Liberty Athletic Club: 70 Strong Years of Women's Running

Liberty Athletic Club: 70 Years of Excellence in Women's Running

Liberty Athletic Club celebrated its 70th Anniversary this past weekend. Innitially founded in 1948 to combat sexism and inequality in athletics, Liberty reamins an all womens club today.

 Liberty AC (LAC) traces it roots back to pre Title IX America, when opportunities for women in sports were limited. During this time, men were able to compete in almost any sport they pleased, while women were forced to sit on the sidelines. Liberty’s founder, Ken McManis, noticed this disparity and founded Liberty to battle this inequality. Initially founded to provide opportunities for women of all ages in many sports, Liberty soon focused its efforts on running and track and field. When the running boom hit in the late 1970’s, Liberty saw its membership take off, as female runners from all ages laced up their shoes to give our great sport a try. Among those looking to make their name in a sport dominated by men were Olympians Lynn Jennings, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Judi St. Hilaire, Darlene Beckford-AAU National Champion.

These women set national records and helped slingshot LAC into the national conversation. Soon enough, the club saw growing numbers of youth participants and increased interests from master’s women. Liberty became an inter-generational club, serving the needs of youth and master's runners alike. This structure developed a mentorship type program, where all types of runners supported each other in their endeavours. Liberty became more than a running club, it became a family. Today, Liberty AC mostly serves post-collegiate and masters athletes. The days of sponsoring Olympic caliber athletes have passed, swooped up by large running shoe company contracts. USATF New England reached out to some current members to ask a few questions.

Participating in this interview are Alda Cossi (AC), a long time member, Drusilla Pratt-Otto (DO), current Liberty Club President, and club members Mary Kate (MK) and Mary Hareda (MH). Also answering a question is Liberty Coach, John Barbour.

1. Liberty was founded to promote women’s sports in the 1940s. Entering 2018, one can say the world has changed, but there is still work to do. What are some of the things that Liberty AC does today to help promote women’s running?

AC: In some ways the world has changed since Liberty was founded in 1948 and Liberty has evolved. But I look around and see many examples of how the world still continues to devalue women. Not just athletics but equal pay, corporate leadership, politics. Liberty, as an all women’s club, offers a different experience. It’s a supportive group of like-minded strong women. Liberty is multigenerational with athletes like Mary Harada who has set world records and, in her 80’s, is still competing. An example that you can age well, and stay active and engaged in life.

DO: We run at many races. We welcome all ages of runners to our club. Women come to try us out and tend to stay for the community and the competition. Liberty also fulfills a need for a club for women to run with that is not the top of the competition and which would not fit with many of our runners lives.

2. For the longest time, Liberty was the premier women’s running club in the country. International names such as Joan Beniot Samuelson and Darlene Beckford and Lynn Jennings have competed for the club in the past. To what extent did this past shape the current position (and future) of the club?

AC The runners you mentioned are the recent national, international and Olympic athletes that we know. But there are others who came before like Betty MacDonald, Amy Brown, Helen Shipley and others listed in “A History of American Women’s Track and Field, 1895-1980” by Louise Mead Tricard. Liberty has a long tradition of women’s excellence in track and field. As a group we have pride in our club and respect for each other as athletes. We are lucky to have John Barbour as our coach. He is knowledgeable and truly appreciates the history of running. It shows in his coaching and involvement with the women he coaches.

DO: The running world has changed enormously since this club was started. Women’s running is now a mainstream sport. The history of this club inspires every one of us to push ourselves to do races, events and levels of competition that we think is a stretch for all of us. We compete locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. This club also allows runners to participate at the level they can to balance out the other aspects of their life.

3. Can you talk about what it means to you, in 2018, to run for the oldest women's club in the country?

AC: I’ve been a member of Liberty off and on since after high school in 1973. Liberty has been there thru college, post collegiate, medical school, medical practice, family and now my retirement. Running, in general and Liberty, in particular has had different meanings to me at different times in my life but always part of my lifestyle. I’ve been lucky to be a runner and have been involved with this organization over the decades. John Barbour is a thoughtful person. He probably doesn’t remember but in one of his email reflections to the club that I wrote down and kept (email from April 4, 2018) he stated “But it is very easy to connect the effort we put into our running and the lives we aspire to lead, the people we aspire to be and become.” I like that sentiment.

MK: Not many running clubs can boast 70 years of supporting, coaching, and nurturing runners on the roads and track. To become part of that history is truly humbling and remarkable. We’re appreciative of the past and current efforts of everyone who has and continues to keep the Liberty spirit alive.

DO: At the 70th anniversary, we had 4 women in or close to their eighties. They talked about the exhilaration of learning how to run, compete and win in a world that had no idea that it was possible. They discovered their enthusiasm for the sport, and the positive determination to cut a new path, and the gratitude that they were able to do so. This was so inspiring for all of us to witness.

MH: I am not one of the longest term members of the club - a number joined some years before I did but what we share is a sense of pride in belonging to a club that has long promoted running and competition for women well before Title IX. Those of us who have been doing this for many years remember the days when there were few women runners. One of our members was a member of the first track team at Boston University open to women. As a graduate of Boston University I can tell you that when I was both an undergraduate and graduate student (3 degrees from BU) there were NO sports for women and there were no athletic facilities on campus for women. Title IX was passed in 1972 and it was some time before sports became open to females.

4. What is the biggest challenge facing Liberty AC today? How is Liberty tackling this issue?

AC: All of its members want to see Liberty continue as a club into the future and celebrate its 75th anniversary and beyond. I believe that the club will be there. There is a measurable decline in the total number of runners in the US compared to the “boom” years and there are more opportunities for women in a variety of sports. But each running club has it’s own “flavor”. There are sponsored shoe clubs for elite athletes and large clubs that sponsor big races and smaller coed clubs with local get together and non competitive running meet-ups (like The November Project). Liberty has a niche as an all women’s inclusive running club that promotes each woman to be the best she can be. That is all it aspires to be. I think there continues to be a relevance for an all women’s running club just as there is a relevance for other all women institutions such as all women’s colleges (like my alma mater Smith College). We are also lucky to live in New England where there is the tradition of local competitive running clubs that remains popular. I have lived in other parts of the country where running clubs did not exist

DO: In the last several years, we have begun to increase the number of runners in their 20’s and 30’s. Our challenge today is to compete in races at all age levels. We are beginning to do this. The age bracket which is hard to populate is the 40’s. This typically is when our runners are building carriers, raising children etc.

5. Today’s Liberty can be described as a club with a large focus on developing masters athletes. Can you talk about what the masters mean to Liberty, and the approaches Liberty takes in spreading running to the women’s master community?

AC: While master’s sport is not new, the recent boom in master’s sport is new. Research on master’s athletes and aging is even more recent. So little is actually known about performance with aging. I think that women master athletes often have preconceptions about their performance limits. As an intergenerational all-women’s running club, Liberty AC offers masters women athletes a chance to learn from each other and a knowledgeable coach with information about how to train and compete as a masters athlete. Older women athletes in the club are role models and teachers for younger women athletes. John Barbour is a knowledgeable coach who teaches from his own experience as a master’s athlete. Liberty women are actively involved in local, national and international competition and increasing the visibility of women master’s athletes.

MH: By the early 1990s shoe companies were sponsoring coaching and competition for post collegiate runners. They would provide coaches, uniforms, shoes, and for some - stipends for those who competed at a high level. Talented athletes were professionals who had sponsorship. Liberty runners tended to be older and running was a “hobby” not a profession. Younger runners gravitated to co-ed running clubs while those who remained or joined with Liberty were a bit older, had careers, families, and belonged to the club because of a shared interest in friendly competition.

MK: Finding a group of runners who span generations and age groups is beneficial in practice and in competition. When you know that one of your 60s teammates just ran a sub 6-min mile, a group of 50s just set a world best in the 4X1 mile, or a new open runner ran her first marathon, then you are motivated and encouraged to bring your best for the club despite your age. We are all circling the same track during a workout and age is an inspiration not a hinderance.

6. Liberty is planning a celebration for Sunday September 23rd. Can you talk about this celebration/event?

DO: The 70th Liberty Anniversary Celebration was a wonderful celebration and so reflective of the intergenerational wonderfulness we have as a club!! It was a time to celebrate where we have all come personally and to celebrate together and enjoy being a part of such a rich history.

To John Barbour: You are a very accomplished athlete, one who has competed internationally in the 1960s-1980s. During this time, Liberty AC was the powerhouse of Women’s running. Their women were just as talented as you and your teammates. How does it feel to now be the coach of this club?

Barbour: I had the opportunity to ruminate on this a bit at the anniversary event last night (Sept. 23 rd ). I mentioned opening a copy of Track & Field News in 1978 while still living in the SF Bay Area, and seeing a photo of a young high school phenom from Massachusetts. It was Lynn Jennings and she was wearing a Liberty uniform. It made an impression on me then and I never forgot it, especially after seeing more photos of runners wearing Liberty colors (Benoit, Beckford, Dillon et al). Years later when I came to New England I loved seeing Liberty colors at races, knowing that this was an all-women’s club with a deep history behind it. I noted that the women’s clubs that were around the Bay Area in my youth such as the San Jose Cindergals, Will’s Spikettes (such names!) and others, all of which produced Olympic-caliber athletes, are long gone now. I have had many, many rich experiences in the sport through the years, including seeing a bunch of world records and an Olympics, but not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would coach this remarkable club – one with a unique story that’s a precious part of the sport’s history both regionally and nationally as well as one that’s has a lot of determined, tough, high-quality citizen-runners on it today. ______________________________________________________________________________ The Following message is President Drusilla's address at the 70th anniversary:

My name is Drusilla Pratt-Otto and I am president of Liberty Athletic Club, ably assisted in all things by VP, Amanda Loomis or Loomis as we all know her!

First I would like to thank Viki Bok for hosting us in her home and coordinating the food for today’s event, with Amanda and Shadi and corralling many other Liberty runners to bring great stuff! – Exclusively from Shalane Flanagan’s’ cook books!

I want to welcome you all here. I am so grateful to be with you today to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Liberty athletic club. 

This has been part of my life for 10 years, the last several as President. The request that Loomis sent out for your favorite photo and two favorite things about Liberty, combined with a global search for photos, gave me a moment to reflect- in typical fashion, just in time, on Friday evening.

I found pictures of cross country and road races, short and long. Of people who still run with Liberty, of those who are no longer running and those who are no longer with us. Of a woman who suggested I go try out running on a track on Tuesday nights.

Liberty started as a place for girls and women to run when there was none. No women were allowed to run the marathon. When people saw women running long ago they would be asked if they needed help as surely they must be running away from something to be running at all. 

How far we have come or as they used to say, you’ve come along way baby! (Virginia Slims and first sponsor of women’s tennis.. What, you say?!!!!)

Today we run to compete, to be fully present physically, to engage in a sport that allows us to challenge ourselves to be our very best.

This time running together, and chatting all the while, gives us energy and clarity to bring back to our larger lives and the work we have chosen to do.

Liberty is also a community of strong women walking and running together through life. New members come to run and train with our excellent coaches. They stay for the comradery in competition and the warp and weft of community. We bear witness to those ahead of and behind us in life and all life’s milestones - graduations, weddings, pregnancies,  adoptions, children going off to college, moving to start new lives, walking with struggling emerging adults children, parents leaving this world and losing life partners.

We continue to have more blue out on the race circuit, with all age bands represented. More on that from our current coach John Barbour, in a minute!

For me personally, running with Liberty has taught me how to push myself, has taken me to world masters events in other countries, has taught me how to accept what my body will and will not do. To reach out to team mates to switch it up with my first sprint tri just before turning 60. 

We all have stories like this. 

LAC is like amoeba it expands contracts and reinvents itself to be a club for women to excel challenge and grow, whatever that may look like.
Interiew Conducted by Tommy Mazza on behalf of USATF New England
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