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.”
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.
Grunewald, a 28-year-old former Gophers runner when she was Gabriele Anderson, missed the 2012 Olympics by one spot and now has a shoe contract lucrative enough so she doesn’t have to squeeze in a part-time job.
“That can happen, but it didn’t happen right away,” Grunewald said. “So that support from Team USA Minnesota is really critical for developmental athletes who need that little bit of funding to keep going. Otherwise, they might quit.”
Goodwin said another unique aspect that draws athletes from all over the country to Minnesota is the educational opportunity. She said her team was probably one of the smartest of all U.S. training centers, with athletes’ undergraduate degrees ranging from mechanical engineering to accounting to biochemistry.
Valgoi said becoming a professional runner isn’t as clear-cut as becoming an NBA player, so athletes have to prepare for life after running. Grunewald said the sport is growing but isn’t quite to the point of being able to retire on it.
“There’s more support across the U.S.,” she said. “Road races are putting up more prize money and trying to professionalize the sport more so that athletes can afford to do what they’re doing and even try to make a living off it.”
Team USA Minnesota is the only training center in the nation to take on runners from the marathon down through the 800 meters. But the distance doesn’t hinder the bond between athletes. They relate on many levels, from financial woes to training ties.
“Those speedy people can run with and help make our endurance people, the longer distance people, faster and vice versa,” Goodwin said.
Eric Finan, 25 of Cincinnati, said many times the athletes are all doing their own thing in training, but that separation doesn’t stop them from being friends.
“Our bonding sessions would be after a hard workout going and crushing food together,” he said.
And that relationship doesn’t end when the track does.
“Now some of those original  runners have retired from professional running, and they live here, have homes,” Barker said. “So we have this alumni group, and they have families and so forth. And it’s been real fun to see a new generation come in.”