IN THE chaos and penury of postwar Germany, Peter Tegen's
youthful deceit nearly cost him his life. It also sowed the
seeds of a women's distance-running program that yields an
annual crop of U.S. champions at the University of Wisconsin.
When the 12-year-old Tegen lacerated his chest in a bicycle
accident in 1952, he hid the mishap and its results from his
parents, fearing they would be angry because he had ruined one
of his precious few shirts. Two weeks later he was hospitalized
with a tetanus infection that would soon leave him paralyzed
below the waist. It took doctors almost half a year to control
the infection and reverse the paralysis. By then the combination
of wartime malnutrition and the infection had left him wasted
"The most motivation I ever got was from a physical education
teacher two years later who said, 'Tegen, you will never make
it,'" Tegen recalls. "I think he said that to make me feel
better, because I was trying so hard but just didn't have the
equipment. From then on, I wanted to run, to prove to him and to
myself that he was wrong."
In the 41 years since then Tegen, now 55 and married for a
second time, has striven mightily to prove that teacher wrong.
He became a high school sprinter and gymnast, and played goalie
on the 1959 German national champion high school team-handball
squad. But it has been in Madison, Wis., a city set in a lush
landscape reminiscent of Tegen's homeland in western Germany,
that he has reached the athletic heights he always dreamed of.
In 22 years Tegen has built track and cross-country programs
that have produced 38 national collegiate champions in a state
that is better known for producing champion bratwursts, beers
and snowstorms. Next month he will take his seven-woman team to
the NCAA cross-country championships in Ames, Iowa.
October 30, 1995
"There's no question the success of our programs belongs to
Peter Tegen," says Kit Nordeen, the now retired Wisconsin
assistant athletic director, who hired Tegen in 1973 to start a
women's track and cross-country club.
Tegen began with 10 pairs of racing shoes, uniforms to be shared
with the basketball team, a recruiting budget that covered only
flyers to advertise the new program, and a handful of women who
were enthusiastic but who had never run competitively. The
following year women's track and cross-country became varsity
sports at Wisconsin, and Tegen took his ragtag band to the
national outdoor track meet, where the squad finished 19th out
of 96 teams. Since then the cross-country team has never placed
lower than 10th in the nationals, and it won back-to-back titles
in 1984 and '85.
In track Wisconsin has been national indoor runner-up three
times and almost always finishes in the top 20, powered by its
distance runners, who have collected 149 of UW's 180 All-America
honors. Most notable among them are Cindy Bremser and Suzy
Favor-Hamilton, who qualified for the Olympics in 1984 and 1992,
respectively. Favor-Hamilton is the winningest woman in NCAA
track and field history. Last spring Wisconsin senior Amy Wickus
achieved a three-peat in the NCAA indoor 800 meters and won the
1,500-meter NCAA outdoor title. Sophomore teammate Kathy Butler
finished first in the 3,000. The Badgers have won seven of the
last nine NCAA outdoor 1,500s and two of the last three 3,000s.
"It would be very difficult for me to name someone else in Peter
Tegen's class, including myself," says "Uncle" Marty Stern, who
retired from Villanova in 1994 after guiding that school's women
to five consecutive cross-country championships from 1989 to '93
and to seven top-four finishes in NCAA indoor and outdoor
championships from 1987 to '94. "I respect him as much as any
coach--his tactics, his methods of training and the way he
handles his athletes." In 1984 and '85 Tegen's coaching
colleagues named him national cross-country coach of the year.
Despite his long tenure and high achievement, Tegen remains a
puzzle to most in his sport. The dark-haired, dark-eyed,
diminutive coach is reticent with strangers and reluctant to
trumpet his success. At track meets he eschews old-boy
camaraderie and avoids social events. "People always ask me,
'What's Peter like?' and 'What is his training like?'" says Mary
Grinaker, who has known Tegen for 15 years, first as one of his
athletes and now as his assistant coach.
Tegen answered the second of those questions himself as he
jogged across the infield at Wisconsin's outdoor track on a
muggy day last June. He was midway through a workout with
Wickus, who had qualified for the 800 in the world championships
in August in Goteborg, Sweden, and Sarah Thorsett, a former
Badger runner who had qualified in the 1,500 (each lost in the
first round). The women had already run a series of 100-meter
dashes and were completing three 1,000-meter intervals.
"This is one kilometer with very fast and moderate 200s built
into it," Tegen said as they glided through their penultimate
lap. "That becomes all of a sudden mentally and physiologically
a lot more valuable. If we did that at the same pace the athlete
would settle into a pattern that can impede progress. In a
high-level athlete it's crucial that we destroy the patterns."
That means running low-mileage, high-quality workouts that vary
greatly from week to week and month to month but always stress
acceleration and deceleration. Such shifts teach runners to
break away from their comfortable strides, helping train their
bodies to cope with recuperation in a very short time, Tegen says.
"Getting ready for the very last one. We're going to nail this!"
the coach hollered as the women rolled into their last lap,
Wickus slightly in the lead. "Come on Sarah, let's go. Let it
fly." He sprinted down the field and caught up with them as they
finished. "Yes! Good stuff. Two-forty-six. One thousand meters
with surges. Very nice."
More professorial than dogmatic, Tegen encourages his athletes
to speak up if they have questions about his methods. He loves
feedback, and he has an easy rapport with his runners. But he is
also a fierce competitor and a wily tactician. "He's a very
combative, warlike competitor," Stern says. "He teaches tactics.
He may have two athletes box a runner in. The tactics are fair,
always within the rules, but sometimes questioned by coaches who
lose to him."
While Tegen can be parsimonious with praise, he is no Bob
Knight. "I don't scream and rant and rave, because I think it
destroys the relationship between the coach and athlete, and
that relationship is very important and very delicate," he says.
"It's important that a coach be supportive, not only in training
but overall. Demanding, yes. Nothing comes from nothing. An
athlete will have to earn his or her status."
In recent years Tegen has been criticized in the press for his
penchant for lean runners. The critics have charged that Tegen's
preference has contributed to eating disorders among some of his
runners and that the coach has ignored the situation. Tegen says
that in 1991 a handful of his runners "crossed the fine line"
between maintaining the low body fat desirable for
high-performance athletics and developing unhealthful eating
habits, but he bristles at any suggestion that he didn't
intervene. He says he called four athletes into his office, told
them he would withdraw them from competition until their
physical appearance changed, and got them in touch with
physicians if they weren't already. "I very much cared about
every single one, and I tried to do the right thing," Tegen
says. He insists that the team has not had runners with eating
disorders for several years.
Tegen is known for having built a drug-free program and for
graduating 63% of his athletes. What most people don't know
about Tegen is what an amazing life he has led. He has 1,001
stories about his travels through Europe, Africa and Latin
America in a Volkswagen van while he was teaching two-week
athletics clinics at universities and high schools in some 14
countries from 1967 to '68. Two months before the 1968 Olympics
in Mexico City, he posed as a banana deliveryman to gain entry
to the athletes' village to see whom he might meet. After doing
so for several days he met a German TV broadcaster who hired him
to pull cables and move equipment. Credentials in hand, Tegen
saw many Olympic events, including much of the track and field.
On long road trips Tegen entertains his athletes by playing
requests on the banjo, the accordion or any of a half-dozen
other instruments he mastered as a child and now plays at his
home recording studio. And his athletes practice their Spanish,
French and German conversational skills on him. "People always
want more Peter time," Grinaker says. "He's definitely a
Tegen's tendency toward hard work and fun is rooted in a
childhood dominated by war and hardship in Stauchitz, Germany.
He was five years old in the spring of 1945, when Allied bombing
runs turned the night sky over nearby Dresden into a deadly
fireworks display. A year after the war ended Tegen, his two
older brothers and his mother, Gertrude, learned that the boys'
father, Rudolph, a paratrooper, was alive and had been released
from an American POW camp. They joined the procession of
refugees going west, walking, riding in horse-drawn carts,
taking trains where the rail lines were intact and sleeping in
ditches. Over two weeks the Tegens made the 200-mile trek to
Celle, Germany, where they were reunited with Rudolph.
"We were starting from ground zero," Tegen recalls. "My father
was a farmhand. It was quite a struggle. We spoke a strong
dialect--it was quite noticeable. German officers were not
always welcome. They took up living space and resources."
In those lean years the Tegens supplemented their income by
performing around northern Germany, like the Trapp family
singers. Soon Rudolph started a youth movement to atone for his
involvement in the war and to preserve the folklore, songs and
other cultural traditions of eastern Germany, where he was born.
Peter and his brothers were leaders in that movement, helping to
organize plays, performances, camping trips and other activities.
In spite of the hunger that at times led the brothers to fight
over the bread their parents gave them, the youngest Tegen
regards those years as an adventure. "They have not left any
scars," he says. "I don't feel I was that much deprived since I
gained so many other things."
Perseverance, a long-term vision and a love for the freedom of
movement were the gifts Tegen brought to the U.S. in 1973. He
also arrived with graduate degrees in English and sport sciences
from the University of Freiburg and an impressive coaching
rasuma. The erstwhile banana deliveryman had returned to the
Olympics, this time as coach of the 1972 Peruvian track team and
of the reigning South American women's 100-meter champion, Maria
"He walked into my office and said he wanted to help coach
track," recalls Nordeen, who was Tegen's boss for 17 years. "He
had just finished coaching in something like 14 countries, and I
thought, I can't believe this is happening. At that time, anyone
who wanted to coach women and had some experience was welcomed
with open arms. Wisconsin was really fortunate."
That first year Tegen, too, welcomed all comers. Cindy Bremser,
a junior, saw a flyer announcing the creation of the team and
joined because she thought it sounded like fun, though she had
never run competitively. But even Bremser had more experience
than Gilda Hudson (now Hudson-Winfield), who had never competed
in any sport. A freshman lonely for her native New Orleans,
Hudson joined the team after seeing its members enjoying
themselves as they ran. The next season Bremser won a place on
the national track team for the first of 13 consecutive years.
Two years later at the 1976 Big Ten championships Hudson won the
100, took second in the 220 and ran a leg for the winning 440
"It was phenomenal for Peter to take a little lump of clay and
turn her into a champion," says Hudson-Winfield, now a Chicago
attorney and a member of the Wisconsin athletic board. She
attributes her success to Tegen's strength-and-stamina training.
She remembers Tegen taking her and the other sprinters out to a
local ski hill to run stairs and hills, a pioneering practice at
the time, and having to run scores of intervals.
Bremser's workouts involved running up stairs sideways while
wearing a vest filled with small bags of sand, and chasing a
moped around the track while attached to the moped with surgical
tubing. The latter technique was intended to increase Bremser's
speed by getting her to turn her legs over more quickly. "Every
year he'd develop some new exercise or running program to build
upon previous strengths," says Bremser, who trained with Tegen
throughout her career. "I don't think I would have gotten as far
as I did if it weren't for him."
"Peter exuded a championship mentality," Hudson-Winfield says.
"If you worked under Peter you knew you had worked well in
practice, and you had the times to take on anybody." Wisconsin
runners also knew, then as now, that they would have a race
plan, as Jenny Kraeger did in 1991, when she and her coach
plotted to have her sprint the 11th of 25 laps in the
10,000-meter race at the Big Ten outdoor track championships.
Kraeger followed the plan perfectly, and none of her competitors
recovered from the surprise tactic.
Tegen smiles when reminded of that race and of the runner, a
woman who was "full of fire" like himself and who won only a
year after walking on to the track team. And then he thinks of
the crop of runners he's training this fall and the plans he has
for them in this year's cross-country nationals. "The truth is
there are new challenges out there every day," he says. "And
that's what's fun."
Lisa Gaumnitz covers educational issues for the Bellingham
Herald in Washington state.