Looking Back... Setting the Pace in Women's Athletics
Oct. 25, 2006
The 1970s was an exciting decade for women's athletics in the United States. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was founded in 1971 as the governing body for women's college athletics. The following year the United States Congress passed the Education Amendments Acts of 1972. Title IX of that act banned gender discrimination in intercollegiate athletics.
These two events placed women's college athletics on the map. It was a messy decade, characterized in part by lawsuits, confusion, Congressional debates, and legal clarifications. Some universities embraced the new world, others dragged their feet. But by the late 1970s female athletes were receiving college scholarships and competing at the highest level. Conferences like the ACC were conducting conference-wide competitions and the AIAW was sponsoring national championships in a number of sports.
Cross country was one of the beneficiaries of Title IX. It was attractive for a number of reasons. A cross country team could absorb lots of athletes but it wasn't prohibitively expensive. Schools already had cross country courses and coaches. The sport benefited from the explosion of running that resulted from Frank Shorter's 1972 Olympic marathon win. All of a sudden there were lots of distance runners, with lots of opportunities.
It is also a sport that attracts top students. Longtime North Carolina State coach Rollie Geiger notes, "It's all about preparation on the front end. You have to know the course, the weather, your opponents. Racing tactics have to be planned and then you need the flexibility to change tactics as the race unfolds. But the coach's work is mostly done once the race starts. The runners have to be smart enough to adjust without a lot of input by their coaches."
The ACC was an early force in the sport. The first ACC women's cross country championship was held in 1978. NC State won the team title and capped the season with a second-place finish in the AIAW championships, trailing only Iowa State. Wolfpack star Julie Shea finished second in that race. NC State followed that with AIAW team championships in 1979 and 1980, with Shea winning both individual titles. ACC-rival Virginia finished eighth in 1978, sixth in 1979, and third in 1980.
While all of this was going on, the NCAA was coming to the conclusion that women's sports did have a future. In 1981 the NCAA's Division I schools voted to hold national championships in women's sports beginning in the 1981-82 academic year. Some regarded this step as the next step in the natural maturation of women's sports, others as a hostile takeover.
The AIAW did not go gently. It sued on anti-trust grounds and held its own national championships in 1981-82. The AIAW lost its lawsuit. Lacking the prestige, name recognition, and financial resources of the NCAA, the AIAW ceased operations in 1982.
Did any of this matter to the competitors? Geiger thinks not. "It may have made a difference to administrators. But not for the athletes. The same runners, the same coaches, the same teams, just a different name on the trophy. Athletes want to compete against the best. They don't care what the initials are."
Former Virginia runner Lisa Welch Brady agrees. "A race is a race. Just line us up and let us go."
Lisa Welch Brady and her twin sister Lesley Welch Lehane were instrumental in the first NCAA cross country championship held 25 years ago. Virginia out-recruited NC State for the Massachusetts prep sensations. Lisa says, "The thought of helping put Virginia over the top was more appealing than the thought of keeping NC State at the top. It was the competitor in me."
The Welchs arrived in Charlottesville in the fall of 1981 and were in for a bit of a shock. Lisa says, "We didn't work as hard over the summer as our teammates and we paid the price. It was kind of like boot camp. The hills killed us. Our first reaction was `Are these people crazy?'"
Lesley adds, "We couldn't finish our first workout, a tough 15 K run. Coach Smith wanted to see what kind of shape we were in. No easing in. We had to ride back on what we called the `meat wagon.' It was an eye-opener."
The twins adjusted. John Vasvary was the nominal head of the Virginia program but Martin Smith was the day-to-day coach. Smith "had his eye on the big prize" says Lisa. "We were focused on the championships at the end of the season. We trained hard, very hard. I can't begin to tell you how much I looked forward to our rest days."
Virginia was deep and talented in 1981. Junior Aileen O'Connor was an elite runner and teammates Jill Haworth, Mary Jean Wright, Martha Wright, Marissa Schmidt, and Dana Slater gave Smith unprecedented talent and depth. Competition in practice could be fierce but rarely became unhealthy. Lisa maintains, "I give Coach Smith a lot of credit. He knew when to push and when to back off. Our rivalries were tough but friendly. We worked as a team."
Virginia destroyed the regular-season competition and captured the ACC championships at Duke. The first NCAA championship was held at Echo Hills Golf Course in Wichita, Kan., on November 23. The AIAW had its own championships, won by Iowa State, but the majority of top teams and runners competed in the NCAAs. Despite being undefeated, the top-ranked Cavaliers were considered no better than co-favorites with a young but talented Stanford team.
It was a raw, windy day but a flat course. Lisa Welch Brady maintains, "Having trained on Charlottesville's hills all season gave us an advantage. You're simply a better runner if you run tough hills all the time. Still, the competition was fierce. I remember being very nervous before the race. It was a big deal."
Oklahoma's Kelly Cathey led the first two miles of the five kilometer (3.1 miles) race but couldn't maintain her early pace. NC State's Betty Springs had finished second in the 1980 AIAW championships but missed much of the 1981 season with a foot injury. After the race, Springs recapped her day. "I wanted to stop at mile one. But about 2 ½ miles out, on a downhill stretch, I started to feel really good. I told myself, if you can keep your pace, you can do it."
Springs passed Cathey, Oregon's Leann Warren and O'Connor around that point and held on, winning in 16:19. Warren finished second, six seconds behind. O'Connor was third, and Cathey held on for fourth.
Despite winning the individual title, NC State didn't have the depth to retain its team title. Virginia had the depth to take it. Lisa Welch Brady says, "I can still picture myself on that course. Late in the race, I knew I was running in the top 10 and that Aileen and Lesley were ahead of me. I knew we were kicking butt and were going to win the team title."
Virginia did more than just win the title. Lesley Welch finished fifth, her sister eighth, Hayworth 12th, and Schmidt 19th. The race included a number of individuals whose teams didn't make the finals. These individuals competed for the individual title but their scores were not counted in the team totals. When their results were taken out, Virginia was left with a total of 36 points, an extraordinary score for a meet of that quality. Oregon was second with 83 points, followed by Stanford, Michigan State, NC State and Clemson.
Virginia repeated in 1982 with 48 points, with Lesley Welch giving the ACC its fourth consecutive individual title, counting the AIAW titles in 1979 and 1980. Virginia did not lose a single meet in this two-year period. Its 36 points in 1981 remains the lowest point total in NCAA Division I women's cross country history and its 1982 total is second. No one else is close.
Rollie Geiger, a man not known for giving undeserved praise, agrees with the record books. "This may have been the best women's cross country team I've ever seen. They had so much talent. We had a terrific team in 1981 but they just blew everybody away. They crushed it."
Lesley Welch Lehane, who coached collegiately for a number of years and now lives near Boston, adds, "The 1981 team still holds up very well. I have no doubt we could compete with any team, any time, any place."
A few years ago Virginia hosted a reunion of the 1981 team. Lisa Welch Brady, who now lives in New Hampshire, marvels, "We just fell right in like 1981 was last week. When you work so hard together and accomplish so much together, you just have a bond. Being on a team is such great preparation for life. Everywhere you go, everything you do, you're on a team. The bonding, the persistence, the hard work all pays off."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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