The Complete Story of the UT Women’s Cross Country Team

An exhausted Sandy Blakeslee after running in the 1985 Southwest Conference Championships.

One Sunday this past December, Texas women’s cross country assistant coach PattiSue Plumer settled in at her dining room table in downtown Austin to Zoom with her athletes. The table was new, purchased precisely for this purpose—virtual coaching—and so was the apartment. She had recently moved to one of the freshly vacated, more spacious lower-level units within her complex to avoid catching COVID-19 on her daily elevator ride down from the 26th floor.

Plumer always arrived early to these weekly meetings with her team, so she was momentarily staring back at her own reflection as she sipped from a can of Berry La Croix. These careful adjustments to everyday routines defined her year, and as the squares appeared with her runners—Maddie Vondra, with a giant Longhorn emblem painted on the wall behind her, Beth Ramos with a cat meowing faintly offscreen, and Kathryn Gillespie, who occasionally cast her eyes down to study—Plumer led the discussion. They went over what the team did well that season, what went wrong, and what could be improved.

Everyone glanced at each other for a bit before anyone spoke up; they were all unsure of exactly how to unpack the last year. Plumer jotted their notes down on a whiteboard. She was pleasantly surprised when she quickly ran out of space for items in the “Good” column: “team culture strong despite COVID, stayed healthy throughout, stayed flexible and open to changes, worked hard despite uncertainty.” 

Nothing about the season was normal, but somehow they felt closer to each other than ever before, and the mood was one of quiet celebration and gratitude. They plugged away through masked practices, outdoor weight training, and virtual classes for the fall semester. The team felt lucky to have achieved a plethora of personal records and to have finished second in the Big 12. Instead of harping on what could have been, the runners looked back fondly on the difficult year they had weathered together and agreed that the best way to make it through the upcoming fall season—another uncertain one—was to band even closer together.

Cindy Tolle is helped by teammates Karol Davidson and Juliet Cuthbeth at the finish line of the 5,000 meter race at the 1985 Texas Invitational.

To tell the story of the Longhorn women’s cross country program, which didn’t exist until the 1970s, it’s necessary to delineate the role of Title IX in its genesis. Passed in 1972, the groundbreaking law prohibited federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against students or employees based on sex. While it didn’t require equal funding for women’s sports programs, Title IX, a follow up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was meant to provide equal access and opportunity for women’s athletics. It’s thanks in part to Title IX that the sport emerged from hiking clubs that were sporadically active beginning in the 1920s, and from “long distance hiking”—a course offering for women in the Physical Training department in the College of Arts and Sciences in 1934-—to a powerhouse, All-American producing program coached by former Olympians.

Before winning four Southwest Conference championships in the late 1980s, clocking nearly 20 NCAA appearances, and putting together a long list of All-Americans and runners who went on to professional running careers, the team existed as part of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which governed collegiate athletics for women in the United States from 1971 until 1982.

Back then, there was little funding dedicated to women’s sports, least of all cross country—not a moneymaker—which can primarily only afford scholarships for the highest performing recruits. Following Title IX, however, The University of Texas became a forerunner; there was a push to hire women’s coaches and administrators and to drum up funding for women’s teams. Those concerted efforts made all the difference for the program.

The first major change came in 1975, when 28-year-old AIAW president, Donna Lopiano, became UT’s first permanent director of women’s athletics. Less than a month into her tenure, Lopiano testified against a proposed amendment to Title IX—the Tower Amendment—that would exempt revenue-producing sports like football from regulations. She spent 18 years at the university fiercely advocating for young women to have equal athletic opportunities and demanding nothing but the best from her hires. “If you’re not in the top 10, goodbye,” she once said at a press event.

The women’s cross country team had moderate success during its time in the AIAW. The inaugural team was led by head coach Jack Daniels from 1974-78, but the first mention of its existence in the Cactus yearbook came in 1977, a documentation of the team’s 12th place finish at the 1976 AIAW National Championships in Wisconsin. The team followed that with an injury-riddled 1977 season where they finished 16th. Coached by Phil Delavan in 1978, the team earned state and regional titles, but finished 16th at nationals once again.

Then, in the early 1980s, a few things happened. Delavan guided the women to 12th at the 1981 National Championships with a roster Texas sportswriters called “the best crop of recruits that UT ever had,” according to that year’s Cactus. Coach Terry Crawford was then recruited from Tennessee after leading the Lady Vols to the 1981 AIAW Outdoor National Championship. While she’d spent her entire life in Tennessee, taking over UT’s program appealed to her on a fundamental level—she was passionate about coaching and opening doors for women athletes, and saw Texas as a leader in supporting women’s programs financially.

Then the women’s team joined the men in the NCAA and Southwest Conference during the 1982-83 season; the NCAA, feeling threatened by the AIAW, put steps in place to weaken the AIAW, allowing the NCAA to absorb the women’s teams. The biggest change to the program? They started winning.

Crawford inherited a strong group of women who had been recruited by her predecessor Delavan, including Trina (Painter) Leopold, a junior-college transfer with a “veteran mentality,” and All-Americans Annie (Bennett) Schweitzer, Liz Natale, and Sandy Blakeslee. She pushed them even further, learning as she went—she had a master’s degree in human physiology, and called herself a “student of the sport.” Crawford took seriously the pursuit of knowledge about kinesiology and running. She met monthly with men’s coaches on campus to discuss training plans and ideas over lunch and encouraged her runners to understand the science of their sport as well.

“I was possessed with learning everything I could in my early years of coaching, and becoming the best, most knowledgeable coach that I could,” Crawford says. “I didn’t want my athletes to be in a position to be guinea pigs.” Women who ran under her remember Crawford as intense, not one to sugarcoat anything, and a believer in developing the total athlete.

She remembers her team as a mature group, and so connected that they routinely ate breakfast together before 6 a.m. practices.

“By the time 1986 rolled around, we had a great nucleus of athletes advancing in our cross country team,” Crawford says. “It was sort of like all the stars lined up that year.”

And yet, Crawford left very little to chance. Every detail she could manage, she did. The team—made up of several women who led UT to fifth place at nationals the previous year—competed in Tucson early in the season to get acquainted with the course. They then faced off with two-time defending NCAA champion Wisconsin and beat them on their home turf.

“We knew they were shooting for a championship as much as we were,” Crawford says. “So early on, we went to Wisconsin to compete against them at a big invitational and that put some of our Texas athletes in a different environment: in Madison, Wisconsin, at the end of October, freezing at the start line, after leaving Austin at 85 degrees.”

Crawford even sent an assistant to run the nationals course with a camera. Back in Austin, the team watched the video, strategizing about every curve and slope of the golf course terrain. The elevation varied considerably, and there were hard surfaces, then grass, and a long strip of sand before the final 1,000 meters of the 6K course. They arrived early for the November 24 race so they could continue studying the Canada Hills Country Club course. They practiced it on Thursday, jogged it again on Friday as a warmup, and then walked it together to gain an intimate familiarity, stopping along the way to discuss each slight terrain change.

“I could almost go home and dream about it,” Crawford says. She ordered special new all-black uniforms that the women hid under their warmups until the last moment, for a surprising reveal as they clustered inside their starting box and waited for the pistol to fire. The competition, so accustomed to chasing their trademark burnt- orange briefs, would not find it so easy to set their sights on Texas.

Schweitzer was expected to lead the pack. She had won the conference meet the year prior, hadn’t lost all season, and was on target for an individual win at nationals. But she tripped in the sand and rolled her ankle, slowing her down to a 19th place finish. “I felt, you know, poor little me, and I wanted to stop. I had to take a breath and go, My team is trying to win this thing. What are you doing? Get your little tail up and get going! It wasn’t stopping me,” Schweitzer says. When the team flew back to Austin that night, the Tower was glowing orange; they’d won the team’s first and only women’s national title by two points.

After leading her team to three consecutive conference victories from 1985-87, Crawford left Texas in 1992. It happened to be the same year Lopiano helped change the history of women’s sports forever. When men’s and women’s rowing club coach, Jeff Gardner, requested to upgrade the club to varsity status, she had to tell him there was no money to make that happen, but she gave him the number of an Austin lawyer named Diane Henson who might be able to help. Gardner made the call, and with his support, seven female athletes filed a class action lawsuit against the university for violating Title IX. Their win resulted in more spots and scholarships for women and the addition of more women’s sports to the lineup.

The Southwest Conference crumbled in 1995, and Texas joined the Big 12 the following year. After Crawford, the team didn’t qualify for nationals again until 1998, where they placed 29th, and there hasn’t been a Big 12 Conference title to date. They came close in 2011 when they finished second to Iowa State, and in 2019, narrowly losing the title to Oklahoma State by two points. Plumer is determined to change that.

Beth Ramos at the 2020 Big 12 Cross Country Championships

It’s not uncommon for teammates to form strong bonds, to become friends who buoy each other both on the race course and in life, and it’s not so unusual for a coach to operate the way Terry Crawford did, or the way the Longhorns’ current coach, Plumer, does today. But the tightness of the team, and the manner and methods of the coaches stand out from a stereotypical coaching style, often and particularly exhibited by men who coach women runners.

Of course, there are fantastic male coaches, and the Longhorn women have been lucky enough to be coached by some of the greatest, including John Hayes, Len Klepack, Brad Herbster, Stephen Sisson, and Delavan, who is written about glowingly in the Cactus. Delavan, according to yearbook staff, “took a philosophical approach with his team rather than showing anger … he stressed dedication, perseverance and academics … his friendly attitude toward his team created a strong feeling of camaraderie, which has helped in the team’s success.” But it bears mentioning that some of the winningest coaches in the history of UT women’s cross country have been the few women at the helm, namely Crawford and Plumer.

In the running world, there’s a well-known coaching style stereotype: high mileage, high intensity, and no exceptions or modifications whatsoever. Coaches generally build a plan for a couple of top athletes, and if the plan injures anyone else, so be it. Only five extremely fast runners are needed to score in a cross country race, so this type of coach doesn’t mind the consequences of fully focusing their energy on the few at the expense of the many. By contrast, Plumer takes a holistic approach, and tailors her training to the individual and the environment, specifically the Texas heat. The woman who was once a Stanford team walk-on has a vision for refining less developed athletes.

“I don’t have the luxury of lots of kids,” she says. “I can’t recruit the top 10 girls to try to get to one. I might have three girls, and I need to get them as successful as possible.”

UT Track & Field head coach Edrick Floréal, who brought Plumer on board to coach women’s cross country, coached with her at Stanford, and has known her since her days as an Olympian, when she competed alongside his wife, LaVonna Martin-Floréal, an Olympic silver medalist in the 100-meter hurdles. He describes Plumer as a fierce, bad-to-the-bone competitor—a mentality she brings to her coaching.

“She would do everything legal or ethical, but you’re gonna get the business if you’re competing against her,” he says. “It was important to get somebody that could instill that in our women. And I like the way she treats them, the way she spends time with them, and is concerned about who they are and what they do.”

 That concern and interest in her athletes is indeed one of the strengths Plumer is well known for; pre-pandemic, her calendar was full of meetings in her compact office, conversations that rarely covered running. The coaches have a joke: “We have to take CPR and first aid and concussion training and heat training and pretty much everything you could think of even though we have a full medical staff,” Plumer says, “but we should all be trained as psychologists.” She keeps her team on relatively low mileage plans, tailored to each athlete, and pays attention to consequential details in their lives like schoolwork and relationships that might be causing stress and anxiety.

Plumer often has the women practice sprinting at the tail end of an already tough practice to prepare them for the final stretch of a race, when your kick must outpace your exhaustion. But if someone isn’t feeling well, or something is off, she isn’t afraid to step back and modify the workout so each individual benefits from it. 

That empathy and interest in her athletes’ lives doesn’t mean she’s easy on them. Part of her coaching philosophy is the concept of training to race, not to be in great shape.

“I know that they sound very similar, but I feel like a lot of times we don’t even think of ourselves as competitors,” she says. “We’re not runners, we’re racers. Your goal is to be the best racer you can be to run at conference, at nationals, to have the best race that you could have.”

During a season unlike any other, where over a dozen football players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 and the last game of the season was cancelled due to concerns about the virus, the cross country team has had no publicly reported cases thus far. In terms of practicing and racing, cross country had it fairly good—there’s relatively low risk of transmission while running outdoors, especially masked.

In the fall, the team came back with varying levels of fitness after a strange summer spent at home. The athletes who had access to full gyms and safe trails were able to train normally, but situations varied widely. Typically, the team travels to a high altitude, mountain weather locale like Park City, Utah, for a weeklong training camp before classes begin in August, but it wasn’t an option this year. Back on campus, they couldn’t take vans to practice on trails outside the city, and were not allowed on the track, so they were limited to Lady Bird Lake Trail and the surrounding area, and made use of UT’s newly built Eddie Reese Outdoor Pool for cross training. The team, however, felt like they were closer than ever after having gone through this abnormal season together.

Though it was a short and surreal season that included a chartered flight to the Big 12 meet, and required refraining from the usual enthusiastic hugging, high fiving, and shared jubilation at the finish line, the Longhorns made short work of their rivals at a small meet in College Station to open the season and narrowly took second at the Big 12 Championships in Lawrence, Kansas. Some of the women hadn’t competed in quite a while due to the cancellation of the 2020 Indoor Nationals Championships and the entire outdoor track season. But by the time the Big 12 Championships rolled around, it didn’t matter that everyone had spent the summer training under different circumstances—the whole team was seeing progress. 

Ramos, the first Longhorn finisher, and sixth place runner overall, improved her personal best by about a full minute this fall. That’s a tough feat, as even seconds of improvement are hard to come by when you’re running in the 16-17 minute 5K range.

Plumer also attributes much of the team’s success to senior Maddie Vondra, whose determination was contagious. As a sophomore, Vondra was okay with not placing in the top five for the Longhorns.

“The, I’m not super talented, but I’m gonna work hard and make the team better because of my work ethic kind of thing,” Plumer says.

But her mentality has shifted since she first arrived as transfer from Texas A&M follwing her freshman season. Vondra remembers competing in the cold at the pre-nationals meet in Wisconsin that year and talking to the equipment manager.

“If we qualify for nationals, I’ll need better gloves and a hat,” she told him.

He replied that it wasn’t a matter of “if,” but “when,” and that changed Vondra’s mindset.

This season, she trained with Ramos almost every day, and despite being the team’s fifth runner at conference, it wasn’t because she had a bad race.

“I think her being successful at the end opened everybody else’s eyes to the potential of being successful. And so people were better because she was better,” Plumer says.

By fall 2021, it seems reasonable that the team can hope for more than their health and strong fellowship. They might be able to angle for cross country’s first Big 12 Conference win. Gillespie, a master’s student with no more eligibility, along with seniors Vondra and Claudine Blancaflor (who placed 13th at conference), won’t be returning, but there’s Ramos, a junior, along with sophomore Ava Peeples (12th), and freshman Gracie Morris (15th) who Coach Plumer believe have it in them to not only win the conference, but the national title, which they didn’t get the chance to try for this year—NCAA National Championships were cancelled.

“I’ve always got my hopes up. I just want to get that conference title, get a triple crown, hopefully,” Ramos says. “I think I’m gonna be like Maddie— I don’t think I’m going to take my fifth year. I think next year will be my last, but I am so looking forward to it. I really believe in our team.”

Photographs from the Cactus yearbook (2); Big 12 Conference/Denny Medley


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