Team USA Minnesota thrives with tight-knit runners

  • Article by: MEGAN RYAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2014 - 12:12 AM
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Team USA Minnesota runners from left, Eric Finan, Dani Stack, Jon Peterson, coach Dennis Barker, on bike, Travis Burkstrand, Gabriele Grunewald, Jon Grey, and Gina Valgoi ran along Ford Parkway, Thursday, August 14, 2014.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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Becoming a professional runner is not like becoming any other professional athlete.

Runners on Team USA Minnesota, at best, receive an $800 monthly stipend, quite a bit less than, say, NBA or NFL players.

Yet making this elite running team is so much more difficult.

Instead of being judged on athletic abilities, prospective runners go through what can be a nearly six-month process, including an essay-heavy application, team visit and interview.

“It’s like being recruited for college,” said Pat Goodwin, Team USA Minnesota founder and president.

Team USA Minnesota isn’t necessarily seeking applicants with the fastest times, but runners with potential.

“We look also for a particular kind of athlete that we know would be a fit with how we approach things and how the rest of the athletes are,” Goodwin said.

Four-year team veteran Gabriele Grunewald put it a little differently.

“It takes a certain type of person to persevere through the Minnesota winter and commit to that level of fitness throughout an entire winter,” she said. “And it’s not for everybody to be a professional runner here. I think that’s part of the process that they’re looking for the right people.”

The team completed this year’s selection process in early August, choosing two new additions for a 10-person roster. While the 13-year-old program can support up to 15 athletes, the 14-strong board of directors and athletes won’t vote to include members just for the sake of numbers.

“[We] select people based on their ability to not only qualify for the Olympic trials but compete for a spot on the Olympic team,” coach Dennis Barker said. “We’re not adding people who just like running or who we don’t think has the ability. We need to have seen something in them that shows that we think they have potential.”

The program has produced one Olympian (Carrie Tollefson in 2004), 22 national champions and 60-plus world championship team members.

Gina Valgoi, 23 of Detroit, and soon-to-be UCLA grad Emily Gordon are the team’s new additions. Valgoi, who chose to run professionally to pursue high-level results instead of working as a full-time accountant, said Team USA Minnesota is unique because it goes beyond just the outcomes.

“I chose this team because I felt like it had a really good balance,” she said. “A lot of the other groups, maybe you live with all the people, or that’s all you do 100 percent of the time. And for me, I always found the best success in running when I had balance in my life.

“A lot of people on this team work still and pursue other things and keep educating themselves for what they’re going to do after their professional running career, and I really valued that.”

Getting by

But while many of the athletes do have part-time jobs in addition to their training, most of them do it for financial necessity. While the team — through fundraising and sponsorships — provides a minimum $500 monthly stipend, Life Time Fitness memberships and pro bono sports medicine care in addition to travel expenses and equipment for athletes without shoe contracts, it’s not enough for a new graduate to live off.

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