Michael Slagowski leaned as he crossed the finish line, lost his footing and tumbled belly first onto the track.
The crowd at the Arcadia Invitational in Southern California felt the fall with him, letting out a collective gasp as Slagowski rolled over and came to a stop.
There was nothing to be embarrassed about.
The Rocky Mountain High junior had just run the race of his life.
In a photo finish, Slagowski was declared the winner of the 800 meters in 1 minute, 51.85 seconds, just 0.01 second ahead of Connor Morello of Clovis, Calif.
Slagowski bested the elite field in the April 10 race that also included Connor Ross of McQueen, Nev., who posted the top 800 time in the nation this season when he ran a 1:50.75 at the Stanford Invitational on April 4. Ross finished seventh at Arcadia.
“I wanted to improve a lot this year, and I knew I’d have to drop a lot of time to be ranked nationally,” Slagowski said. “But I’ve had those goals from the beginning of the season.”
It might have seemed like an unrealistic goal given where Slagowski was one year ago.
As a sophomore, Slagowski finished second in the 1,600 and eighth in the 3,200 at the 5A state track and field meet in Boise, and he did not compete in the 800. He was 12th at the 5A state cross country meet in Eagle last November.
He now ranks No. 1 in the state in the 800 and second in the 1,600 (4:10.92). Nationally, he is ninth in the 800 and 11th in the 1,600, according to dyestat.com.
“It is the perfect storm. He is where talent meets hard work and dedication and desire,” Rocky Mountain track and field coach Brad Abbott said. “All those four things rolled up in one, give it to a kid, and bingo, that’s what you get with Michael Slagowski.”
Slagowski is relatively green in the sport.
He didn’t start competing in track until the eighth grade when his physical education teacher at Heritage Middle School asked him to join the team after seeing him run the mile in class.
“I had a few friends that did track, so I just decided to do it,” Slagowski said.
After his breakout performance at Arcadia, recruiting letters have started to fill his mailbox, including interest from Wisconsin, Michigan and Oklahoma, Rocky Mountain distance coach Bob Hays said.
“Through the summer we’ve upped his mileage, and he’s really been committed to running hard,” Hays said. “When we have hard workouts, he runs extremely hard. With hard work, you have success.”
This past weekend, Slagowski lost his first race of the season, coming in second to national standout Elijah Armstrong of Pocatello in the 3,200 at the YMCA Invitational in Meridian.
Armstrong, a senior and Boise State signee, is one of the best distance runners in Idaho history. He owns the No. 2 time in the nation this season in the 3,200 (8:52.16) and is No. 7 in the 1,600 (4:10.4). He is the only Idaho athlete to win four consecutive individual state titles in cross country.
Saturday’s loss is a reminder that Slagowski still has room to grow.
“It was a good experience,” said Slagowski, who ran the 3,200 for just the second time this season. “I think I am just not in really good shape for a two-mile right now.”
Over the next few weeks, he hopes to rectify that.
For the final week of the regular season, Slagowski is headed to the the Nike Jesuit Twilight Relays in Portland, where he will compete in the mile against a strong field of runners from Washington, Oregon and Idaho, including Armstrong.
The competitive environment should help him prepare for the 5A District Three meet May 7-8 at Meridian High and the state meet May 15-16 at Dona Larsen Park in Boise.
But Rocky coaches aren’t sure which events he’ll run in the postseason as the Grizzlies take aim at a fifth consecutive boys state team championship.
“He is so versatile. He can run anywhere from the 400 to the 3,200,” Hays said. “We could put him in relays. We just have to weigh out what’s best for the team when it comes to something like that. We really can’t make any kind of decision like that until it gets here.”