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    Today, Nike is famous for its innovative footwear design, but there was a time when the brand was largely unknown. However, even during its early years, the company was infused with a creative spirit. Much of this was down to the bold vision of Bill Bowerman, whose intrepid search for novel solutions brought about the brand’s first running shoe, the Nike Waffle Trainer. No ordinary trainer, this cutting-edge design was the epitome of Bowerman’s creative genius, announcing Nike to the world and precipitating the incredible prosperity that was to follow.

    The story of the Waffle began in 1971. Bowerman had been trying to build a running shoe that would maintain its grip on various surfaces without the use of spikes. The notion was spurred by the modernisation of the running track at Hayward Field – home to the University of Oregon’s track and field team – where he had forged a successful coaching career. In late 1969, the cinder track was changed to an all-weather synthetic one. A composite of urethane and sand, it was hard and built for speed, but was easily torn up by the spikes on contemporary runners, so a new design would be required. Not content to simply make a trainer fit for this new track, the visionary designer aimed to create something that could be used on a whole range of surfaces, from grass to synthetics and everything in between.

    1971 was also Nike’s first year, so Bowerman and his business partner and former track student Phil Knight were keen to make an impact. Under the company’s previous name of Blue Ribbon Sports, their job had largely been to distribute products from Japanese brand Onitsuka Tiger. However, Bowerman had been playing around with shoe design for years and was eager to experiment with new ideas. It was this enthusiasm, allied with a breakfast breakthrough, that led to his game-changing Nike Waffle Sole.

    To help conceptualize the sole, Bowerman had taken to discussing ideas with his wife, Barbara. He wanted an unconventional grip pattern that could adapt to different surfaces and asked her to look for items that could provide an appropriate shape for the tread. Then, one Sunday morning, Bowerman had his eureka moment. Barbara was preparing breakfast using an old 1930’s waffle iron when her husband suddenly struck upon an idea – what if the sole had the same grid-like structure of the waffle iron?

    Filled with excitement, Bowerman rushed to his garage to find some liquid urethane, which he poured into the iron. In his haste, he forgot to add a non-stick coating to the metal surface, thus destroying it. This happy accident inadvertently created a piece of Nike history. Though the cooking appliance was later thrown out, the remote location of their property meant that it was simply thrown into a rubbish pit in the ground. There, it was preserved and eventually unearthed by Bowerman’s son Tom, in 2010, along with other memorabilia, such as early Waffle prototypes. Tom’s sister-in-law, Melissa, realized the value of the items and emailed Nike historian Scott Reames. Taken aback – like everyone else, he thought the waffle iron had been lost forever – Reames jumped at the chance to get his hands on the relic, eventually exchanging it for a donation to the Condon-Wheeler track and field team and training ground, which serves the community that Bowerman grew up in.

    While this artifact now sits on display in Nike’s Oregon HQ, back then it inspired the very first Waffle Sole, changing both the running scene and the course of the brand’s history. The sole’s sleek rubber construction, with square-shaped studs arranged in a grid pattern across its surface, provided just the right amount of traction to suit a number of running tracks and conditions. More adaptable than the traditional running spike, it was also lightweight and provided better shock absorption to support runners on smooth and uneven surfaces alike. On top of this, it was glued to a nylon upper, the light material and minimalist construction keeping the weight of the whole piece down, allowing runners to reach greater speeds with ease. It had an uncomplicated aesthetic as well, the first colourway being an eye-catching red and white, with later models coming in the yellow and green of the University of Oregon and the blue and gold of UCLA. It also sported a new logo – the iconic swoosh – giving it a distinctive appearance that would go on to become the unmistakable hallmark of the Nike brand.

    The earliest version of the Nike Waffle was distributed to runners at the 1972 Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon. Called the Nike Waffle Racer, but known as the “Moonshoe” due to the pattern it left in the dust being similar to that left by astronauts on the moon, just 12 pairs were handmade for the event. One of these turned up several decades later in a Sotheby’s auction of the world’s rarest sneakers, where it fetched over $400,000, thus demonstrating its incredible legacy. The 1972 version proved the viability of Bowerman’s Waffle Sole, and he set about getting the patent for it. When it was finally granted in 1974, Nike officially released its very first running shoe, the Waffle Trainer.

    The Waffle Sole represented a huge step forward in running shoe technology. Rubber was already used to make performance soles, but the new composition meant that it was grippy, flexible and lightweight at the same time. Nike was also keen to emphasize its durability, along with the high-quality of its construction. When making the Waffle Sole, Bowerman’s intention had been to launch the Nike brand with a bold, signature innovation that would aid runners but also be successful as a general release. The Nike Waffle Trainer achieved both these aims, becoming popular amongst the running community for its excellent traction and performance-focused design.

    The novel construction of the Nike Waffle Sole instantly drew people’s attention, particularly when athletes saw their peers running in them. Early magazine pieces focused on the outsole’s exceptional traction and cushioning along with the upper’s lightweight and comfortable build. Alongside this, the brand ran the slogan: “Made famous by word of foot advertising.” Before the days of online advertising, nothing provided a better endorsement of a shoe than catching someone else running in it, and Nike made the most of this to help the Waffle flourish.

    In its first few years, the Waffle Trainer underwent many small adjustments as Nike made incremental improvements to the design, beginning with the name. Originally called the Waffle Training, Knight and Bowerman quickly realized that the Waffle Trainer was more catchy. While this was changed early on, other alterations occurred later, including the addition of a suede toe piece, the widening of the sole in 1975 to add more stability and the reduction in size of the square-shaped studs, before a ladies version was released in 1977. The branding was updated too, with early designs featuring the brand’s name on the tongue in lowercase cursive writing and later iterations switching to a bolder capitalized version. Finally, the patent number for the Waffle Sole – 3793750 – was imprinted onto those released in ‘74 and ‘75, proudly displaying its unique nature.

    Though Nike has grown and evolved into a multinational corporation, the Waffle Sole has remained a big part of the aesthetic of many of its sneakers. It appeared on the next evolution of the Waffle Trainer – 1977’s Waffle Racer – which also had a lightweight EVA midsole, the first Air shoe, the Nike Tailwind, and 1979’s Challenger. It continues to be used on newer releases that hark back to the original, including the Waffle Trainer 2 and the Nike Waffle One, as well as collaborations such as the sacai x Nike LDWaffle.

    More than 50 years after its creation, sneaker enthusiasts still look back on the Nike Waffle Trainer as a groundbreaking design. The Waffle Sole provided the ideal foundation for both the shoe and the fledgling company, leading to decades of innovative sneaker designs and almost unparalleled success, which may never have happened without Bowerman’s ingenuity or that simple breakfast. It went from the humble beginnings of a kitchen to being on display in Nike’s Beaverton base, eventually making its way into the National Museum of American History, proving just how important it is to the history of the brand and that of the country. The remarkable rise of the Waffle Trainer just shows that with a little imagination, a healthy amount of drive and just a hint of luck, it is possible to forge greatness even in the most unlikely of places.

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