Three years before Olympic legend Jesse Owens was born in Alabama, a baby arrived in Rogówek, Poland, also destined for world-record greatness.
Unlike the 1936 Berlin Games hero, Stanislaw Kowalski didn’t launch his track and field career for many years — more than a century, in fact.
But between May 2014 and March 2016, his last date of competition, Kowalski set indoor and outdoor world age-group records in the 60- and 100-meter dash and shot put.
When, at age 104, he became the oldest European to record an official mark in the 100 (32.79 seconds), he said: “I feel like a new man.”
Kowalski died April 5, only nine days before his 112th birthday Thursday, Polish media reported.
In June 2015, Kowalski became the world’s oldest track athlete when, at age 105, he ran the 100 in 34.50, threw the 6.6-pound shot 4.27 meters (14 feet) and hurled the 2.2-pound discus 7.50 meters (24-7 1/4). This necessitated creation of a new World Masters Athletics age group: 105-109.
After Kowalski, only Japanese sprinter Hidekichi “Golden Bolt” Miyazaki and Louisiana’s Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins have recorded marks post-105. (Miyazaki died in 2019; Hawkins is still competing.)
The previous oldest human track athlete was John Whittemore of Montecito, near Santa Barbara, who competed at 104 years 10 months, in 2004.
“Doing the 100 meters in 32.79 seconds may not worry Usain Bolt,” said a Euronews narrator in 2014. “But it has earned Polish sprinter Stanislaw Kowalski a new European record in the over 100-years-old category. … His secret? Avoid stress, lots of sleep and the occasional vodka.”
On Facebook, Janusz Rozum noted that Kowalski was the first athlete to set two world records in the M105 category.
“It is a pity that his three other results did not live to see the ratification as world records in the same age category,” he wrote, referring to marks set indoors, such as his 60-meter time of 21.20 and shot distance of 5.08 meters (16-8).
How did a retired railway man and foundry worker come to see YouTube and major media fame?
“It may sound strange, but he started jogging at 104 years old,” says Poland’s Jerzy Krauze, a former European Masters Athletics officer who helped organize the 2019 world masters indoor meet in Torun, Poland.
Krauze called Kowalski an amazing man, “very open to people, full of energy and kindness. I had the opportunity to talk to him several times about his longevity, the diet he uses, and physical activity at his age.”
His “luminous mind and logical expression were very efficient, in my opinion — at the level of a 70-year-old,” his friend said on Facebook. Krauze was responsible for authenticating the official birth certificate when he set European and world records.
Besides his track honors, he was the oldest man in the history of Poland — the first to reach 111. On Jan. 18, 2022, after the death of Saturnino de la Fuente García of Spain, he became the oldest man in Europe.
Kowalski was interviewed many times by Polish media, Krauze said.
“What’s more, Mr. Kowalski’s sporting spirit was noticed by the popular American rapper, actor 50 Cent, [Curtis Jackson] who published a photo of the 106-year-old runner on his social media profile with the note: ‘He is 104 years old. What’s your excuse?'” Krauze said, correcting the age.
In recent years, Kowalski felt weaker and weaker, Krauze told Times of San Diego.
“We were hoping that he would start in (the world masters indoor championships) 2019 in Toruń,” he said. “Unfortunately, at the last moment, he gave up the race because he felt a cold.”
He would have been only weeks from turning 109.
Kowalski was born April 14, 1910, in Końskie County, Poland, two hours south of Warsaw.
He started working at Polish State Railways in 1953 at the regional directorate in Wrocław as a track worker. After three years, he was promoted to senior worker, and two years later passed the crossing keeper exam.
From 1959, he worked in Brzeg Dolny until he acquired pension rights, finishing his railway career at the PKP Road Department in Wrocław on the Wołów Road Section. From May 1979, he lived in Świdnica near Wrocław.
“He had never practiced athletics or any other sport before, and for years his only constant physical activity was commuting to work by bike,” Krauze said on Kowalski’ 110th birthday. “He did not abandon the two-wheeler in retirement. Being already after his 90th birthday, he still traveled a dozen or so kilometers every day, going to the cemetery to his deceased wife.”
A Polish TV profile of Kowalski was entitled “Golden Age.”
Even at 110, he had a “lot of positive energy and a sense of humor,” Krauze said, and no major health problems. “He still tries to be physically active, doings some activity in the fresh air. The biggest obstacle to this at the moment is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”
His mother lived to be 99, and he is survived by four children, eight grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren.
Services were held Tuesday after a Mass in the church in Swidnica near Wrocław.
“Goodbye, our great and unforgettable friend,” Krauze said. “See you in the heavenly stadiums.”