Sports Women's Sports

How Branwen Smith-King helped create women’s track and field at Springfield

By Jack Margaros
@JackMargaros

The shot put is one of the greatest tests of strength in an athlete.

The field event was developed in the late 1800s in the Olympics – they wanted to identify the strongest athlete of the group. 

It involves the use of all limbs. In one technique, known as the spin, athletes viciously twirl their bodies to reach maximum torque before hurling a weighted metal ball (referred to as a put) into the air.

With their back turned to the field, put in hand, the athlete presses their hand against the side of the neck to load up — the opposite hand stays parallel to the put.

The right foot twirls around and plants, squaring the body to the field. Momentum spins the body rapidly 360 degrees, just in time to plant the left foot before the boundary line and shoot. 

It’s a motion that happens so quickly and fluidly that it’s almost impossible not to nearly fall over after the put is airborne. 

This flurry of power and speed became almost second nature to Branwen Smith-King, one of Springfield College’s most accomplished and influential athletes. 

Dating back to the ‘60s, women have been involved with track and field on Springfield College’s campus. 

None were better than Smith-King. 

***

Initially, Smith-King did not specialize in the shot put. Truth is, she hated it. 

“It was my least favorite event, but I loved track and field so much,” she said.

Smith-King gravitated toward any and every sport growing up in Bermuda. In addition, to track and field, she played field hockey, basketball, netball, and even rode horses at one point. 

“I was always included,” Smith-King said. “We had girls teams, but we would always kick the boys out of the gym to go play volleyball. There were never any gender differences to me. I didn’t feel differently because I was a girl.”

Her two brothers and cousins next door lived outdoors from sunrise to sunset. Aside from sports, the group “ran hills, climbed trees, went on the boat to fish and pick mussels” — a storybook childhood.

At the end of a successful boat trip, they’d take turns diving off cliffs. 

“That’s the childhood I knew,” Smith-King fondly recalled. “I don’t think my parents knew what I did with my brothers out in dad’s boat.”

As high school came around, Smith-King’s passion for track and field intensified. She became a member of the Bermuda National Track and Field Team and her trajectory pointed towards becoming an Olympian.

She was the first in her country to win a gold medal at an international competition — the shot put (ironically) at the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) Games in 1973. She set national records in the shot put (still holding the indoor record), pentathlon, discus, long jump, and 100-meters. Her daughter Arantxa, an Olympian, broke her mother’s long jump record in 2012 with a jump of 6.52 m.  

Smith-King also competed in the Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia, in 1971 as a 15-year-old and attended the Olympic Youth Camp at the 1972 Munich Games.

She was a gifted jumper but injured her knee to the point of requiring surgery. After graduation, Smith-King was set on studying Physical Education, so she applied to Springfield College.

***

Women’s varsity sports were implemented at Springfield in 1964. The College was considered progressive at the time, fielding women’s basketball and field hockey teams among a small group of others. 

However, one thing that had not attained varsity status when Smith-King arrived on campus in 1974 was track and field, which raised the question in her head:

What do you mean there’s no track team for women?

There was the Cherokee Women’s Track Club, created in 1973 by David Harrington. 

“I was actually kind of pissed off about it, because I knew what I had experienced growing up in Bermuda,” Smith-King said.

Even though Title IX, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, was passed two years before Smith-King’s arrival to the States, there was still some disconnect among colleges and universities.

A track club was not good enough.

Especially when, on the other side, the men were enjoying the amenities of school sponsorship. It was unfair, and Smith-King was not about to tolerate four years of it. 

***

Smith-King befriended her freshman roommate, Sue North-Patterson, immediately in ‘74. Another girl named Betsy created a trio in Abbey Hall — stuffed into a room meant for two. 

“We couldn’t have been more different,” North-Patterson said. “Not a lot of the triples stayed together but we did for the whole year.”

North-Patterson was fascinated by Smith-King’s accomplishments back home. She viewed Smith-King as a world-class athlete.

Smith-King was uncommonly strong.

North-Patterson remembered one instance freshman year when the pair was traveling off campus and they saw a car stuck in the mud.

They were asked for help, though Smith-King initially declined in fear of ruining her shoes. North-Patterson obliged. 

As the group struggled to extract the multiple-ton car, Smith-King became impatient. 

She went over and lifted the car herself.

Nonchalantly, Smith-King continued walking down the street. Shocked, North-Patterson said to herself, I’m never messing with her.

Smith-King started lifting weights when she was 15. Early on, she tried to workout in Springfield’s weight room, but was denied entry. Women were not granted access at the time.

One day, she convinced a male athlete to let her sneak in. At first, she was greeted with mean stares and disgust, but she didn’t care. 

As Smith-King started throwing around large amounts of weight (sometimes double what some men were doing), she was accepted. Eventually, the weight room became integrated. 

“That was the end of that story…I remember that specifically – they were cheering for me.”

Smith-King and North-Patterson each joined the Cherokee Track Club freshman year with the intention of elevating the team to varsity status before they graduated. At the time, women’s sports were not sanctioned by the NCAA, rather by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).

This made it possible for the club to compete against varsity opponents such as Harvard, UConn, Dartmouth and other big schools across the Northeast. 

There was no official schedule. No matching tracksuits. Not even a school-sponsored method of transportation. Just a group of about 20 women coached by a graduate student, Earl Church. 

Yet, the Track Club couldn’t lose. 

“We crushed everyone,” North-Patterson said. 

Smith-King added, “We had some national-caliber athletes in all disciplines. These women were just as dedicated as I was coming out of high school and that was really my sisterhood.”

In the 1975-76 season, five members of the team qualified for collegiate nationals, indoor and outdoor, according to an article published by The Springfield Student in May of 1976. 

For a club that was 100 percent fundraiser-driven, they could not afford to go. 

North-Patterson was understandably disheartened when The Student quoted her in ‘76.

“What use is it? If I qualify, I can’t go.”

The Track Club raised funds through bake sales in the cafeteria and t-shirt sales. One shirt in particular, that sold out instantly, read “Runners are better lovers.” 

They went to compete at Dartmouth in ‘78 with the men’s team. They were told to travel separate – the men in buses, the women dispersing into minivans.

Smith-King and North-Patterson ended up qualifying for the finals the next day. They attempted to stay overnight with the men but were told it was “improper,” so they went back to campus with the women’s team.

Needing to travel 125 miles back to Dartmouth within the next ten hours, Smith-King and North-Patterson decided to take the city bus. 

Although that could only take them so far. They would have to hitchhike the rest of the way. 

Around 8 a.m., they hitched a ride from campus to the bus station in downtown Springfield. From then, the bus took them to white river junction. With five miles left, they caught one more ride to Dartmouth.

All of this occurred while the infamous Blizzard of ‘78 (a snowstorm that produced nearly four feet of snow and 85 mph winds in the Northeast) was just getting started.  

“We didn’t think anything of it,” Smith-King said, going on to say that today, it would have been nearly impossible to pull off something like that. 

Smith-King laughs as she recalls these memories. It was a testament to the women’s dedication and perseverance.

Men’s and women’s sports had separate athletic directors until later in that fall semester of 1975. They were brought together by Dr. Ed Steitz, who served as the all-encompassing athletic director. 

Once that occurred, administrators determined that the Cherokee Track Club could no longer be a club, according to an article published in February of 1976 by The Student

The Student also reported that the group was met with tension when Smith-King returned to campus at the beginning of the semester. Now that the club label was shed, administrators demanded they change their name. 

The term “club” insinuated that they were school-sponsored. For liability purposes, the club could not have any affiliation with the College. 

So for the 1975-76 school year, the women were known as the Maroon Striders. 

That same year a petition surfaced, pushing to make the group an official varsity team. It received over 150 signatures. Eventually, it got to the point where the Striders were prepared to file a Title IX lawsuit against Springfield if they weren’t school-sponsored by the 1978 season (Smith-King’s senior year).

“There was always an excuse (not to give us a team),” Smith-King said. “I wouldn’t say (Steitz) didn’t have empathy for us, but he was very traditional.”

She continued, “We were striving for equal opportunity…I give the administrators a lot of credit for taking a lot of the crap they took from us.”

The threat of a lawsuit rightfully shifted the administration’s stance. By the end of the school year, The Student reported the women were told that there was “a very good chance of getting a school-sponsored team starting next year.”

***

Finally, the Springfield College women’s track team began its inaugural season in the spring of ‘77 – a year earlier than anticipated. 

“Sue and I – the things we did for the love of our sport,” Smith-King began.

She paused, slowly shook her head, and reflected for a moment. Looking back, she didn’t realize the legacy she was about to leave.

“I really admire my teammates for sticking by their gumption and pursuing what we all thought was the right thing to do.”

Church stayed on as the head coach for the 1977 season, then Springfield recruited Harry Marra, the legendary coach of decathlon world record holder Ashton Eaton but largely unknown at the time, in ‘78. 

Smith-King was puzzled when she couldn’t find any information about her new coach. She subscribed to just about any track and field news that was available. Marra, however, knew everything about Sue and Branwen’s national rankings in the mile and shot put, coming all the way from UC Santa Barbara. 

Smith-King and North-Patterson were initially not sold on Marra as a coach. When they’d heard he arrived on campus, they immediately marched to his office to interrogate, feisty as ever. The poor man hadn’t even had time to settle into his new office before he was greeted:

What do you know about track and field? Who are you to be able to tell us what to do?

“Well, after about 30 seconds, we’re like ‘Okay we’re fine, we’re good,’” Smith-King said.

Marra, on his flight from California to Springfield, meticulously studied film and became familiar with his new team fairly quickly. He captivated the women with his knowledge, immediately pointing out errors in North-Patterson’s running and Smith-King’s throwing. 

“Their jaws just about dropped,” Marra said. “Right there, trust was established.”

From the spring of ‘77 through ‘78, the Springfield College women’s track and field team continued its dominance, led in large part by Smith-King and North-Patterson. 

In its first official meet as a varsity squad, Springfield defeated Rhode Island, 84-34, with a handful of women already punching their ticket to the regional competition. 

Smith-King became the first two-time shot put champion at the Eastern Track and Field Indoor Championships in 1978. One-shot flew 48 feet, 3.5 inches, which was the third-best throw in the country at the time and set a record at Springfield College that remains the longest standing women’s track and field record to date. 

Smith-King also clinched All-American status her senior year in both indoor and outdoor shot put. She won the event twice at the Penn Relays and New England Indoor and Outdoor championships. 

Needless to say, the transition from jumping to throwing was seamless. 

“She would go to warm up and she’d throw some 40 feet in her warm-up and the rest of the girls would shake their head and walk away,” North-Patterson recalls.

After graduation in 1978 (a ceremony that Smith-King and North-Patterson almost missed because of a track meet), the lessons learned at Springfield College built the foundation for her career in sports. 

Smith-King went on to coach at Tufts University and eventually became the Assistant Athletic Director. All told, she spent 36 years at the University, coached 13 national champions and more than 50 All-Americans, and remained steadfast in her commitment to elevating women into positions of power. 

Originating in 2017, when Smith-King retired, Tufts dedicated a yearly track meet in her name — the Branwen Smith-King Invitational. Springfield College is a proud competitor. 

Currently, Smith-King is back home in Bermuda, where she plans on staying, serving as the Secretary-General of the Bermuda Olympic Association. Her goal is to create more funding for youth sports to develop their athletes. 

Reflecting on her time in the States, a lot stands out. 

Nothing, though, compares to her years at Springfield: a long and determined fight for equity that yielded the school’s first women’s track and field team.

Photo: Springfield College Archives 

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