As a long-distance runner, Kari (Eaton) Pinkowski was a grinder. Still is, actually, but now that also entails being a wife, mother and physical therapist.
Not blessed with amazing speed, the 1999 Wadsworth High graduate won cross country events and 3,200-meter races in track by maintaining the same pace mile after mile or lap after lap.
At 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, Pinkowski usually would go to the front of the pack early in races and stay there until the end by putting one foot in front of the other, time after time, until she crossed the finish line.
“She was one of those kids who could crank out the same pace over and over and over again,” said current Wadsworth girls track coach John Burton, who was Pinkowski’s distance coach with the Grizzlies. “She had a really deep aerobic base. She didn’t have amazing foot speed, but she won races by grinding people into the dirt.”
Pinkowski, who will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame tonight at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth, earned 12 letters — four each in cross country, swimming and track — while in high school and went on to run two years of cross country and track at the University of Notre Dame.
Not an imposing physical specimen by any means, she was a four-time All-Ohioan and three-time Suburban League champ in cross country, a sport in which she remains the only female athlete to be named four-time Gazette MVP.
In track, Pinkowski was a state qualifier and three-time SL champ in the 3,200 and also picked up a league crown in the 1,600.
Her Medina County records of 18:31 in cross country and 11:31 in the 3,200 have been broken, but for close to two decades she was the standard bearer when it came to high school distance running in the area.
“Kari was the epitome of what Wadsworth cross country No. 1 runners were all about,” said John Martin, Pinkowski’s cross country coach with the Grizzlies. “She just had an unbelievable desire to win and to be the very best. She was not hard at all to motivate and she was just a joy to coach.
“When it came to training and it came to running, she was very serious. It was all business. But when practice was over, she was so much fun to be around. Her teammates loved her. She was just a perfect teammate. She was supportive of everybody on the team, and that rubbed off. It made our team a very, very close-knit unit. From No. 1 to the last runner, they all felt a part of the team, and that was in large part due to Kari. She was a coach’s dream.”
Pinkowski was a swimmer as a youngster, but in seventh grade she decided to try track — “I honestly can’t remember why I started running,” she said — and in eighth grade she added cross country, the sport that turned out to be her true love.
“I swam competitively from the time I was in second grade, so I had been active for a long time,” she said. “I don’t ever remember the endurance part (of running) being an issue, but I had to work on my foot speed.”
Middle school races are two miles — they are 3.2 at the high school level — and Pinkowski didn’t win very often in those days, but she was having fun, so she stuck with it.
“There’s something to the commitment aspect,” she said. “You have to put in a lot of time, and a lot of it is by yourself. I always chose sports that were team yet also individual. Part of it is I’m very independent. At the same time, I worry too much about wanting other people to do well, so team sports were almost too stressful for me.
“In cross country and swimming, I was in charge of myself. I could help and inspire and work with my team, but on race day it was up to me to do my best and help the team in that way.”
After putting in 30 to 40 miles a week in the offseason, Pinkowski didn’t know quite what to expect when she showed up for the season-opening Medina County Meet as a Wadsworth freshman. She just figured she’d run her pace from beginning to end and live with the results.
Lo and behold, she won.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, I might be pretty good at this,’” Pinkowski said. “As that season went on, I realized, ‘Hey, this is something I’m good at’ and I enjoyed it and it was fun.”
Pinkowski went on to dominate county distance running for three more years, be it in cross country or track. She wasn’t flashy or cocky or overconfident. She just ran and ran and ran.
“Kari was a natural,” said former Wadsworth distance runner Jenny (Martin) Echols, who was two years ahead of Pinkowski in school. “She was the one you always knew you could chase. I used to joke and say it was like chasing a rabbit. Even in practice, she went all out. You couldn’t be lazy, because Kari was going to hit the exact times she was supposed to hit.”
Pinkowski hit those times because she worked, because she grinded, because she ran more than others in the offseason.
“She improved every year, and she improved because of her ability to work,” John Martin said. “And who knows what she did outside of practice? I wouldn’t be surprised if she went out and ran some more. Those are the kids you just never really forget.
“When she was a freshman, she was still out in front. She was always out in front. Whatever it took, she would do it. To come in second was unacceptable.”
Notre Dame years
By the time she was finished at Wadsworth, Pinkowski was being recruited by Miami (of Ohio), Bowling Green and Ohio University, with the latter offering a half-athletic, half-academic scholarship that amounted to a full ride.
Then she visited Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
“It felt like home to me,” Pinkowski said. “I remember sitting in our living room one day and I was crying. My mom asked me what was wrong and I told her I wanted to go to Notre Dame, but it’s so expensive and how can I pass up a full ride? I can’t do that to you guys.
“Being my awesome parents (Pam and Tom), they said, ‘We’ll figure it out. You go where you’ll be happy.’ To this day, that’s one of the biggest gifts they could give me. I had such a great experience at Notre Dame. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.”
Pinkowski walked on at Notre Dame and made the cross country and track teams, but toward the end of her sophomore year, the fun began to wane. Those 30- to 40-mile weekly training sessions had turned into 50 to 60, one season led into another and the joy was disappearing.
“It’s very different (in college),” Pinkowski said. “You still develop those friendships — and that’s what I really enjoyed about sports, was the team relationships and all that — but it felt more like a job. In high school, it was fun. I don’t remember ever not wanting to go out and run.”
Twenty years old at the time, Pinkowski also began to question whether being a Division I college athlete was worth it, especially considering all the other activities she was missing as a student. The battle in her mind raged on for most of the summer between her sophomore and junior years.
After repeatedly debating the pros and cons, Pinkowski eventually quit both sports, but stayed at Notre Dame and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 2003.
“I was vacillating back and forth between forcing myself to go out and run and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “I felt disappointed in myself. I kept thinking, ‘I should be committed (to the teams). I shouldn’t quit.’
“I definitely don’t like the idea of quitting. But at some point, I had to realize I wasn’t doing anyone else or myself any favors. I had to give myself permission to stop doing something because I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.”
After graduating from Notre Dame, Pinkowski earned a clinical doctorate in physical therapy from Northwestern in 2006. She now lives in Chicago and works as a physical therapist for NorthShore University Health System at Evanston Hospital.
Prior to enrolling at Northwestern, she did a year of service at Amate House, a Catholic-based organization in Chicago where she worked as a case manager for teenage mothers.
In 2013, while out on a boat for a water show with a group of friends, she met her future husband, George, who works for an import-export company. They were married two years later and now have a 9-month-old daughter, Elise.
Along the way, Pinkowski also started running again. A couple half-marathons eventually led to her competing in the Sun Burst Marathon while attending her 10-year college reunion. The event finished in historic Notre Dame Stadium, and when Pinkowski crossed the finish line, she realized her time of 3 hours, 27 minutes had qualified her for the Boston Marathon.
She ended up running in Boston for two straight years, with the first coming in 2014, the year after a terrorist bombing at the event had killed three people and injured several hundred others.
“It was amazing,” Pinkowski said. “Just the whole atmosphere that weekend, the whole city was all about the marathon. Everybody was very emotional. There were several survivors taking part in the marathon, and it was a beautiful day. My parents came, some friends from college, my brother (Tom). It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Now 37, Pinkowski runs to this day, though not as much as she once did. A demanding full-time job, a husband and a 9-month-old make that virtually impossible, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
In that sense, she’s still grinding, still striving to be at the front of the pack.
“Running taught me how to be part of a team,” Pinkowski said. “My role at Wadsworth gave me a lot of practice at being a leader. I’m not always the most vocal, but I learned how to lead by example and bring people together.
“I still use that quite a bit now in my daily life.”