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Sara Beckord Swails
Iowa City, Iowa 
Rolfe High School Class of 1968

When Helen contacted me last summer to write an essay about my experiences as an athlete at Rolfe HS, I thought that I was just too busy and no one would be that interested. I was just starting the cross country season and my recruiting at the University of Iowa so I shelved it. But after reading the eloquent essays from my mother and Dave Loxterkamp, I realized what a treasure we have in this web site and perhaps I did have a story to tell.

I grew up with four wonderful and athletic brothers, Sydney, Bruce, Don, and John. Syd was my athletic idol. He could always make you feel better after a bad game. I always wanted to be smart like Bruce. Don and I fought like cats and dogs but as we grew older I admired his tenderness. John was my caring and younger brother. Because of our ages, he and I were a second family for my Mom and Dad. I hope I was a good sister to him. I was very strong-willed and always wanted my way. My Dad didnít call me "Sassity Jane" for nothing. Because of my brothers I was the ultimate tomboy. I remember at the age of five chasing Bruce down Elm Street with a baseball bat because he and his friends wouldnít let me play ball with them. I played some kind of sport every recess and after school until dark. In the summer I would bike all over town. It was a safe and peaceful childhood growing up in the 1950s. My mom and dad, George and Anita Beckord, worked hard to provide a loving home for us. All of us were expected to do our best and achieve in whatever we chose to do.

Because I grew up in a small Iowa community I was able to play sports starting in junior high. If I had grown up in Fort Dodge or Des Moines I would have been out of luck. In fact, in the early 60s, only three states in the U.S. had sports for high school girls - Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas. If there were any sports opportunities for women in other states, it was on a club level and very limited. Womenís track and field in America was in its infancy.

My first brush with competitive running came when Rolfe held its Centennial in 1963. I was thirteen then and went to the kidís races at the city park. After I had won all of the girlsí races, Mayor Calligan asked me if I wanted to run in the boysí races. I handily beat all the boys. The following year the girls track program was begun at RHS but cross country didnít appear until my junior year (1966-67).

When I was a freshman (1965) Coach Gilbertson took me down to the Drake Relays to qualify for the girlsí events. There were two events open to high school girls - the 100 yard dash and the 4 x 100 relay. I had never stepped into a set of starting blocks before. Luckily I was in one of the last heats so I watched how the other girls did it. I ended up one of the top eight so I was able to run the 100 final and was placed in one of the relays. The Iowa Girls High School Union placed twelve girls into three 4 x 100 relays and we ran against the Texas "Bouffant Belles" as they were called. The Texas girls teased their hair up high and wore low-cut uniforms. The Iowa girls were pretty scruffy in comparison. The Union didnít have proper track uniforms for us so we wore basketball uniforms that had been used in the girlís state BB tournament. Plus our old gray sweat clothes. We were quite a sight. But we won! That year I also went to the state meet where I placed 4th in the 200, 5th in the 100, and our sprint medley was 5th.

In my sophomore year (1966) maturity kicked in and my performance times dropped dramatically. There were 16 girls out for RHS girls track that year, but Brenda DeWall and I were the top scorers. We placed 4th at the state indoor meet and 3rd at the state outdoor meet. At that time in Iowa, girls were only allowed to run 1,000 yards in a track meet. Coach Gilbertson wanted to score points so I usually ran the 100, 200, and anchored the sprint medley with a 400. Brenda long jumped, ran the 60, and was either in sprint events or relays. This was the year when we started winning many meets and Rolfe became a powerhouse in Iowa girls track. (I hope Brenda writes in with more facts and stories.) At the state indoor I won the 4 lap dash and at the state outdoor meet Rolfe won the sprint medley.

Brenda and I also were invited to join the Iowa Track Club and compete at the USTFF National meet in Terre Haute, Indiana. (The Union bought nice new uniforms for us!) At that meet I ran prelims and finals in the 100 and 200 meters, long jumped, and anchored the sprint medley. Then I won the 400 and was second in the 800 with Iowa all time best performances. It was the first time I had attempted the 800. Over the course of two days I ran 11.7, 24.8, 56.9, 2:23 plus the relay. At this same national meet were some of the top male stars in track. Jim Ryun from Kansas asked me to hold his watch for him while he ran his race. I then watched him win the men's 800 in world record time.

The fall of 1966 brought my first season of cross country. In Iowa, the girlsí distance was 1ľ miles. I really didnít know how to train for it and I was runner-up. In the spring of my junior year I really was psyched. I started training two workouts a day, running the morning run around my personal track at home. It looped around the chicken houses, past the barn and the house. We had an early spring that year so it was delightful to run before school and hear the birds chirp. We had good state meets with a win for me in the 3 lap at indoor and we repeated the sprint medley championship. At the Drake Relays, the Union added the sprint medley and I was the anchor for the Iowa Track Club. It was a most exciting race. I remember it each year when I return to Drake. The second exchange was dropped and when I received the baton I was a good 50 yards behind. I took off like you know what and almost caught the Texas Southern runner. I can still hear the crowd roar as I was closing the gap. I anchored with a 56.0.

Olympian Wilma Rudolph was honored that year at Drake into their Athletes Hall of Fame. I was so taken with her. After the sprint medley race she came up to me and asked if I was the anchor. When I said yes, she told me, "You have a lot of guts. I canít run the 400 like that." It was the greatest compliment I had ever received and I cherish it.

The summer of 1967 also brought several national meets. I ran with the Iowa Track Club again in Albuquerque, NM where I won the 400 in 55.9. I went to the National AAU meet in California where I won the junior division 800. I started training and running the 800 more often that summer. I also started working with Lyle Knudson, an Olympic development coach, in Boulder, Colorado. Lyle was convinced that my chance of making the Olympic team was greater if I ran the 800. That summer I ran 2:12 in the National Jaycee meet in Des Moines. Lyle was a big influence in my life. I learned so much from him about competitiveness and training theory. I still call him for advice today as he is a coach for elite USA runners.

I returned from Colorado in the fall to begin my senior year. I easily won the cross country crown, coming off a summer of 800m training. Drake Relays was another good meet and at state outdoor I won the 400 meters in dreadful weather. RHS also won the team title. I returned to Colorado for another summer of training. I placed 6th in the Senior AAU Nationals in Denver so I was invited to the 1968 Olympic Trials. The Trials were held in late August at Mt. SAC in California. It was an exciting meet but no match for todayís trials. I ran the prelims and finals of the 800 all on one day, 2 hours apart. There were top-notch athletes but no spectators. Only coaches and parents attended. I have pictures of the empty stands. But I was proud and excited to be there and compete with the best. In the final I was in lane 5. Madeline Manning, the eventual Olympic champion in Mexico City, was in lane 4. She was so nice to me. Even though she didnít know me, she knew that I was the youngest in the field. Just before we walked to the start, she gave me a little hug. I was psyched but a little fearful too. I just remember telling myself that this had to be my best race. And it was. I ran 2:11.3 for fifth place. The top three runners made the Olympic team that year. The 3rd place finisher also qualified in the 400 and decided to run it instead so they took the 4th place girl. (Of the top five girls in that race, all but one is coaching today.)

I had reached the end of my high school days and started to reflect. Classmates John Rickard and Bill Post had received college scholarships for football that were well deserved. I didnít. Was this right? Had I not achieved as well? It was very disappointing for me. I was bitter and angry. There were no programs for athletes like me as Title IX had not arrived. Disappointed in failing to make the Olympic team, not meeting the expectations of others, and seeing no future in womenís track, I decided to hang up my spikes and become a normal college student at the University of Iowa. It needs to be understood that the late sixties was a time of national turmoil - civil rights and Vietnam. There were boys from Rolfe going to war. Somehow the issue of women in sports did not seem that important. It wasnít until the war ended and womenís liberation arrived that society began to change its views about the woman athlete. Title IX was a godsend but a bit too late for me.

In Rolfe I was an oddity in a town of conformity. Even though there was a great support for all the high school sports, no one, except for maybe Brenda and my family, really knew what this was all about. My other friends in school had their own interests. I was worlds apart and often felt very alone. No one had the slightest idea of the pressure I was feeling. After the Trials, Brenda was the only peer who called me. But life goes on for everyone and Iím not angry with that. Brenda is the only classmate I am in touch with today. Her son, Tim Dodge, is a Hawkeye standout in football and track so I see her at many of our meets. Brenda and I contributed 13 state championships to RHS! If we were both running today, we would be full-ride Division I athletes.

I appreciated all that the Rolfe Chamber of Commerce did for my teammates and me. At every national meet there was a telegram and some flowers. There were big "good luck" and "congratulations" sections in the local newspaper. They often gave us money to cover expenses. But my parents were my biggest fans. Dad would buy the team a malt at Calliganís whenever we had a good meet or game. Dad would drag the crushed clay track at school to keep the weeds out. Dad would whitewash the windows at Beckordís Hatchery and tell the town about the state championship news. Mom got up and ran with me in the morning (a picture of us running together was an AP wire photo). At the Trials, Mom was at the finish line to comfort her daughter. They traveled all over the country to see me run around a circle once or twice. Mom and Dad paid for most of my expenses. My only regret is that my dad didnít live long enough to see me in my present job. He would have been so proud.

I have had some "firsts" in my life that mean so much to me. I was the first girl in Iowa to be invited to the Olympic Trials in any sport. In 1968, I posted the top time in the nation in the 800m for high school girls. I was the first girl inducted into the Iowa Girls High School Track and Field Hall of Fame. And I was the first woman to coach a boyís team to a state title in any sport (Iowa City West HS).

Today I have come full circle. I coach womenís cross country and track at the University of Iowa. My athletes train on a 2 million-dollar Martin track. We have an indoor facility to use in the winter. We award scholarships to deserving young women every year. I have a personal Reebok contract. I have a dietitian, a sports psychologist, a weight trainer, and athletic trainer to help me in my program. We travel all over the nation with all expenses paid, including medical. My daughter signed a national letter of intent. It is another world. The younger coaches that I work with complain about the inadequacies and inequalities that still exist. I gripe too but have a deeper understanding of how far we have come. I have been a witness and a participant in the evolution of the womenís sports movement in America! If you look at my roster today you will see that some of my runners come from towns like Remsen, Spirit Lake, Nevada, and Wheatland. The small town Iowa girl will always hold a special spot in my heart. She will always be on my team.

And all of this happened to me because I was fortunate to grow up in a small Iowa town called Rolfe.

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