Designer Profiles: Bill Bowerman

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How the pursuit of performance became fashionable

William Jay 'Bill' Bowerman is an iconic figure in the history of American athletics not only for being the co-founder and chief designer of Nike, but also for having a storied career in track and field coaching. His passion for athletics began as a football player. As his abilities on the football field started to shine through he decided to enroll in the University of Oregon, where he played for their football team. It wasn’t long before his love of playing gave way to his latest pursuit, a career in coaching.

Bowerman took a hiatus from his teaching and coaching career following the attack on Pearl Harbour and served in the military for four years. After completing his military service, he was appointed head track coach at the University of Oregon. He introduced new training regimes and athletic tactics to give his track stars an edge on the competition. As crazy as it may seem, the concept of ‘jogging’ to build athletic fitness was a rarely used tool, which Bill Bowerman helped popularize with various books and publications on its benefits. In his endless pursuit to enhance the athletic performance of his team, Bowerman designed his own track shoes. This burgeoning interest in athletic footwear would evolve over time and be the foundations of Nike.

Nike Air Advert, The Shoe Works if You Do

Early childhood and adolescence

Bill was born in Portland, Oregon, to Jay Bowerman, who was the 13th Governor of Oregon at the time. His parents split when he was just two years old, and he moved home with his mother to Fossil, Oregon, where he has remained since. Bowerman graduated from Medford High School, where he was a member of the state champion football team. He subsequently went on to the University of Oregon, where he pursued a degree in journalism while still participating in football. His first employment after graduating from university was as a biology teacher and football coach at Franklin High School in Portland. He then relocated to Medford, where he began teaching and coaching football the next year.

Career

During the assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he enlisted in the United States Army as a 2nd lieutenant and was stationed at Fort Lawton in Washington state. His next assignment was at Camp Hale in Leadville, Colorado, where he remained until the following year. His promotion to the rank of Major followed his division's arrival in Italy in 1944, at which point he became commander of the 86th Regiment's First Battalion. The next year, he was awarded four Bronze Star Medals and a Silver Star for his efforts in the military. Bowerman returned to teaching and coaching at Medford High School in 1945, after his service with the United States Army during World War II. The next year, he was appointed head track coach at the University of Oregon.

In 1962, Bowerman served as the coach for the University of Oregon 4-mile relay team, which set a new world record. After spending some time in New Zealand, he discovered a new type of fitness exercise called jogging. When he returned to the United States, he immediately began spreading the word about jogging by publishing articles, books, and television shows focusing on this exercise. Bowerman and Phil Knight founded an athletic footwear distribution firm named Blue Ribbon in 1964, which would eventually become known as Nike. Bowerman designed trainers with the sole purpose of improving his athletes performance on the track.

In 1968, while working for his shoe firm, Bowerman created the iconic 'Nike Cortez,' which became immensely popularity with athletes when it was released. In 1977, Bowerman, Phil Knight, and Geoff Hollister formed the 'Athletics West' running squad, known as the American running team. This endeavour resulted in the establishment of America's first official running program for young aspiring athletes.

Original Nike Cortez Running Shoe Advert

Recognition for his achievements

Bill Bowerman has been inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, the USA National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, and the Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame, among other organizations. Awarded by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, the Bowerman Award was established in 2009. The award is given to the best outstanding male and female field athletes in the world each year.

 

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