Tiger Images/ (waffle); Department of Nike Archives (cleat)

How This Inspired That

This bite-sized nonfiction text explores the history of sneakers and how one of Nike’s first sneakers was inspired by a waffle.

photo of mackenzie carro
By Mackenzie Carro
From the February 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to support a claim with text evidence

Lexile: 1100L
Other Key Skills: central ideas and details, text evidence

It was a Sunday morning outside Eugene, Oregon, in 1971, and Bill Bowerman and his wife, Barbara, were making waffles. As they cooked, they chatted about a familiar topic: running shoes.

Bowerman was a track coach at the University of Oregon. For years, he’d been making shoes for the runners on his team, experimenting with different styles in his lab. He was good too—his handmade shoes had carried several runners to victory.

But now he had a problem. The running track at the university, like many tracks across the country, had been redesigned. Tracks that had been made of crushed cinder (kind of like chunky dirt) or volcanic ash were being replaced by ones made of rubber. At the time, track shoes had metal spikes on the bottom to give runners traction—but those spikes tore up the new tracks and slowed runners down. Bowerman knew the spikes needed to go, but he was stumped by what to replace them with.

Then, as Barbara pulled a hot waffle out of the waffle maker, something clicked in Bowerman’s brain. The pattern on the waffle maker was exactly what he had been looking for! The raised squares wouldn’t tear up the track, and they would keep a runner from slipping.

Bowerman snatched up the waffle maker, ran out of the kitchen, and hurried off to his lab. He concocted a mixture of chemicals and poured it into the waffle maker. He sensed that he was on to something big. But he did not know that he was about to change the sneaker industry forever.


Adidas’s Superstars came out in 1969. In 2016, they were the best-selling sneaker in the U.S.

The Waffle Trainer

Bowerman’s first experiment with the waffle maker was not a success.

The chemical mixture glued the waffle maker shut. But the waffle pattern made sense. For the next year, Bowerman kept experimenting (and destroying waffle makers), until he had created a waffle-patterned mold for the sole of what would be a groundbreaking new shoe.

It wasn’t just Bowerman’s track team that would get to try these new shoes. Bowerman had co-founded a little-known sneaker company to manufacture and sell his shoes. That company was Nike.

Nike debuted Bowerman’s new Waffle Trainers in 1974. The shoes flew off shelves. By the following year, Nike had made a whopping $3.3 million from the Waffle Trainer—the equivalent of about $15 million in today’s money. Bowerman’s innovation catapulted Nike to sneaker stardom—and ushered in a golden age of sneakers.

Chananchida Ch/    

Converse released the first All Star sneaker in 1917.  The shoe remains a top seller today.

Hundreds of Styles    

When Bowerman created the Waffle Trainers, sneakers had already been around for quite a while. The first sneakers appeared in the 1860s. Like diamond rings or fancy boats, these early sneakers were luxury items, and only the very wealthy wore them.

But then, in the 1910s, sneakers became more affordable, thanks to improvements in manufacturing. And by the 1950s, everyone—from average American teens to glamorous Hollywood stars—had a pair of Converse or Keds. These shoes were prized for being comfy and practical. It slowly became fashionable to wear sneakers in everyday life—not just on tennis or basketball courts.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s, starting with Bowerman’s Waffle Trainers, that the sneaker industry as we know it today began to take shape. Dozens of new sneakers soon appeared. By the end of that decade, you could get Nike trainers in bright blue, Pumas in striking yellow, or Adidas tennis shoes in sparkling white.

Today, sneakers are a $55 billion industry. We can choose from hundreds of styles, colors, and brands. We strut down school hallways in our Nike Frees. We hit up the mall in our black-striped Adidas Superstars. We go to parties in our Converse Chuck Taylors. The release of a new sneaker is a highly anticipated event, with hordes of sneakerheads camping out hours before stores open.

So if you’re among the millions of sneaker lovers, you might want to say thank you to Bill Bowerman—and to waffles.

Courtesy of Nike

Today,  Nike is worth about $100 billion. Nine of the top 10 best-selling sneakers  in 2018 were  Nikes.    

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