meet of that year was at home and I was going back and forth with a Whitewater girl on the second day to win the multi again,” Sowa said. “I was in the best shape of my life, was having a fantastic meet, went off on my second long-jump and I tore everything out of my knee. It was a career-ending knee injury.”

Following her devastating knee injury, her running career was essentially over. Sowa went on to compete in other events that didn’t require running such as the javelin throw. However, her focus shifted from competing to teaching and coaching.

After she graduated from UWRF in 2011, Sowa was hired as a teacher at River Falls high school where she took over as head coach of the girl’s track and field team. While she was coaching at River Falls high school, she managed to win three straight conference championships from 2013-2015. Following the 2015 track and field season, she was voted Girls Coach of the Year by the Wisconsin Track Coaches Association.

From there Sowa was looking to continue to grow as a coach. She was able to get an interview for a volunteer position as a track and field coach at the University of Minnesota. During her time working with Division I athletes, Sowa gained invaluable experience. However, some of her most important experience came off of the field.

“The biggest thing that has helped me in the coaching world is being a teacher and understanding how to build relationships with students and student-athletes,” Sowa said. “We have to coach them not only technique-wise, but we have to coach them on that mental side too which is so much of that health component as well.”

Building relationships is one way that Sowa plans to create a winning tradition at UWRF. She has lofty goals that, if achieved, would have Falcon track and field cementing themselves as a powerhouse in the WIAC for years to come.

“I always say that I want to be competitive. In the WIAC, especially in track and field, the other Wisconsin schools have built and created programs that are phenomenal,” Sowa said. “That’s what I want to see here. Again, I’ve been here for 13 years, this is what I consider my dream job. I get to go back to my alma mater, and I get to be a part of a program that meant so much to me. I want to make this program competitive in the WIAC, and when you’re competitive in the WIAC, you’re competitive nationally.”

This spring, Sowa will have the opportunity to have an impact on the team in a different way, as head coach. She will begin her first full season as a coach this coming spring.