In 1973 my mother Celeste McQuarrie was a senior in Catholic high school and wanted to run track—and yet the only track team her school recognized was for men. Think that stopped her? Nope, she said to heck with it and just started running with the guys.
I asked Celeste if she’d be willing to share an interview about the experience, which would eventually lead to her forming a team for women. Here’s what she says. (And oh, am I more than a little proud? You can believe it!)
N: Thanks for doing this Mom!
C: Thanks for the idea!
N: Could you describe the background leading up to you forming the team?
C: I like to run and I remember it was the summer between my junior and senior years in high school when I started running in the backyard on the driveway, laps on my own in the cool of the evening, when eventually I decided I’m going to keep at this. So when the new school year opened up, I kept running but in the school — it was one building, solid, four-floors, brick. I would run the square floor, then go up the stairs and run the next floor.
N: What was your thought behind wanting to continue in the school?
C: I wanted to keep up with the running. We didn’t have too many after-school curricular requirements; it was a very different time back in 1973. But there was no team for me to join, so I just ran on my own. The guys from the cross-country team would run there too once in a while, if it was raining outside or something.
And then I think a turning point was that, later in the year at the senior Christmas dance, I was sitting at a table with a lot of the guys from the track team, they were my friends. And I just said to them, “Why don’t I just come for practice?” I can’t remember whom I said it to, maybe a couple of different guys, but I just said, “You know, I should come to practice with you.”
N: How did they react?
C: They said, “Sure, you should! Why not?” They encouraged me. I mean, all I wanted was a good way to keep running. I did sort of have to be convinced — you know, would it be a problem?
But I had my sweatpants and sneakers, and I went with them over for practice at the Armory. We went in, and I went to change. I had to go into the ladies’ room as the guys all had their own place downstairs with lockers.
Now, I had known this would be different because I was a woman, one with waist-long hair that I would have to tie back in a ponytail. But suddenly at that point the light went off — I mean, I couldn’t change with them. And I began to wonder if I should even really be doing this.
N: What were your feelings at that point, having this question?
C: It’s odd, but I remember that feeling well. It was a kind of initial shock in having to separate myself from the guys because of my physical difference — otherwise we were all just runners. I realized I was setting myself apart and doing something that wasn’t already mapped out.
N: Was there a point when someone with authority recognized you were doing this: a coach maybe?
C: I think it was probably the second day in, somebody must have informed the coach that I was running, as I remember coming out of the ladies’ room in my sweats and there he was, standing right there.
I was surprised because I thought he would say, “Well, you know, you can’t run with the guys — this is a guys’ team.” But he shook my hand and introduced himself. He was an African-American man, which was also unusual because this was a Catholic High School; there weren’t generally people of color there, a whole other story.
He said, “Tell your friends, tell your girlfriends to come.” That surprised me because I did not go into this with the intent of starting a team. But when he said that, I spread the word to a couple of very close friends, and they started coming to practice too.
N: Amazing. You know, and I realize this was a different era, but I still can’t get over it: if there was a men’s team, then why wasn’t there a women’s team?
C: I think there were certain traditional athletic teams that women could participate in at the school, but running wasn’t one of them. Women could be on a tennis team, there was a volleyball team. And I don’t know what was in the heads of the administrators at the time. But my question was just that — why isn’t there a team? It made sense to me. Perhaps I was pushing the envelope a little around the traditional Catholic roles for women; there were certain behaviors you just didn’t allow because they would be inappropriate.
The scary thing also could have been that the boys and girls would be interacting in ways considered inappropriate. I don’t think I’d thought about it too deeply, but with the teams already available for women — tennis for example — there was very little co-ed interaction; the boys and girls wouldn’t be too close proximity-wise.
N: Given this, did you encounter anyone less supportive of the idea; did you catch wind of any resistance, even if possibly hidden and/or not communicated directly to you?
C: It was really interesting in that I didn’t detect anything like that. I remember being interviewed by the school newspaper, they had taken a picture of me next to the star men’s track athlete Ron Hammond, he was the best. They took a couple of pictures of him and me jogging down the hall together. During the interview, I remember they asked similar questions: how I decided to do this and so on. And at one point the girl asked, “Well, what if the guys hoot at you or yell or make remarks or something?” And I said, “Well, I’ll just yell back at them.” And that became a quote.
N: I love that part of the story. How did people react?
C: There was no real reaction; the administration, the principal, the vice-principal, nobody really said anything, they just let it go. It might have also been a sign of the times as during our senior year the administration had been trying to relax certain rules. There was a stretch when they let us wear jeans to school, for example, when up to that point we’d worn uniforms. This was the ’70s and I think they were just trying to let things happen. Also, they might have known me well enough to know I wasn’t a threat.
N: Haha, they knew what we all do in that you wouldn’t hurt a fly :). Did you have a relationship with the administration?
C: No, but also, I don’t think it really raised too many eyebrows. And this was the winter of my senior year, and so it might have been seen as more or less harmless.
N: How did things evolve from there?
C: The following year I went to see the younger women I knew in a race; those who had started with me were running and competing, I think some had gone on to state-level competitions. I remember I also saw the coach and he came up to me and said, “I haven’t seen you in a while.” And I thought, “Wow.” I mean, it may have been no less significant for him to say, look, we have women running with us now.
N: That’s amazing — you all really started something.
C: Well, maybe often you just fall into it. That’s what happened here I think — and also I think that that can be the best situation, because then it’s really authentic.
N: I’m also curious to ask, and maybe this comes from me trying to imagine my own self in your position, but did you feel you needed courage through this? If so, how did you find it?
C: I think I did, and I asked for it at that dance. My friends were my courage, we had such great interactions and conversations — they encouraged me. And truthfully I was quite surprised, to have them say yes, do it, do it.
N: At that moment when you had felt some doubt, what convinced you to stick with it?
C: You know I think it must be who I am. Many years and experiences later I can look back and see that it has characterized my life — not that it’s been my mantra all the time or even frequently — but that I find myself having an independent sense of doing what seems right for me. Even sometimes at the risk of being different and forging ahead.
N: What advice might you give to people finding themselves in a position where they really want to try something, to do something that hasn’t been done before — and in particular if institutional sexism is part of why it hasn’t?
C: It’s a broad question perhaps; first I think I was letting doing what I loved take the lead, which became an opportunity for me and others. This, and allowing myself to be attentive to what I really wanted.
Regarding institutional sexism, it’s difficult to say if that was it or not in this case; perhaps no one ever asked or bothered or there wasn’t a perceived need. Had I been prevented from running with the men, I think I still would have pursued it, and probably taken on the task of addressing the administration. Having the allies I already did on the men’s team, we could have caused quite a stir.
In general a piece I would say is to strive for the information. If you have an inkling of something you might really like to do, find out more about it. Do the research. And then when there are road blocks, and I’ve had plenty of those, continue to revisit the thought and ask yourself with this information, is this something I really want? If so, what’s my approach? If not, are the obstacles worth it?
But of course finally there are the times when all it ends up being is that you have to have the experience — that you’re not going to be able to know what something takes until you’ve gone and done it.
This post first appeared on Medium, here.