Always the trouble has been that it is impossible to run like a girl and get anywhere, except to the church on time. A girl can swim the English Channel stuccoed with seven layers of petroleum jelly and all the while look like Esther Williams, or win at Wimbledon playing tennis like a girl, or master the parallel bars with exquisite feminine grace. But running? Desesperado. By the time she has reached her teens the American girl has perfected—diabolically, perhaps—an implausible feminine running style next to which anything practical looks like it came from a jar of hormones. By the accepted schoolgirl's technique, her thighs move forward in a short, stiff swishing motion. Her knees remain low, as though broken or restricted by a tight skirt; the lower legs describe half circles away from the body, independent of the direction of the thighs. The hips remain rigid, but the chest and shoulders make a metronomic half-circular movement, like a washing-machine agitator. The arms are bent at the elbows in a purposeful manner, but the forearms and hands are not communicating and tend to fly up at scary angles. The fingers are splayed, completing a motion excellent for flagging the bus or drying the fingernails. The eyes bat furiously. The head rolls dangerously. It is an altogether lovely exercise in ineptness, an American girl running like a girl.
But is it practical? Not in the slightest. To get from point A to point B with any degree of urgency a woman must learn to run like a man, or a girl like a boy, and that is where the trouble begins. There used to be a girl in our neighborhood named Jayne who ran everywhere—to the store for bread, to the movies, back and forth from my house and others of her acquaintance. She had lovely brown, enviably developed calves, a marvelous, fluid stride, and she could outrun every boy around. In football games we threw loft passes and let the untouchable Jayne run under them for easy touchdowns. As a budding entrepreneur, I arranged schoolyard races for laughs, pitting her against a series of unsuspecting boys. She left a trail of shattered egos. The worst she ever got was a tie. But by the time she reached that divine age when she became more conscious of her powder base than her speed on bases, Jayne had—recklessly, shortsightedly—put all that behind her, never again to speak of it, except in flights of nostalgia. She now has two children and a fancy home in Miami Shores and is totally unaware that I might have matched her all the way to the Olympics. She was, in short, forever deceived by the feminine prejudice that running is not ladylike.
In this country any departure from the natural female style described above—clearly, no style at all—has always been looked upon with skepticism. Except for the sainted few who ran on alone, the Jaynes of our neighborhoods were successfully diverted. (Sweating, incidentally, is not a sufficient argument against girls running. No matter what your sensitivities, girl gymnasts sweat. Cheerleaders sweat. If your daughter, girl friend or wife does the twist, frug, watusi or jerk without getting moist all over, then you had better check her pulse because she is sick.)
Total suspicion has not yet given way to total respect for American women who run on display; losing to Russian women is still accepted as a matter of course—no great disaster—though in deference to our own women we have quit calling the Russians "muscle molls." But there are continuing manifestations of progress and an expanding awareness of what women's track is all about. The President's national fitness program, taking in as it did girls as well as boys, was a major boost. Flaming Mamie Ellison's Bouffant Belles of Abilene, Texas (SI, April 20, 1964) added some glamor. Track clubs for girls have sprung up in many metropolitan areas, not with the frequency of wildflowers but, perhaps, more tentatively, like cautious hothouse experiments. Ten years ago there were about 24 clubs sponsoring women's athletics. Now there are well over 200.
There is an even more encouraging stir among the high schools. San Gabriel Valley, Calif. now has a nine-team high school girls' track league. Colleges have been slow to follow, although it is reasonable to believe they must or be forever left behind by a burgeoning AAU program. Tennessee State, a university with enlightened ideas about scholarships for women athletes, produced Wilma Rudolph, Edith McGuire and Wyomia Tyus and has an exemplary program under Ed Temple, the Olympic coach. The University of Hawaii draws girls from as far away as Boston, principally because it encourages girl athletes while most other colleges treat them with the same respect they would reserve for a botany professor who was pushing marijuana. But reasons are fast accumulating to make the colleges reshape their thinking about girls' running.
Most of all, best of all, are reasons like Janell Smith and Marie Mulder, whose contrasting images (pale, blue-eyed Janell; dark, flashy Marie) are shown fluttering across a field of Kansas redbud trees (see cover). They are teenagers from towns 1,400 miles apart and from starkly variant backgrounds, but girls full of expectancy and promise; girls who can run like boys with hardly an inhibition to clutter their way, and who can make the switch to the dance floor without missing a beat. Run like boys? Run better in most cases. There is hardly a boy in Fredonia, Kans. who can stay with Janell Smith for 440 yards, and there isn't a boy at Foothill Farms Junior High in suburban Sacramento, Calif. who would even try Marie Mulder at 880 yards. Moreover, they represent—Janell at 18, Marie at 15—excellent examples of the present and future of American women's track and field.
There are others. Norma Harris, 18, of the Mayor Daley Youth Foundation, Chicago, already has to her credit an indoor 400 meters in 55.1. Tammy Davis, 17, of the youthful and successful Frederick Track & Field Club in Maryland, has run the 80-meter hurdles in 10.9, or [1/10] of a second off Rosie Bonds's American record. Seventeen-year-old, 195-pound Lynn Graham of Pasadena put the shot 49 feet 7� inches in England to break the American indoor record. Before that she set a new girls' outdoor record of 51 feet 5 inches. Among the usual flock of outstanding young sprinters, the best is Debbie Thompson, 17, of the Frederick Track & Field Club, who has done 10.5 seconds for 100 yards and 23.9 for 220.
But it is Janell and Marie who are leading a dramatic surge into events we have customarily left wide open to other girls of other countries—middle-distance events that demand, so to speak, manly endurance. These two were the talk of London and Berlin last month, Marie winning the 880 yards in London and finishing second in the 800 meters in Berlin only because Antje Gleichfeld beat her to the world record; and Janell sweeping first the 600 yards in England, then the 400 meters in Germany in an indoor record time of 54 seconds flat.
In Fredonia the other night, sitting in the grandstand of a small, weakly lit, down-home-type high school football stadium, I saw an extraordinary event. Fredonia is a town unaccustomed to extraordinary events. Its population stabilized at 3,500 some years ago and it is distinguished from the flat, uninspiring soybean country of southern Kansas only by two low hills that really are mounds. To the top of one mound runs the coaxial (TV) cable and a road where kids go for nighttime romancing. Also contributing to Fredonia's landscape is the sprawling Portland cement plant, and, more recently and infinitely more appealingly, Janell Smith.
Janell was to run a special exhibition at an interval in the program of the annual Fredonia relays, an event for high school boys. This is as close as she can come to legitimate local competition. There are no other Fredonia girls who take running seriously. For a time Janell had interested her best friend, Nancy Armstrong, with whom she shares innermost secrets, hi-fi records and many of the top honors at Fredonia High, but Nancy concluded that she was too frail and has been content to travel around with the Smiths, watching Janell run. (Once Meade Smith, Janell's father and coach, conned two freshman sprinters into running as a relay against her, but only to prove to Janell that she could run 440 yards.)