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USATF Track & Field Hall of Fame Q&A: Patty VanWolvelaere (Weirich)


In advance of National Track & Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony on November 2 in New York City, USATF interviewed Class of 2017 inductees on their athletic careers and legacies.


Today's feature: Patty VanWolvelaere


Veteran Athlete Inductee Patty VanWolvelaere (Ramona, California) was a two-time Olympian in the sprint hurdles, making her first appearance in 1968 at Mexico City right after graduating from Renton (Washington) High School.


Seven times an American record-setter in the 100m hurdles, VanWolvelaere was the gold medalist at the 1971 Pan American Games. She went on to become the first female firefighter in San Diego and is also a coach at her local high school.


How did you get started in track and field and when did you first realize your potential?

I first realized my potential when I could beat my brother around the block all the time. He accused me of cheating and going through the alley.

I remember in sixth grade when President Kennedy put out the President's Council on physical fitness, that first time I beat everybody in my elementary school, all the boys and everything.


When I was in the ninth grade, we had a track meet between the three junior high schools in our area. I won the 75-yard dash and the high jump and I think we won the relay. My P.E. teacher, Maria Larson, had seen an article in the paper that a boys’ track coach in our neighboring town of Kent was starting up a girls’ track club and so she called him and told him that she had a girl she was going to send his way, and when Ms. Larson tells you something, you do it. She told me that she wanted me to go to practice… and that I would really enjoy it and that I would be good at it and who knows, I might even be on the next Olympic team.


Of course I had no idea what she was talking about, but I went to practice and loved it from day one. Then her premonition came true and I was on the ’68 Olympic team.


What was it like being an Olympian in high school in 1968?

I just think my eyes were as big as saucers just being in the Olympic Village. Just seeing all the other athletes from all over the world, everybody had their sweats on with the name of their countries. The Netherlands, or Guyana, Brazil, and it was so incredible to me to go to the cafeteria and sit down and have lunch with people across the table from anywhere in the world.


How was Munich in 1972 different?

It was a difference between being 18 and 22, and certainly in those four years I had traveled quite a bit. In between the Games, we had dual meets with other countries, Romania, West Germany, the USSR. I was in Moscow four times. By the time we got to Munich, I really felt like I belonged there and was hoping to do better than my fourth place (in ’68).


I took second in my heat but I fell across the finish line and kind of sprained my ankle. We competed on Monday the eighth, and of course Tuesday the ninth was when the Israelis were murdered. And so that just kind of changed everything. Our semifinals were cancelled on the Wednesday and they had the memorial in the stadium instead. Thursday we had our semi-final and I took fifth. That just really changed the mood of things and it was frightening. Sometimes it seemed kind of strange to be competing for medals when all these people had been murdered. But at the same time you felt like they (terrorists) won if we ended the Games. I think that was the sentiment that kept everything going.


What’s your most memorable race?

I think the one that stands out for me was when I won the gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Cali, Colombia, in 1971. I think what was special about that was besides winning… was there were a couple of women [from another country] who were quite mean to us.


They tried to rattle me and throw me off my game right before we went out onto the track. We were kind of in a little holding area and an official came over to me and said, “Let me see your track shoes.”

I showed him my spikes, and it had been raining and I had put the extra spike in. There was apparently a rule about how many spikes you could have. He said I had too many spikes in and had to take one out because of an official complaint from the Cuban delegation.

I looked over and I saw these two Cuban girls with their hands on their hips just smirking at me. It backfired because when I would get mad before I was competing, I was a terror. It just brought out the aggression and so I kicked their butts and won, and then I sang the national anthem as loud as I could on the podium.


What motivated you as an athlete and what advice would you have for the next generation?

I coach at my local high school and we talk about that, about what motivates individuals, and what makes somebody a champion, and what doesn’t. How tricky is that to find the best thing that you can do? How many people must go through life and never find something that they were really good at?

I always feel so incredibly lucky that somehow I found what I was really, really good at. I was really fortunate to have good coaches. What made me successful on the international level was technique.

I've found through my life that I'm a real hard worker and I guess it kind of started with that. I think that having that work ethic definitely makes the difference. That inner drive has kept me going all my life.


How has women’s track and field changed since you competed?

It’s like night and day. We were amateurs. Even if you got any money it was under the table. Most women didn’t, it was the guys. Certainly the money has made a difference. Now, it’s like a job. We couldn’t do anything on our own. We had to have AAU permission and permits, and you couldn’t just go over to Europe and compete. People like Steve Prefontaine were responsible for changing the face of our sport. Now you have to have a sports medicine doctor, and a nutritionist, and a psychologist, you have your own entourage. You have to pay those people. We just went where they told us to go, and did what they told us to do.


How did you move from track and field to firefighting?

I got really lucky. I know so many friends that felt quite lost after their careers were done. I didn’t want to be a P.E. teacher, because I didn’t really care about a lot of other sports. I didn’t want to teach badminton or tiddlywinks. I was 28 by the time I got out of USC. I was going to be a teacher, but at that point in the 70s, it was hard to find a teaching job in California. I was married and we moved down to San Diego, and I started going to grad school at San Diego State. I saw a flyer on a jobs board, recruiting women for the fire department. I had thought about being a police officer at one time, but I don't like guns and I don't like them pointed at me, so I decided against that. I knew firefighting had to be a very physically demanding job, and if they were looking for women I thought, “This is right down my alley.”


I was the first woman to successfully go through the physical agility test the first time, without having to go back and retake it. I loved my job, it was a wonderful, wonderful career and it certainly blended all my physical training and everything and I thought it was cool when I actually got paid to work out for the first time.

What was your reaction to getting into the Hall of Fame?

I was very surprised. My first reaction was, “Really?” My husband said it was “about time,” and that “no one else has your pedigree.” I was really tickled because so many of my friends are already in, people like Martha Watson and Kate Schmidt, and it’s fun that I get to be part of that.

About USATF Black Tie & Sneakers Gala

Now in its third year, USATF's Black Tie & Sneakers Gala is a red-carpet evening held at the Armory Track & Field Center in New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. The Gala includes the induction of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame Class of 2017, with legendary athletes, business executives, current USATF stars and celebrities from sports and entertainment on hand for an opening reception, dinner, the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and after party. Guests walk the red carpet in festive attire and sneakers, giving the night a USATF twist on athletic elegance and excellence.

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