Unconventional Creativity: How Nike’s First Running Shoes Were Inspired by a Waffle Iron

To buck a trend is to create something magical that lives forever.

That’s a philosophy that Hoop Dream Studios follows in everything we do, and it’s a philosophy inspired by the great creators who’ve taken something “normal” and transformed it into something extraordinary.

One of those great creators is Bill Bowerman.

You may recognize that as the name of the man who co-founded Nike. But there’s an exciting story about Bowerman and how his first shoe bucked trends with a wild inspiration – the waffle iron.

It All Started at Breakfast

Bill Bowerman was sitting at his breakfast table with his wife in 1971. He had a problem. Bowerman was a track and field coach working on Oregon’s Hayward Field, and he’d received the news that the field would soon transition to an artificial surface. That meant traditional cleats were out of the window. You can’t have spikes on an artificial surface because they’ll ruin the surface and have no soil to penetrate.

A new shoe was needed.

Bowerman wanted something that could grip just as well on bark dust as on grass. A shoe that didn’t require spikes and that would be lighter and faster than any shoe that came before it. 

Looking for inspiration, Bowerman chatted with his wife as he played around with a few household items. He looked to jewelry as a potential source of inspiration. Maybe something with stars built into it could help him to create his new shoe.

It was a no-go. The stars wouldn’t work, and neither would the jewelry design. He went back to the drawing board. Inspiration struck like a bolt of lightning. Bowerman and his wife happened to be enjoying some tasty waffles for their breakfast, and it was when the waffle iron opened that Bowerman had an idea:

If you turned a waffle upside down, you get a pattern that would offer plenty of grip when an athlete is on the track.

Off to the Lab

Struck by this idea, Bowerman left breakfast and made his way to his lab, along with his trusty waffle iron. He poured urethane into the iron, closed it, and waited. In minutes, the waffle iron dinged, and Bowerman pulled the urethane out. He had it. The rubber mold that inspired the sole of Nike’s first shoe – the affectionately named “Waffle Trainer.”

The story goes that Bowerman sewed the sole to a running shoe, handed it to one of his runners, and that runner ran faster than he had ever run before. But things weren’t that simple. Bowerman had a brilliant idea, but Nike was still unknown in the athletics scene, and it would take more than an idea to make the Waffle Shoe a reality.

Thankfully, the world around Bowerman seemed to conspire to make his new shoe a success.

Introducing – The Nike Cortez

Bowerman’s success as an athletics coach led to the United States choosing him as its head coach for the 1972 Olympics. Therein lay an opportunity. Bowerman knew he had a shoe that could help athletes run faster while maintaining a grip on artificial surfaces. And thanks to Nike’s co-founder, Phil Knight, he had a marketing guru by his side who could get the shoe in front of more people.

Together, they developed the first official Nike shoe – the Nike Cortez. That shoe ended up on the feet of every athlete that Bowerman coached, granting it a global audience almost immediately. The fact that the U.S. athletes performed well during the 1972 Olympics, picking up several gold and silver medals in track and field events, was the icing on the cake.

The Nike Cortez was in the public consciousness.

And thanks to Knight’s marketing genius, the shoe was much more than a running shoe. Knight came up with Nike’s iconic “swoosh” logo, which he emblazoned on every one of Bowerman’s shoes, and the Cortez was available in a variety of colors. It became as much of a fashion statement as a piece of athletic wear, and Nike was a household name in the same year it released the Cortez.

It was all thanks to a waffle iron and an unconventionally creative mind.

Be Unconventional With Hoop Dreams

Bowerman’s philosophy of thinking outside the box is the type of ingenuity that inspires Hoop Dream Studios artists. We look to the game of basketball and the world of art, music, and creators to inspire our hoop and backboard creations.

If you’d like to see where our unconventional thinking has taken us, check out our gallery to see our latest designs. And remember – we love helping others buck trends, too. If you’d like a customized hoop, we’re ready and waiting to take what’s in your mind and put it through our own metaphorical waffle iron to make it a reality.