Always the trouble has been that it is impossible to run like a girl and get anywhere, except to the church on time. A girl can swim the English Channel stuccoed with seven layers of petroleum jelly and all the while look like Esther Williams, or win at Wimbledon playing tennis like a girl, or master the parallel bars with exquisite feminine grace. But running? Desesperado. By the time she has reached her teens the American girl has perfected—diabolically, perhaps—an implausible feminine running style next to which anything practical looks like it came from a jar of hormones. By the accepted schoolgirl's technique, her thighs move forward in a short, stiff swishing motion. Her knees remain low, as though broken or restricted by a tight skirt; the lower legs describe half circles away from the body, independent of the direction of the thighs. The hips remain rigid, but the chest and shoulders make a metronomic half-circular movement, like a washing-machine agitator. The arms are bent at the elbows in a purposeful manner, but the forearms and hands are not communicating and tend to fly up at scary angles. The fingers are splayed, completing a motion excellent for flagging the bus or drying the fingernails. The eyes bat furiously. The head rolls dangerously. It is an altogether lovely exercise in ineptness, an American girl running like a girl.
But is it practical? Not in the slightest. To get from point A to point B with any degree of urgency a woman must learn to run like a man, or a girl like a boy, and that is where the trouble begins. There used to be a girl in our neighborhood named Jayne who ran everywhere—to the store for bread, to the movies, back and forth from my house and others of her acquaintance. She had lovely brown, enviably developed calves, a marvelous, fluid stride, and she could outrun every boy around. In football games we threw loft passes and let the untouchable Jayne run under them for easy touchdowns. As a budding entrepreneur, I arranged schoolyard races for laughs, pitting her against a series of unsuspecting boys. She left a trail of shattered egos. The worst she ever got was a tie. But by the time she reached that divine age when she became more conscious of her powder base than her speed on bases, Jayne had—recklessly, shortsightedly—put all that behind her, never again to speak of it, except in flights of nostalgia. She now has two children and a fancy home in Miami Shores and is totally unaware that I might have matched her all the way to the Olympics. She was, in short, forever deceived by the feminine prejudice that running is not ladylike.
In this country any departure from the natural female style described above—clearly, no style at all—has always been looked upon with skepticism. Except for the sainted few who ran on alone, the Jaynes of our neighborhoods were successfully diverted. (Sweating, incidentally, is not a sufficient argument against girls running. No matter what your sensitivities, girl gymnasts sweat. Cheerleaders sweat. If your daughter, girl friend or wife does the twist, frug, watusi or jerk without getting moist all over, then you had better check her pulse because she is sick.)
Total suspicion has not yet given way to total respect for American women who run on display; losing to Russian women is still accepted as a matter of course—no great disaster—though in deference to our own women we have quit calling the Russians "muscle molls." But there are continuing manifestations of progress and an expanding awareness of what women's track is all about. The President's national fitness program, taking in as it did girls as well as boys, was a major boost. Flaming Mamie Ellison's Bouffant Belles of Abilene, Texas (SI, April 20, 1964) added some glamor. Track clubs for girls have sprung up in many metropolitan areas, not with the frequency of wildflowers but, perhaps, more tentatively, like cautious hothouse experiments. Ten years ago there were about 24 clubs sponsoring women's athletics. Now there are well over 200.
May 9, 1965
There is an even more encouraging stir among the high schools. San Gabriel Valley, Calif. now has a nine-team high school girls' track league. Colleges have been slow to follow, although it is reasonable to believe they must or be forever left behind by a burgeoning AAU program. Tennessee State, a university with enlightened ideas about scholarships for women athletes, produced Wilma Rudolph, Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus and has an exemplary program under Ed Temple, the Olympic coach. The University of Hawaii draws girls from as far away as Boston, principally because it encourages girl athletes while most other colleges treat them with the same respect they would reserve for a botany professor who was pushing marijuana. But reasons are fast accumulating to make the colleges reshape their thinking about girls' running.
Most of all, best of all, are reasons like Janell Smith and Marie Mulder, whose contrasting images (pale, blue-eyed Janell; dark, flashy Marie) are shown fluttering across a field of Kansas redbud trees (see cover). They are teenagers from towns 1,400 miles apart and from starkly variant backgrounds, but girls full of expectancy and promise; girls who can run like boys with hardly an inhibition to clutter their way, and who can make the switch to the dance floor without missing a beat. Run like boys? Run better in most cases. There is hardly a boy in Fredonia, Kans. who can stay with Janell Smith for 440 yards, and there isn't a boy at Foothill Farms Junior High in suburban Sacramento, Calif. who would even try Marie Mulder at 880 yards. Moreover, they represent—Janell at 18, Marie at 15—excellent examples of the present and future of American women's track and field.
There are others. Norma Harris, 18, of the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation, Chicago, already has to her credit an indoor 400 meters in 55.1. Tammy Davis, 17, of the youthful and successful Frederick Track & Field Club in Maryland, has run the 80-meter hurdles in 10.9, or [1/10] of a second off Rosie Bonds's American record. Seventeen-year-old, 195-pound Lynn Graham of Pasadena put the shot 49 feet 7¾ inches in England to break the American indoor record. Before that she set a new girls' outdoor record of 51 feet 5 inches. Among the usual flock of outstanding young sprinters, the best is Debbie Thompson, 17, of the Frederick Track & Field Club, who has done 10.5 seconds for 100 yards and 23.9 for 220.
But it is Janell and Marie who are leading a dramatic surge into events we have customarily left wide open to other girls of other countries—middle-distance events that demand, so to speak, manly endurance. These two were the talk of London and Berlin last month, Marie winning the 880 yards in London and finishing second in the 800 meters in Berlin only because Antje Gleichfeld beat her to the world record; and Janell sweeping first the 600 yards in England, then the 400 meters in Germany in an indoor record time of 54 seconds flat.
In Fredonia the other night, sitting in the grandstand of a small, weakly lit, down-home-type high school football stadium, I saw an extraordinary event. Fredonia is a town unaccustomed to extraordinary events. Its population stabilized at 3,500 some years ago and it is distinguished from the flat, uninspiring soybean country of southern Kansas only by two low hills that really are mounds. To the top of one mound runs the coaxial (TV) cable and a road where kids go for nighttime romancing. Also contributing to Fredonia's landscape is the sprawling Portland cement plant, and, more recently and infinitely more appealingly, Janell Smith.
Janell was to run a special exhibition at an interval in the program of the annual Fredonia relays, an event for high school boys. This is as close as she can come to legitimate local competition. There are no other Fredonia girls who take running seriously. For a time Janell had interested her best friend, Nancy Armstrong, with whom she shares innermost secrets, hi-fi records and many of the top honors at Fredonia High, but Nancy concluded that she was too frail and has been content to travel around with the Smiths, watching Janell run. (Once Meade Smith, Janell's father and coach, conned two freshman sprinters into running as a relay against her, but only to prove to Janell that she could run 440 yards.)
The day had been hot but now the night was cool, and in shirtsleeves I huddled behind a mother and her two little girls, the girls wrapped comfortably in a blanket and struggling with the back-to-front pronunciation of supercallifragilisticexpialidocious. Specks of dust from the cement factory blew into the eyes of grandstand fans, but they seemed used to it. Finally, there was the break in the program and Janell came on the track. There was a spontaneous, prideful tremor of applause. "Go, Janell, go!" yelled the little girl in front of me, suddenly alert. There was another cry from a neighborhood boy, who just that afternoon had offered Janell a look at his snapping turtle.
Janell wore the vivid blue sweats of the U.S. Olympic team; her cream complexion and blonde hair, puffed up in front, stood out prettily. She stripped to her track suit, revealing strongly muscled legs, trim at the ankles. She is not a small girl—5 feet 7, 120 pounds—but she gives an appearance of slightness. She was nervous. "I do not like attention or interviews," she told me later. "It is all so unnecessary. I would rather read about someone else. I'd rather someone else got the attention, and then I could always surprise people when I did well." Bending over the blocks, she stretched one leg, then the other and settled in. The crowd was completely hushed, as if about to be witness to open-heart surgery. The athletes in the infield queued up along the edge, standing with their arms crossed, smiling self-consciously, watching the solitary blonde girl on the track. There was none of the usual milling. It had to be the dramatic event of the year in Fredonia—a single girl about to run 440 yards around a lumpy cinder track all by herself. You would never expect to see that again.
She came out of the blocks at the gun as though she had been shot from it. The crowd loosed a relieved "ohh" (did they think she was going to be stuck?). When she runs Janell's hair parts away from the middle of her forehead; her eyes squint; she bares her teeth in fierce contortion. Her stride is even and forceful; she runs with great style. The only apparent flaw is a slight hunching of the shoulders. It is not always easy to relax. She ran the 440 yards full out, as one who could not stand the embarrassment another second. Her time was 55 seconds flat.
Later Meade Smith and his wife went to the only late-night restaurant in Fredonia. Janell and Nancy took a table nearby, where they dawdled over hamburgers and talked of shopping for senior-prom formals in Wichita, and related anew how a certain boy on whom Janell had had a crush finally asked her out. But she was now disappointed because he had been beaten out for second place in one of the night's events.
"She never had a steady boy friend," said Mrs. Smith, a little wistfully. "She's been so busy, and she always seemed to be too choosy. And her running always set her apart."
"All we started out to do was have a good time," said Meade Smith. Meade himself was a former Kansas dash champion. He has since increased his size half again while enjoying the good life of a successful insurance man. "I was coaching our boy Sonny at the time, and Janell came out every day to watch. She was 10. It is easy to coach a girl at 10 because she will do anything you tell her. Later there was another girl who worked with us, but she worried about how she looked running. Janell has never let that worry her."
Did Mrs. Smith encourage her?
"I did not discourage her," said Helen Smith, a pleasant, straightforward woman. "But I did not encourage her either. I am still not sure I like it. I think I would rather she played the piano. She had three years, and she sings in the choir at the First Christian Church. She is very much alone in track, and when she goes away on trips it is hard to imagine our little girl in places like Brazil and Berlin and Jamaica."
"Helen and I went with her to Tokyo for the Olympics," said Meade Smith.
"When Marie Mulder was here she told Janell about her track club and all the fun they have," said Helen Smith. "I think Janell would enjoy it more with a group like that."
How did they account for Janell becoming such a splendid runner?
"Heart and legs," said Meade. "It is like having a great big motor in a tiny car."
Janell Smith went to her first national meet when she was 14 and placed against women eight to 12 years her senior. She could broad-jump 19 feet, run the 70-yard hurdles in 9.2 seconds, the 220-yard dash in 24 flat, the 100 in 10.8. She had set Junior Olympic records galore. A year ago Meade Smith had her forsake all other events for the 440 yards (or 400 meters). Though she was among the two or three fastest girls at 100 meters, the margin for error there was as small as the field was crowded, and, too, she had an obvious store of strength to utilize at longer distances.
The next day Janell and Nancy took me out to show me what I had not seen of Fredonia, pointing out the sparkling new Wilson County Courthouse in the middle of town, in the ring of older buildings. "This is the square, and one of the kicks the kids get is driving around the square at night," laughed Janell. "Fun, fun," said Nancy. "When Janell qualified for the Olympics they put us in an open convertible and brought us here in a caravan from the six-mile corner out on U.S. 96."
Janell is a B-plus student at Fredonia High, the head cheerleader, the president of the Fredonia Band, and there she is sure of her ground. But next year she and Nancy will be freshmen at Emporia State Teachers College, where there is no girls' track program, and she wonders if a girl working out 90 minutes a day ("I suppose I could have her do more," says Meade Smith, "but it is hard to push your own kid") all alone will set her apart.
Marie Mulder at 15 is at present the leading lady of a Sacramento track club known as Will's Spikettes. The coach, Will Stephens, is a 202-pound ex-football player who has five children and the tolerance that having five children requires. He is kindly but firm. He has the aplomb to handle questions like, "Mr. Stephens, what is gestation?" when leveled at him by teen-age girls who take their biology homework on road trips; he knows enough about feminine logic to cope with excuses ("I can't possibly run today, Mr. Stephens, I have a hangnail"). And he has a history of falling into situations. He became a Marine when he got off on the wrong floor the day he went to join the Coast Guard. Thrust in and out of two wars, he was still playing college football at age 32.
Three years ago, with more than a moment's hesitation, he agreed to coach a 14-year-old aspiring hurdler named Liz Ross after her parents approached Will at Encina High, where he coaches the boys' track team. He said he had never coached a girl before, but he would be pleased to try. There are now 42 Spikettes on the permanent roll. Thirty-six are active, most of them distance runners because Stephens also saw the perpetual imbalance of female track talent in the United States: 60% were sprinters, he figured, 25% were in field events and only 15% in distance events. "Guys," Will said to his girls (he does not allow himself the luxury of too much familiarity), "the way is clear to us."
Stephens financed the club himself for a year and a half, cutting into the family budget at $60 a month. Now parents pay $2.50 a month per girl to cover expenses. "It is not always easy to get people worked up over a girls' track team," says Stephens. "A columnist friend of mine on the Sacramento Bee had a campaign going to help us raise funds. Every day I watched for the mail. I received one check. It was for $2."
Mothers and fathers now provide automobile transportation to meets and present united, enthusiastic support for the proposition that running is worthwhile even for girls. Occasionally, Stephens admits, he still runs afoul of an unreconstructed father. One called the other day to say he was sick of seeing his daughter flouncing around in sweat clothes. "I told him, by gum, he ought to come out and see the program himself before he judged it. I got pretty mad. He finally agreed and apologized." Some of the mothers have bought sweat suits for themselves. They make abortive attempts to run 100 yards or jump over a few hurdles. "Hey, Will, get my time, will you?" they demand.
Stephens found his girls more coachable than his boys, first because they did not know a thing about running and hung on his every word and, second, because they would not torture themselves this way if they did not have a certain dedication. "Boys are under a constant pressure to compete," says Stephens. "Girls are not. As a result boys go out for a sport even when they don't want to, and they get discouraged. The girls expect less and stick with it."
Not knowing for sure what better tack to take, he started all new girls on an elementary fitness schedule: run 55 yards, walk 55 yards, until they could do eight laps without falling down dead. Now the better distance runners, like Marie Mulder, will work a five-day week that might begin on Monday afternoon with stretching exercises, then a three-quarter mile warmup, then three miles of 220-yard sprints, back to back in groups of eight at 70-second intervals; then a three-quarter mile cool-down run. In a month they may run as much as 140 miles.
"And look at 'em," Stephens said the other day at the Encina High athletic field as we came upon a group of Spikettes awaiting his instructions. "Not a dog in the bunch. Every one as neat and feminine as you'll find." He said he had made a remarkable discovery: track solves a girl's problems. One girl had problems at home, problems in school, problems with her boy friend, but when she joined the club, voil√†! all the problems rolled away. One blonde lost 19 pounds while training.
Suzie Byersdorfer, 15, whom Stephens identifies as one of his better all-round athletes, sat up on the bleacher where she had been lounging and said she really had never thought of running track until the boys started calling her Legs, in respect for the muscular fullness thereof. Dino Lowry, 16, who with Marie Mulder was recently commended in a resolution by the California State Senate for her running achievements, said track had had a catalytic effect on their love life, "though we now go with boys we can respect, like track boys. Marie's boyfriend runs track and so does mine." Furthermore, she said, it had put definition in her legs. "I used to be skinny, like this," she said, grabbing her sister Jo's arm.
"What do you want?" screamed Jo, indignant, the freckles alive on her face. "I'm only in the fifth grade!" Jo is 10 and when she was only nine ran a half mile in 2:38.
"The trouble with most boys is they don't know a fat leg from a trim one," continued Dino, ignoring her sister. "A girl can have a shapely leg, but it can be all fat. And shoulders! Do you see the way swimming puts your shoulders out to here?"
Marie Mulder joined the club 14 months ago. She is one of eight children, most of them athletic, in the family of Carel Mulder, who was recently made Chief of Medical Care for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Marie's mother says that Marie was given one doll in her entire life. She played with it for five minutes and tossed it aside. Marie cannot remember a time when she could not outrun every boy in her class. She says she quarterbacked her third-grade football team because she was the only one who could pass, and at 9 signed on with a boys' Little League team when the coach failed to notice the braids stuffed up in her hat. Her sister and bunkmate, Chris, 16, who preceded her to the Spikettes, takes credit for Marie's gravitation to track. "I taught her everything she knows," says Chris. "And now look at her. She's barely up to January in her scrapbook."
In Marie's first appearance for the Spikettes, she finished third in a 330-yard race. Later she broke the national girls' 880-yard indoor record the first time she ran it (in 2:11.4), and last month there was the excellent showing in Europe. Roxanne Andersen, women's track chairman of the Pacific AAU, called her "the brightest women's distance prospect in the nation." One coach calculated that her stride was 18 inches longer than normal for a girl her size. Marie seems to glide; she does not have the powerful thrust of Janell Smith (she could not match Janell at 440 yards, and it is just as well for her that Janell does not run the 880, but when they put the metric mile into women's competition, as they are sure to do before the 1968 Olympics, she will be unbeatable). She maintains an almost uncanny pace—recently she ran a mile and a half in splits of 2:36, 2:36, 2:37.
It is the Javanese side of her Dutch-Indonesian heritage that dominates Marie's dark good looks, but she does not have an explanation for her running, only that though she likes people she "cannot stand to run behind them." There is no apparent limit to her range: at Foothill junior high she would be a straight-A student if she had not plummeted to a B-plus in Spanish. Her sewing teacher clucks over the orange sheath dress she has made ("notice the lining? And the seams—you can't see the stitching at all"). Her gym teacher says she can do 70 push-ups and throw a softball 160 feet.
Now that her father is moving to Washington, there is a question of where and for whom Marie will run next year. Her brother Roland, himself a former runner, wants her to stay in Sacramento and live with him so she can continue under Will Stephens. Roland says he has a vested interest—he took her on the other day, after a long layoff, and beat her by a fraction in 440 yards. He was in bed for three hours afterward. But another coach who saw her run wants her to come and benefit from his coaching in Eugene, Ore., where she has a sister. Still another—word gets around—thinks she would do just fine in his club 60 miles from Washington, D.C.
Her mother is in a quandary. What to do with her little Marie? But little Marie goes on her thrill-a-minute way, gobbling up algebra problems like they were popcorn, fascinating her classmates with stories about drinking raspberry soda in the nightclubs of Europe, and running great distances for Will's Spikettes. Her best friend, Tina Letellier, who is nonathletic, says that "the kids at school don't look on Marie as goony or something for running," and that you have to think of her as just one of the girls. To that a onetime entrepreneur, his dreams long faded, would reply, "Varium et mutabile semper femina," which is to say, "Don't trust those ordinary girls." A rival coach allowed Marie to compete with a field of ninth-and 10th-grade boys at Encina High the other day. Marie won the mile-and-a-half race by 30 yards.