History in the Making

My Thoughts on Forty Years of Harvard Women’s Track

In 1976, when the Harvard Women’s Track program started, life was much simpler for a female athlete. She didn’t have the inconvenience of traveling for competitions, since there was no funding for travel. She didn’t have to get a sunburn on the Spring Break trip to Houston, since training trips were unheard of. She probably didn’t even have to worry about too many fans distracting her before a race, because fortunately not many showed up. They really had it easy.

In all seriousness though, things were very different back then. It took an unusual amount of spunk to want to compete for a team with no history at a school that’s all about tradition. In the beginning, their practice schedule was erratic, since they were the last group to get to use the indoor track. At meets, I’ve been told,

“Six or seven of us basically did everything.”

Their uniforms were apparently so unfortunate that the ‘76 alum I talked to preferred not to speak about them. Luckily, it was an era of progress for sportswear fashions and women’s rights. In 1972, Title IX guaranteed equal opportunities for women’s sports at U.S.colleges. A contemporary track team profile in The Crimson began like this:

“Even if the Equal Rights Amendment fails to win ratification, should sports at Harvard continue to progress the way they have so far this fall, the 1981-82 season could well become ‘The Year of the Woman.’”

(For those of us keeping track, the Equal Rights Amendment died an untimely death, but the Harvard women took second at conference in ‘82.)

By the early ‘80s, the Harvard women had earned some distinction on the national scene. Darlene Beckford won the team’s first All-American honor during Indoor 1981, and hers was followed by a flood of others. Kate Wiley, Jenny Stricker, Meredith Rainey, Dora Gyorffy, Brenda Taylor and others: names you can still see on the walls of Gordon Indoor Track.

These women were groundbreakers, and they contributed to great progress over the years. However, some things haven’t changed. We still run around the track in the counterclockwise direction. Injuries still break bones and hearts. Newly healed athletes still break records.

In 2016, Harvard women broke thirteen of the twenty-six outdoor track records listed on the wall at Gordon. It was by far the most successful season Harvard Women’s Track has ever seen, and I can tell you it was thrilling to be part of. My freshman year, indoors, we won our first Ivy League Heptagonal Championship since 2000. By the time I graduated, we’d won seven of eight Heps titles, and at Cornell last winter, the senior class that lifted the trophy had never lost an indoor championship. Our improvement in the past four years speaks for itself, but I got to see and experience, day in and day out, exactly what it took. I’ve gotten to grow with the program, as an athlete and as a person.

My time on the team has taught me how to want to be great at something. It taught me how to care about a team more than myself, how to work with people who have different ideas, and how to embrace failure as the source of growth. I’ve gotten to travel the country and the world to compete, in England, Ireland, El Salvador, and thirteen different states. Back in Cambridge, in places no more exotic than the Science Center, our dorms, the dining halls, and of course the track, my teammates were responsible for my best memories of college. They became my best friends at Harvard, women I strive to be like and hope to know long past our competitive years.

For the time being, though, I’m not ready to hang up my spikes. One night after practice, in the snow outside of Eliot House, my teammate and I promised each other that we would be professional runners one day, and train for the Olympics together.

Ever since last spring, when a Saucony rep called and asked me to join the Kinvara Elite team, I’ve gotten to live out that dream. I traded my Crimson H for a Saucony racing top, but I still work with the Harvard women every day. Coming to the track still feels like coming home. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have support from my Saucony family, but I try to pay it forward by helping the women on this team get the most out of every mile. 

It’s a privilege to have a front-row seat to see where the team is going. Winning the conference meet has become familiar to us, but eventually, we want championships beyond the ivy-covered walls. And I believe we’ll get there.

Last spring, we sent more women to the NCAA Championship than ever before, and I was proud to be one of them. In my last collegiate race, I became an All-American in the steeplechase. I’d always imagined my name in those big Gothic letters, but I wasn’t prepared for how it felt to have my plaque added to the wall, alongside those great names. I think of all the space left on that wall, the names that will come after. Girls maybe on the team now, maybe not even competing yet, who will come along and outdo the phenomenal team we had last spring. I’m both proud and humbled when I think of my place in that long line of women, stretching back now forty years, forward into who knows what distant future.

It’s important to remember that the record board is a palimpsest; those marks aren’t meant to stay. And while I’ve somehow gotten lucky enough to spend another few years working with the amazing women of this program, I know that I, too, will be gone someday. But I hope I’ll be back at the eightieth anniversary reunion. I know that the lessons I’ve learned here and the friendships I’ve made will long outlast the records we set in the process.

By: Paige Kouba, #SauconyRacing athlete