Western’s Polish pipeline: Three siblings race into record books

Aneta, Dawid and Alicja Konieczek posing together in the Mountaineer Field House
Siblings Dawid, Alicja and Aneta Konieczek grew up in Zbaszyn, a small village in western Poland.

Dawid, the oldest, and Aneta, the youngest, are separated by four years. It’s arguably a perfect range; spread enough in age that the three can live and experience independently, but close enough to draft off of each other’s accomplishments. But how did they end up all together at Western, a small college in the Rocky Mountains thousands of miles away from their home?

Child’s play

The Konieczeks are a serious trifecta of runners; a tally board is needed to count the number of national podiums they have stood atop. This talent must run in the family.  

Their grandfather came in second in the 200-meter sprint at the Polish National Championships during World War II. Convinced? They aren’t.  

“Our parents didn’t drive us anywhere when we were young,” Alicja ‘18 said. “We had to bike or walk everywhere. When we were in the process of moving into a different house three miles away our parents would drive straight there from work and we would walk or jog that three miles from our old house.”

But no siblings this close in age are going to jog in a controlled, adult-like manner down a dirt road on the Polish countryside. A race of sorts is much more akin to this picture, and race they did.

“We would time to see how fast we could go from one village to another,” Dawid ‘17 said. “We were always racing each other.”

Aneta ‘21 wasn’t too interested in running at this point. She would usually come in last when racing Dawid and Alicja, who began to dominate local kids’ races after their PE teacher started to train them.

Dawid, who was a rising soccer star at the time, even began to drift away from the game as he began to taste victory in running.­

“We really like winning,” Alicja said.

Like her older siblings, Aneta likes to win and followed in Dawid and Alicja’s footsteps as soon as she was old enough.

Rising in the ranks

The local races quickly became too easy for the Konieczeks to sweep, and there were races out of town that could qualify them to compete at national events. The same PE teacher who coached them as kids would drive the trio to these races every weekend.

Dawid was the first to be noticed and eventually joined an even more competitive program.

“I started running with the best in region and felt a vibe of getting much better,” Dawid said.  “So my sisters kept in the same path.”

At 16, Dawid finished second in the 2,000-meter steeplechase at his first appearance at Youth Junior Polish National Championships. The following year, Alicja won the same event and continued on to win the next year as well.

“I always got upset when my sisters ran better than me,” Dawid said. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ when I got second, but then Alicja won and I was like, ‘Oh, she’s better than me now.’”

A few years after Alicja’s back-to-back victories, Aneta began an eight-year winning streak in steeplechase in Poland.  She even qualified for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in China, finishing ninth in the steeplechase. Much quieter than her older siblings, Aneta is humble about the experience and newfound fame in the Polish athletic community.

“I was kind of a celebrity,” Aneta said with a blush.

“We became known as runners throughout Poland,” Alicja added. “The newspapers would talk about Aneta winning eight national titles and mention that the Konieczeks are in Colorado as well.”

Moving to America

Dawid was the first to go.

“Leaving Poland was a very spontaneous decision,” Dawid said. “I could barely speak English and wasn’t ready to leave the country. I was set in Poland, but something deep in my heart was saying it would be a good opportunity to leave.”

He didn’t come straight to Western, but rather Harding University in Arkansas for two years.

“I didn’t like it much,” he said. “It was just a Christian college—a very strict one. I got injured the first semester. The training is not what I expected. I didn’t approve and eventually had to decide whether to transfer or to go back to Poland.”

Dawid ended up visiting a runner friend, also from Poland, in Gunnison the spring of 2014. The town, the team and the coaches were all a fit.

“I could tell that the runners here wanted to get faster and better,” Dawid said.

Alicja was deep in the college search at this point and looking to leave Poland as well. 

“When Dawid left for Arkansas—that was the craziest thing ever. Going from a 700-person village to America,” she said. “But it was like, ‘If he did it, so can I!’”

Alicja had offers by a number of schools at the time, particularly the University of Alaska Anchorage. Luckily, her brother was more persuasive.

“I brought my sister Alicja here to Western,” Dawid boasted.

“Dawid said Western was awesome, like the coach is really smart and the facilities are good and that they have an indoor track,” Alicja said. “I didn’t even look up the school before coming.”

The first time Western’s Head Cross Country and Distance Track Coach, Jennifer Michel, met Dawid and Alicja, they let her know of Aneta.

“Dawid told me I had to see his younger sister and that she’s even better than Alicja,’” Michel said.

A third seed was planted then and there. And so the pipeline began.

Success at Western

Between Dawid, a Business major, Alicja, an Exercise & Sport Science major, and Aneta, tentatively a Criminal Justice major, and their multiple work-study jobs—from IT and cashiering to the University Center and the PALs office—the trio has maintained an impressive presence in the Western community. Not to mention their more-than-rigorous training schedule.

“Sometimes I think they’ve taken on too much,” Michel said. “Their work ethic is absolutely incredible.”

If there is anything the trio’s many commitments say about their work ethic, it is that they are far more than student-athletes and box-checkers. They are here to make history.

Last year, Alicja became the first Mountaineer to win four track and field national titles in one year: indoor mile, indoor 3,000 meters, outdoor steeplechase and outdoor 5,000 meters.

“I trained for 12 or 13 months straight before I won those titles,” Alicja said. “Like without sickness or injuries. I had a huge base. I was running 70 miles a week and lost like 15 pounds.”

Dawid remembers her first victory clearly: “I cried when she crossed the line at her first win. She just kept winning and making good PRs (personal records), and I knew for sure then that Western was the place to be. Winning starts at Western. And I know it’s only going to get better when Aneta starts coming up.”

Aneta is here, and Aneta is now. She already made a statement by finishing seventh at NCAA Division II Cross Country Nationals, making her the top-ranked freshman in the field.

“Aneta is the best freshman recruit I have ever had,” said Michel, who has been coaching the Mountaineers since 2007. “To see a 19-year-old come in that could really be a difference-maker, you have to really be careful with the amount of pressure put on them because they already put enough on themselves.”

Alicja redshirted this XC season, meaning that she and Aneta couldn’t race together—something they couldn’t do much in junior leagues either. This track season will be the first time they can really race and train together.

 “We are all really competitive,” Alicja added. “But I think we can help each other more than hurt each other.”

Bright futures

The 2017 Cross Country season was Dawid’s last as a Mountaineer. He capped his career as the fifth man on Western’s Nationals squad. His effort was critical for the team to earn a surprise fourth place.

Dawid doesn’t plan to pursue a professional career like his sisters, although he says becoming a couch potato isn’t in the cards, either.

“I want to be my sisters’ manager,” he joked. “My passion is putting on events and marketing. I want to gain professional experience and find out how things work in real life. I want to be part of something bigger than myself.”

Dawid has already accomplished a lot for being 24. He is the founder and lead organizer of the “Atomik Vibes” festival in Poland. The event has grown to more than 1,100 participants and features some of the biggest music talents in Poland—in addition to Jell-O wrestling, slip n’ slides, running races and a beer mile, to name a few features.

“It’s creating a culture based on sports and music,” Dawid said. “It’s on its way to become a national-known event in Poland.”

For Alicja, representing Poland in the 2020 Olympics and a professional career are both on the horizon after she finishes her last cross country season next fall.

“The Olympic steeplechase standard is 9:45, which is four seconds faster than I have ran,” she said. “I have three years to reach that, which is totally doable.”

Aneta’s Western story is just beginning.   

“She has as good of an upside as her sister, but just even a little bit more progressed because Alicja has always been there to help,” Michel said. “She definitely has national champion potential, but I think she’s a little more of just enjoying the ride right now.”

For Michel, coaching such young, high-caliber athletes is both exciting and nerve-racking.

“Nothing on the trajectory is absolute,” Michel said. “There will always be bumps in the road—injuries and such. It’s about managing their goals and aspirations in the right way, and how to figure that out for each athlete individually. They are all different.”

Three siblings, three legacies

Dawid, Alicja and Aneta might be a package, but they are also their own people.

Aneta is soft-spoken and shy at times. Alicja not so much. Dawid is turning off the running trajectory to pursue other goals. They bicker on occasion and correct each other without hesitation. Yes, they brought each other here to run, but the legacies they have left and will leave come from genuinely outstanding individuals who aren’t afraid to go all-in.

Clearly, Western has been a fit for the Konieczeks. But it only just so happened that Dawid knew another friend from Poland here. Even after he committed to run for Western, Alicja was being recruited by other schools. Come her time, so was Aneta. While the three can take the bulk of credit for bringing each other here, and their accomplishments have been far from luck, serendipity keep its place in their journey at Western.

 

Story by Peter Noon, Marketing Communications. Photo by Taylor Cull, Marketing Communications.

Date: 
Friday, January 19, 2018 - 3:15pm