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Court retires after 25 years as coach of women's track and cross country at Bates College

By Matt Gagne, interim sports information director

LEWISTON, Maine – After a quarter century spent teaching young women to run faster, jump higher and throw farther, Carolyn Court, the women's track and cross country coach at Bates College, has crossed the finish line of her collegiate coaching career. She announces her retirement after serving the college since 1979.

Court, who came of age as an athlete and coach in the early days of gender-equity efforts in American sports, was praised as both a role model and talented coach whose work at Bates spans two generations of female athletes.

"Carolyn personifies the great advancement of women's athletics, both at Bates and nationally," says Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey. "Even as a tremendously busy coach working all three sports seasons, she never lost sight of the goal of advancing women's athletics. At the same time, her record demonstrates incredible devotion to individual athletes and their overall well-being."

During her tenure, 15 female track or cross country athletes won a combined 27 All-America awards. In 1995, she was named coach of the year in New England Division III after her team advanced to the NCAA Cross Country Championships; the Bobcats also qualified in 1997. At the NCAA Division III Track and Field Championships in 2004, her indoor track team finished third and her outdoor team finished eighth. Last July, she accompanied Liz Wanless '04, Bates' national champion in the indoor and outdoor shot put, to the Olympic trials, an experience Court says is one of her most memorable.

"I hope I've been an effective mentor and coach to younger people. But I also hope that people on our teams were able to look at me as a coach and as mother, that I was able to have the career and still be a mother," says Court, whose daughter, Nicole Court-Menendez, is now 10. "The athletes saw me when I was pregnant, and the world didn't stop."

Court's athletes have excelled in the classroom as well. Of the 29 women who have won the Milton Lindholm Scholar-Athlete Award — an annual distinction given to the male and female athlete with two varsity letters and the highest cumulative GPA — 14 competed for Court. She also coached two Fulbright Scholars, Kate Kenoyer '00 and Melissa Leir '98.

Court and Catherine Crosby '04 (right)

In stepping away from the Bates program, Court wants to spend more time with her daughter and husband, Tom Menendez. She will remain professionally active, serving on the USA Track and Field staff this summer as assistant manager of the team competing at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Youth Championships in July. Court will help select and coach 60 athletes, ages 14-16, to compete in Marrakech, Morocco.

Though not coaching, Court will be in residence at Bates in 2005-06, working to archive the history of women's cross country and track and field at Bates. The women’s indoor and outdoor track teams are now under the direction of interim coach Sally Hirsch.

While success in track is based on how long it takes to cover a certain distance, Court's achievements are best measured by how far she's helped advance the sport, and women's athletics, over time.

A 1972 graduate of Wethersfield (Conn.) High School, Court was state champion in the 440-yard run in 1971 and the 880-yard run in 1972. She graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in 1976, earning All-America honors in the 880-yard run as a sophomore and co-captaining the women's outdoor team her senior year.

There was no women's cross country team at Southern Connecticut, so Court practiced and competed with the men's team. That was better than high school, however, when Court had to practice alone and enter herself into meets. "Practicing with the boys?" she asks rhetorically. "No way, no how. You didn't step out on the track when the boys were out there."

Court was inducted into the University of Southern Connecticut State's Hall of Fame in 1997, and Wethersfield High School's in 2001.

She recalls the gender discrimination prevalent in late '70s road races. "Women weren't allowed to wear numbers or cross the finish line," she says. "My father would get my time right before I'd cross, then I'd duck under the barriers and go home." On the other hand, she says, "sometimes you would be the only girl in the race and you'd get a trophy, but it was the size of you, and that was embarrassing."

A shy teenager, Court says she ran to express herself and credits her burgeoning athletic commitment to an article she read about Norm Higgins, who trained Olympic hopefuls in New London, Conn. She sought out Higgins and, for the first time in her life, received expert training.

After graduating from Southern Connecticut, Court wanted to coach but her mentors and advisors suggested she become a physical education teacher. "They didn't think coaching at the college level was possible for a woman." So she applied to grad schools. "I zeroed in on Penn State. I had been there as an undergrad for a meet and vowed to return. I competed there my senior year and then I was coaching girls I had stood next to on the podium the year before."

Court coached at Penn State for two years as a grad assistant, completing her coursework in 1979 and finishing her thesis in 1983. She joined Bates in 1979 and became the architect of the existing programs, introducing cross country in 1979 and adding outdoor track in 1983.

Court's devotion to women's athletes intersected with her own master's degree research on health issues facing female runners. She focused on athletica anorexia, a condition marked by obsessive exercise to control weight, which she examined in 300 female long distance runners at 30 colleges in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

By the 1990s, Court and a former Bates runner, Nancy Bell '85, who at the time was a medical resident at the University of Vermont, were presenting their findings to doctors and medical professionals. "We told them that the women who had this problem in college had been cleared by doctors even before they got on the team," Court said, noting her first-hand experience with the handful of Bates runners who suffered from the condition. "For a long time, college coaches had to fight the stigma that we were the ones causing the problem. I couldn't believe that the doctors had cleared these kids and put them on our doorstep. Things were obvious to me, but people weren't catching on."

At that time, the culture of women's athletics wasn't as open or self-reflective as it is today. While health issues can easily be talked about in the athletic trainer's office or even a classroom, it was mostly on-the-job training for Court. "There wasn't much information out there," she says. "My work was on the forefront. The naiveté was gone very quickly — you knew what to look for and how to lend support."

Court was named New England Div. III women's cross country coach of the year in 1995.

Active nationally, Court served on the NCAA rules committee from 1981 to 1987, a period that saw the women's national track championship break away from its longtime governing body, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, and join the NCAA. It was not an easy task, Court says, trying to establish new traditions without disrupting the existing men's only championships. "Men would joke that the worst thing they ever did was put women in the NCAA championships, and the best thing they did was put tights on them," Court says.

Court couldn't help but notice that the initial NCAA meeting, held to discuss women's events, qualifying standards and basic uniform rules, was held in a Playboy Club. "Talk about stereotypes," Court says. It was an effective work session, she recalls, but at social events, "there were ‘bunnies’ with ears and little tails walking around serving drinks." Four years later, Court had the satisfaction of co-hosting, along with Bates men's coach Walter Slovenski, the 1985 Division III NCAA championships, the first for both men and women.

Court also worked as an assistant manager of the 1994 U.S. women's World Cup team and was part of the U.S. Olympic Festival coaching staff in 1993. On sabbatical in 1990, she served under University of Tennessee head coach Dorothy Doolittle, who headed the women's track and field team at the 2000 Summer Olympics. During the same leave, Court worked as an administrative intern at the Athletics Congress in Indianapolis, helping run the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships. She also served as the American delegate to Korea and Japan in preparation for domestic meets during the Junior Worlds.

Court's track career came full circle in the late 1990s. She was inducted into Southern Connecticut's Hall of Fame in 1997 and Wethersfield High School's Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 2001. The reason she considers those honors her most special: Standing before her home town, able to smile, seemed different than standing up to her principal and the Board of Education. “I just wanted fair treatment and the chance to compete in high school," she recalls. She was also given a President's Award in 1996 by the Auburn-Lewiston Hall of Fame. Active in the local track community, she has served the city of Auburn's summer track program since 1993. Since her involvement, Edward Little High School in Auburn has reaped the benefits of the youth program, winning numerous conference and Maine cross country titles.

On sabbatical this semester, Court's last team was the 2004 cross country squad.

It will be hard, Court says, to separate her life from the sport she dug her spikes, and passion, so firmly into. Her husband coaches the girls' track team at Leavitt High School and assists the cross country teams at Monmouth Academy. Her daughter, a student at Pettingil Elementary, has been running competitively since age 6. "In a male-dominated field," Court says, "a lot of girls don't see women coaching girls. Whether it's track or soccer, it's usually somebody's dad out there. Girls are still not seeing a lot of women in that role."

Despite all the changes Court has seen and, to her amazement, been a part of, she has used the same tape measure for more than 20 years. It will most likely be the standard by which women's track at Bates is measured for years to come.

"Probably one of the most rewarding things," Court says, "is when I go to the Boston Marathon and see former Bates runners still competing, or I hear about how many people are still running, whether it's triathlons or marathons. They write back and say, 'Thanks, Coach, for making this fun and something I want to do the rest of my life.'"

— by Matt Gagne, interim sports information director