Nike engineer Tobie Hatfield pioneers the future

tobie hatfield

While most people whip up amazing meals in the kitchen, former Wildcat pole vaulter Tobie Hatfield ('87) cooks up visionary footwear in the Nike Innovation Kitchen, a think tank that produces some of the sports world's greatest products and technologies.

Tobie Hatfield has helped numerous Olympians and top athletes go faster and higher, including: 

  • Tennis great Maria Sharapova
  • NFL All Pro Troy Polamalu
  • Fencing star Mariel Zuganis
  • Golfer Tiger Woods
  • Renowned pole vaulter Stacey Dragila
  • Beach volleyball stand-out Misty May-Treanor
  • Olympic gold medalists Tim Mack and Tristan Gale
Nike Free creator

As a senior engineer and athlete innovation director of the Kitchen, Hatfield pioneered Nike Free, a technology designed to let feet move more naturally and freely than with traditional athletic shoes, although he's perhaps best known for creating Michael Johnson's famous gold spikes that propelled the sprinter to double gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and appeared on the cover of Time.

More recently, Hatfield turned his attention to helping athletes who compete with prosthetic limbs reach their potential.

He first became aware of the special challenges these athletes face through his friend and world-record holder Sarah Reinertsen, the first woman on a prosthetic leg to compete in the Hawaii Ironman, a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2-mile run.

Reinertsen was one of a number of athletes using the Össur Cheetah prosthetic blade.

Tackling a special challenge

"These blades are carbon fiber and really great technology," Hatfield says. "What they don't come with is traction and protection."

To add traction, Reinertsen would take a shoe, cut it up, glue layers and use duct tape to attach it to the blade, a process that took about an hour.

"I took one look at it and said, 'We can do better,'" Hatfield recalls. And the idea for the Nike Sole was born.

"Looking at the blade itself, it basically has pretty sharp edges on the side. That reminded me of a rail system, that you could slide things on and slide things off," Hatfield explains. "So we set out to devise a design that could slide on and be affixed well enough that the athletes would have confidence it would stay on.

"Once we developed the Nike Sole, people started asking, 'If you can do that for somebody running on the road and running on the trail, could you do that for somebody running on the track?'" Hatfield says.

A leap ahead

"I knew the system we designed for Sarah was not going to be adequate for someone who was going to put so much load and so much power into the track with their legs going around corners," Hatfield says. "So we devised a new Spike Pad, as we call it, that would work for anyone who wears a blade." 

Reinertsen was his inspiration for tackling the problem of prosthetic blades.

"Sarah said there would be so many more amputees who would actually get out there and exercise if they had a system like that," Hatfield recalls. Now the Nike Sole and Spike Pad are available to both professional and amateur athletes who need them.

Hatfield says his own experience as an athlete and coach helps him relate to the challenges of the athletes he works with now.

ACU pole vaulter

At Abilene, he was part of four NCAA Division II Track and Field Championship teams, three as a pole vaulter and one as an assistant coach.

After graduating from ACU in 1987, he followed the footsteps of his father, who was a college coach for more than 40 years. Hatfield took a full-time coaching job for Wichita State University, but when Nike offered him a position in 1990, he set off on a new career path.

Hatfield thrives on the innovative atmosphere in the Nike Kitchen, which got its name early in the company’s history after co-founder Bill Bowerman used a waffle iron filled with liquid rubber to create the first waffle sole.

"We're constantly working on new things. It's the nature of what we do," he says. "We're very passionate about how we go about it because we care. It's exciting because we know eventually we are going to be able to help people in many respects. And it's not just about making people go fast or high. It's about quality of life as well. To me that's an even bigger thing."


 

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