In the chaos and penury of postwar Germany, Peter Tegen's youthful deceit nearly cost him his life. It also sowed the seeds of a women's distance-running program that yields an annual crop of U.S. champions at the University of Wisconsin.
When the 12-year-old Tegen lacerated his chest in a bicycle accident in 1952, he hid the mishap and its results from his parents, fearing they would be angry because he had ruined one of his precious few shirts. Two weeks later he was hospitalized with a tetanus infection that would soon leave him paralyzed below the waist. It took doctors almost half a year to control the infection and reverse the paralysis. By then the combination of wartime malnutrition and the infection had left him wasted away.
"The most motivation I ever got was from a physical education teacher two years later who said, 'Tegen, you will never make it,' " Tegen recalls. "I think he said that to make me feel better, because I was trying so hard but just didn't have the equipment. From then on, I wanted to run, to prove to him and to myself that he was wrong."
In the 41 years since then Tegen, now 55 and married for a second time, has striven mightily to prove that teacher wrong. He became a high school sprinter and gymnast, and played goalie on the 1959 German national champion high school team-handball squad. But it has been in Madison, Wis., a city set in a lush landscape reminiscent of Tegen's homeland in western Germany, that he has reached the athletic heights he always dreamed of. In 22 years Tegen has built track and cross-country programs that have produced 38 national collegiate champions in a state that is better known for producing champion bratwursts, beers and snowstorms. Next month he will take his seven-woman team to the NCAA cross-country championships in Ames, Iowa.
"There's no question the success of our programs belongs to Peter Tegen," says Kit Nordeen, the now retired Wisconsin assistant athletic director, who hired Tegen in 1973 to start a women's track and cross-country club.
Tegen began with 10 pairs of racing shoes, uniforms to be shared with the basketball team, a recruiting budget that covered only flyers to advertise the new program, and a handful of women who were enthusiastic but who had never run competitively. The following year women's track and cross-country became varsity sports at Wisconsin, and Tegen took his ragtag band to the national outdoor track meet, where the squad finished 19th out of 96 teams. Since then the cross-country team has never placed lower than 10th in the nationals, and it won back-to-back titles in 1984 and '85.
In track Wisconsin has been national indoor runner-up three times and almost always finishes in the top 20, powered by its distance runners, who have collected 149 of UW's 180 All-America honors. Most notable among them are Cindy Bremser and Suzy Favor-Hamilton, who qualified for the Olympics in 1984 and 1992, respectively. Favor-Hamilton is the winningest woman in NCAA track and field history. Last spring Wisconsin senior Amy Wickus achieved a three-peat in the NCAA indoor 800 meters and won the 1,500-meter NCAA outdoor title. Sophomore teammate Kathy Butler finished first in the 3,000. The Badgers have won seven of the last nine NCAA outdoor 1,500s and two of the last three 3,000s.
"It would be very difficult for me to name someone else in Peter Tegen's class, including myself," says "Uncle" Marty Stern, who retired from Villanova in 1994 after guiding that school's women to five consecutive cross-country championships from 1989 to '93 and to seven top-four finishes in NCAA indoor and outdoor championships from 1987 to '94. "I respect him as much as any coach—his tactics, his methods of training and the way he handles his athletes." In 1984 and '85 Tegen's coaching colleagues named him national cross-country coach of the year.
Despite his long tenure and high achievement, Tegen remains a puzzle to most in his sport. The dark-haired, dark-eyed, diminutive coach is reticent with strangers and reluctant to trumpet his success. At track meets he eschews old-boy camaraderie and avoids social events. "People always ask me, 'What's Peter like?' and 'What is his training like?' " says Mary Grinaker, who has known Tegen for 15 years, first as one of his athletes and now as his assistant coach.
Tegen answered the second of those questions himself as he jogged across the infield at Wisconsin's outdoor track on a muggy day last June. He was midway through a workout with Wickus, who had qualified for the 800 in the world championships in August in Göteborg, Sweden, and Sarah Thorsett, a former Badger runner who had qualified in the 1,500 (each lost in the first round). The women had already run a series of 100-meter dashes and were completing three 1,000-meter intervals.