Despite late start, Michalek catching up to his rivals

Scott Bradley

“Beat Boon.” That was Paul Michalek’s goal heading into the 1992 state high school track and field meet as a senior at Bloomington Kennedy.
The person Michalek was hoping to beat was Jason Boon, a senior at Park High School in Cottage Grove. Boon, now a teammate of Michalek’s at Minnesota, was hoping to defend his title in the 800-meter while Michalek was just hoping to prove his worthiness in the event.
Michalek beat Boon to win the state championship, which was a surprise considering it was his first year running track.
As a sophomore, Michalek began his running career by making the varsity cross country team. It didn’t take long for him to realize he had a knack for running. By his junior year, he placed 12th in the state cross country meet. But his obvious talent in the sport didn’t strike him so quickly.
“I still didn’t take running real seriously,” he said. “I was good at it, so I decided keep doing it. It was still basically a place for me to go and hang out after school.”
Michalek might have overlooked his middle-distance running potential. In fact, a friend had to convince him to compete on Kennedy’s track and field team his sophomore year — in the pole vault, of all events.
Michalek vaulted for two years, and didn’t realize his running talent until after his junior year. At that point he quit vaulting and devoted his time to running.
Heading into the state track meet as a senior, the odds still favored Boon’s experience over Michalek’s inexperience. And Michalekwouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Michalek, now a senior for the Gophers, has developed a certain running style over the years. He’s not one to lead races or stand in the spotlight. He prefers being the underdog.
“He’s super strong,” said Gophers junior Kevin Dunbar. “His leg speed isn’t necessarily better than anyone else. He stays in the middle of the pack most of the race, but he uses his strength in the final lap to win. He tends to beat people that way.”
In addition to winning the 800 over Boon, Michalek was the state champion in the mile. By this time, Michalek was beginning to get the attention of former Gophers head cross country and track coach Roy Griak.
“I had pretty ambitious goals my senior year,” Michalek said. “I wanted to go to the state tournament and win the mile. My other goal was to beat Boon. He was like the middle-distance god at the time.”
College’s equivalent of the state high school meet is this weekend at the Big Ten championships in University Park, Pa. Boon is redshirting this season, but Michalek has aspirations similar to the ones he had as a high school senior — to beat Illinois star Marko Koers.
Koers, a senior who competed on the 1992 Dutch Olympic team, holds the top time in the 1,500 in the Big Ten. Michalek is ranked fourth in the conference with a personal best time of 3 minutes, 43.65 seconds. That time is about four seconds slower than Koers’ time.
Michalek, who will compete in the 800 and 1,500 this weekend, will face Koers in both events. Although Koers is the favorite in both races, Michalek said anything can happen at Big Tens.
“Of course I would like to be at the top,” he said. “But I’m not too worried about the guys who are ahead of me.”
Michalek faced similar circumstances last year when he finished second to Michigan’s Kevin Sullivan in the same two events at the conference meet.
“Last year was a good meet,” he said. “I felt confident and relaxed. I knew he was the guy to beat. And realistically the only way to beat him is if some freak thing happens.”
Michalek is close to being the guy to beat. And if all goes well at Big Tens this weekend, Michalek could establish himself as that athlete.