by Dr. Cathy Utzschneider
Picture this: a 1978 photo of Liberty Athletic Club (LAC) open runners – Junior and Senior National Cross Country Team Champions: Marilyn Fernandes, Lesley Welch, Thayer Plante, Patty Murname, Sande Cullinane, Kim Ginder, Lisa Welch, Paula Newnham, Lynn Jennings, Susan Hughes, Lorna Orleman, Suzanne Seiler, Jan Oehm, Alda Cossi, Dia Elliman, Joan Benoit, and Charlotte Lettis. Not pictured was the coach then, John Babington.
Lesley Welch, now Lesley Welch Lehane, who since became a world cross country champion, world record holder, Boston University’s women’s track and LAC’s adult coach, said she was typical of that group: “Every one of those girls was top in her event.”
Lehane and Babington are among LAC coaches whose names are synonymous with passion for running and racing: Bud McManis, LAC founder and coach; youth coaches Ken McKenna, Chris Anderson, and John Caputo; and adult coaches Bill Squires, Bob Hodge, and Mick Grant.
The Liberty Athletic Club (LAC) is legendary, both for its history and for the loyalty it inspires. Its history shows several shifts of emphases over the years reflecting developments in education, business, athletics, and demographics. Whereas LAC began as a club for girls, its membership today is entirely comprised of adults. These shifts mirror the growth in a) athletic opportunities for girls due to Title IX, b) the shoe industry and athletic sponsorships, and c) the masters running population over the past two decades.
LAC was started in 1948 as an athletic club for girls in various sports, including basketball and running, the main sport. McManis, a milkman from Lexington, recognized that girls had few athletic opportunities in schools and elsewhere. Focused on running, LAC became was the first female running club in the country. Firsts in any field make their mark in history, and running is certainly one that acknowledges firsts.
In the 1970s and 1980s, LAC’s “competitive heydey” for open runners, LAC became a magnet for New England’s top female runners. The first running boom was sweeping America. Title IX offering equal opportunities for females in sports had not fully taken effect in schools and colleges. Liberty offered two divisions, one for youth and one for high school, post-collegiate runners, etc.
During these decades youth runners were coached by Ken McKenna who led them to New England, regional, and national meets where LAC girls often placed in the top ranks. John Babington was hired as LAC coach of the high school and young adults runners in 1974. He stayed until 1993.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Liberty was a powerhouse of elite youth, high school, and post-collegiate runners – sprinters, middle distance runners, and marathoners.
“Our members included future Olympians Joan Benoit, Lynn Jennings and Judi St. Hilaire, as well as multiple national junior, collegiate and open champion Darlene Beckford (800, 1500, mile),” said Babington. “Jennings was the top American high school distance runner of her day, capturing AAU junior titles in track (1500 meters, 4 x 880 relay) and cross country in 1977, and remarkably winning the first Bonne Bell 10K for Women (now Tufts 10K) the same year. During this time, LAC were perennial New England AAU/TAC team champions in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. We also won our share of national team titles, including AAU senior women’s cross country in 1978 and 1979 and AAU junior women’s cross country a half dozen times beginning in 1976.” Liberty also won the team championship at the inaugural US women’s Olympic marathon trials in 1984.
“Running with the Liberty AC and being associated with so many talented, driven and ambitious women runners of all ages was my introduction to competitive middle-distance running,” said Olympic bronze medalist Lynn Jennings. “I was fortunate to be in the right place and time to have women like Darlene Beckford, Lesley and Lisa Welch, Joan Benoit, Nancy and Sande Cullinane and countless others as teammates. We pushed and pulled each other on tracks, roads and cross country courses all over New England and the United States. We were often a juggernaut of the best kind and there was nothing better than cheering on a fellow Liberty runner.”
A list of New England, regional, national, junior national, Junior Olympic, and Olympic successes by Liberty members was seen in 2000. It was about 20 pages of Excel spreadsheets.
Liberty’s membership began changing in the 1980s, when adults joined. “The adults were mostly mothers of youth members,” said LAC President Mary Harada. “They were tired of sitting around waiting for the girls to finish practice.”
Then, in the mid-1980s, many top elite runners began leaving Liberty, lured by shoe company endorsements and by high school and college running programs. “LAC gradually lost its ability to attract top national-class talent, but continued to perform well on the regional level,” said Babington.
Then more masters and post-collegiate runners joined. “Liberty’s masters runners took center stage, establishing a tradition of national and international success which continues to the present,” said Babington.
While Liberty membership includes motivated open runners, most members today are masters. Members range from those in their 20s to the late seventies and enjoy intergenerational support. The masters membership is deep, talented, and team-oriented – motivated by Harada, who’s set three world records in her 70s. More than 15 of its current masters members have set World or American age-group records as individuals or in relays. Since 2006, members have won 35 national age-group masters titles in distances from 800 meters to the marathon. Liberty women have swept the 40s, 50s, and 60s team titles at the 2008 and 2010 New England Cross Country Championships, and have frequently won or finished in the top three of their age groups at Freihofers, the Boston Marathon and at the Mount Washington Road Race.
The most recent shift in emphasis is the closing of the youth division in 2011. Anderson, youth coach from 2001 to 2011 (an 1984 Olympic Trials race walker herself), found success coaching 35 girls, some of whom went to regionals, New Englands, and even nationals. In her last years, however, she found that the growth of girls soccer and lacrosse edged out interest in and time for track. “Families with two working parents found it hard also to get their daughters to practice,” she said.
Like Liberty’s history, Liberty loyalty is unparalleled. Members and coaches stay in touch. As age-group world record holder (400 meters) Carolyn Cappetta said, “The friendships and training with Liberty coaches and teammates completed my love for running and has stayed with me even today at age 76 and counting.” Anderson may no longer be coaching, but she’ll attend the next Liberty gathering. Many like Karen Lein, Carrie Parsi, and Sandy Hayes have been members for decades. Andrea Hatch (who’s run 35 consecutive Boston Marathons) and Jane Rasmussen (who’s run every Tufts 10k since it was the Milk Run) live out of state and are still members. Harada has been with Liberty since 1985. Dr. Alda Cossi, pictured in that 1978 photo, is a Liberty member again.
Thinking forward, Liberty may be coming full circle, looking at developing its younger, post-collegiate membership again. Liberty is offering new training programs for all-female races like the Tufts 10K. Another shift may be coming up….