Running Through The Decades - A Title 9 Story
by Heather Tolford
In the 1970’s I first became active in high school sports as a stat girl for the boys track team. Until 1975, there was no team at my school for girls, in spite of the passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendments in 1972. At the close of the school year in 1974, I had told the coach that I wanted to trade in my hot pants and go-go boots for a team uniform and run on the boys Cross Country team in the Fall. That summer, I broke 6 minutes in the mile to make the team qualifying standard and competed on the Taft High School Boys JV team in Woodland Hills, California. By Spring, the school had started a girl’s track team as a number of girls wanted to run. I went on to receive one of the first athletic scholarships for women at the University of Oregon and competed for a few seasons before stress and injuries took a toll, stepping aside from competition to focus on getting my degree to become the first person in my family to graduate
In 1984, Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first Olympic gold medal in the marathon for women. Olympic options in the distances had been limited for women, as there was a notion that long distance running was dangerous for females, but a dedicated group of pioneer women runners had advocated tirelessly for inclusion of the event in the Olympic program.
In 1985, I became pregnant with the first of my two daughters, but continued to run for my mental and physical health. By the late 80’s women were on the road racing circuit and earning prize money and sponsorships and opportunities exploded. I decided to up my mileage and jump back in the game as I entered my 30’s and enjoyed 5 years of travel and racing, including the opportunity to run in the 1992 U.S. Women’s Olympic marathon trials In Houston Texas, and marathons and road races all over the US. When an Achilles tendon injury forced me to stop racing, I started coaching and became one of the first female track coaches (for boys and girls) in Oregon. I spent the better part of the next 2 decades coaching youth and running for myself, gaining the clarity and strength to leave a difficult relationship, build my career and put myself in a position to transform my life.
A new job and a rekindled relationship with my high school sweetheart landed me in New York City in 2011 and I began to thrive in the running community there. As I got older, I discovered new opportunities, started a private coaching business and enjoyed the fun and camaraderie of age group and club competition. Through many changes and personal challenges, the ability to
get out and run in Central Park each day kept me centered and I was honored to be named New York Road Runner’s Female over 60 Runner of the Year in 2018 and 2019. I had big plans for 2020.
Sports help one become resilient. When my full time day job and everything else went away in the first wave of the pandemic, my solace was to run 10 miles each day before sheltering in the apartment with my husband for the rest of the time. NYC was empty and the ambulance sirens could be heard 24/7 that awful Spring. Our lease was up and by mid summer, we were in West Virginia, to help my husband’s elderly parents and wait out the plague. I was a stranger in a strange land, but I found a sprawling park to run in and started to become a part of the local community. After getting vaccinated, I began racing again, this time challenging myself in the women’s open divisions of the much smaller races here and making plans for future travel and competitions for as long as I can keep at it. I am inspired by the number of women I see running now, many beginning runners, getting out and competing. Each one has a story and has faced difficulties and each one is getting stronger with every mile.
Title IX may not have been targeted to improving the opportunities for girls to participate in high school sports, but the numbers indicate that this historic legislation had everything to do with opening the floodgates. In the last year prior to the passage of Title IX, there were fewer than 300,000 girls who participated in high school sports, or about one in every 27 girls who attended school. In two years, that figure jumped to 1,300,169, and by the 1977-78 school year, girl’s participation exceeded 2 million – an increase of almost 1.7 million in just six years. The number of girls involved in high school sports has continued to grow since those historic years, and currently more than 3.4 million girls are taking advantage of the opportunity to participate in life changing sports programs.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine what my life would have been like, had I not been allowed to run on that team. I will be forever grateful to those who cleared the path before me and will be cheering on those to come who will widen it.