The Abilene 800 and The Birth of American Women’s Distance Running

Sixty years ago today, the history of women’s running in the U.S. began at the 1960 Olympic Track Trials

By Amby Burfoot
July 16, 2020

As the setting sun spread long shadows across the track at Abilene Christian University, Billee Pat Daniels reached into a wheelbarrow behind the start line and pulled out a battered starting block. It was 8:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 16, 1960, at the U.S. women’s Olympic Track and Field Trials. In a few minutes, Billee Pat and eight other runners would toe the line for the 800-meter final — the first at an Olympic Trials in 32 years.

Sixteen-year-old Billee Pat was a rookie in the 800, as were most of the other finalists. None had any inkling they were about to compete in arguably the most important US women’s race of all time. They couldn’t have realized this event would open the door to the future of women’s running.

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The Abilene 800 changed everything. It paved the way for women to run ever longer distances. It gave skinny white girls from the suburbs a reason to enter track meets. It launched several finalists into athletic careers that were among the most brilliant in American track and field history. It even, bizarrely enough, previewed the recent Caster Semenya controversy over differences of sexual development.

The runners had much to overcome. The prior Olympics, in 1956, included only three individual races for women: the 80-meter hurdles, the 100 meters, and the 200 meters. That had been the state of women’s Olympic running since 1928, when the Amsterdam Olympics first offered a women’s 800. Those runners responded spectacularly, with Germany’s Lina Radke setting a world record, 2:16.8, to edge out Japan’s Kinue Hitomi, 2:17.6.

However, male sportswriters falsely reported that most of the women collapsed grotesquely at the finish line, claiming this as evidence that women were too frail to run a half-mile. For example, the New York Times correspondent, Wythe Williams, observed that the race “plainly demonstrated that even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength.” As a result, the women’s 800 was dropped from subsequent Olympics until being reinstated in 1957 for the 1960 Rome Summer Games.

Women in sports never had it easy. They were banned from the ancient Olympics in Greece and got the same treatment from Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics that began in 1896. To include women, he said, would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” Thus the first seven editions of the reborn Olympics included no track and field events for women.

In the United States, there was virtually no coverage of women’s running, whether in the Olympics or in other competitions. In 1958, middle distance pioneer Grace Butcher wrote to Track & Field News, protesting its dearth of reports on women. The editor of the self-proclaimed “Bible of the Sport” responded: “Personally I can’t get very excited about girlish athletics. Maybe it’s the old fashioned streak in me. Or maybe it’s just that I’m so wrapped up in what the better known, more talented men are doing that there just isn’t emotional room for the ladies.”

Even the Amateur Athletic Union’s head of women’s track offered little support. Frances Kaszubski, a 6’2” many-time national champion in the discus and shot put, counseled 800 entrants of the late 1950s to play it safe. She instructed them to focus more on looking good than running fast, and to never collapse at the finish. Otherwise, women’s running could find itself back in 1928 again.

Against this backdrop, more than two dozen eager 800 runners made the long trip to Abilene, Tex., for the 1960 Olympic Track Trials — termed the “Fem Trials” by the Abilene Reporter-News. This is the story of three of the fastest and most influential.

***

Billee Pat Daniels’s childhood years in Murray, Utah, eight miles south of Salt Lake City, were marked by twists and turns that usually led to trauma. Even her name changed willy-nilly. She had grown up as Billee Baker. When she turned eight, she was informed that she had become Billee Pat Daniels. 

Sure, she understood that her Marine father, a decorated hero at Pearl Harbor, had died in the South Pacific when she was just two months old. Father and daughter never met. Her mother remarried a Mormon elder, and now Billee Pat was taking her stepfather’s name. But no one pulled her close to explain and offer soothing reassurance.

Not that it would have helped much. Too often, both her mom and stepdad abused her. She became, she recounts in her unpublished autobiography, Run Away, an expert in soaps. So many different types were smashed into her mouth. “Ivory tastes better than Lava,” she wrote, “but sweet-smelling Dial makes me gag.”

Billee Pat ran away from home for the first time at 10. She yearned to be strong and independent — to free herself from her hurtful parents. Looking around, she noticed that boys had more opportunities than she. They became her role models. “I wanted to be Superman, but never Lois Lane,” she says. “Tarzan, not Jane. Samson, and not that traitor Delilah.”

Her mother had other ideas. She pushed for her daughter to develop into a dancer or perhaps a beauty-pageant queen. Those were appropriate pursuits for a young woman. “Only man is like God once was,” Mom declared. “Only man may become like a God.”

Billee Pat did her best in school, hoping to keep her parents happy…and distant. In eighth grade she got A’s in every subject but physical education. That was strange, since she was clearly an excellent athlete. Her teacher had a ready explanation: “Billee Pat is too aggressive.”

Mom had no shortage of strongly-held prejudices. She taught her children that American Indians and African Americans were sinners. The proof couldn’t be more obvious, she explained. Why else would they have dark skin? When Billee Pat first expressed an interest in track and field, her mother immediately objected. She claimed the vaunted Babe Didrikson Zaharias was “queer,” and told her husband, “I don’t want Billee Pat associating with colored girls.”

Billee Pat discovered track in an unusual way, courtesy of her driver’s education instructor, who noticed she had to slide the driver’s seat farther back than his other female students. No wonder. At 15, she stretched to 5’11” and weighed 165 pounds. With such long, muscular legs, the teacher figured, she might become a good runner or jumper.

Her stepdad rarely encouraged any of Billee Pat’s interests, but he got excited about track. He had been on his college team. It was 1959 now, and people were already talking about the next year’s Olympics in the historic city of Rome. The 1960 Summer Games were shaping up to be the biggest and best ever. Right away, he told Billee Pat how exciting it would be to go to the Olympics.

She didn’t understand. Not really. In her mind, she formed a hazy picture of an event where a lot of things happen all at once — running, jumping, throwing. “Is the Olympics like the circus?” she asked her stepdad.

***

Doris Severtsen never had to develop a love for running: She was born with it. As soon as she could walk, family and friends noted the way she toddled about at top speed. If her mother turned around for even a moment, Doris disappeared. She’d scoot into the next room or perhaps behind the shed out back. Everyone sympathized with Mom Severtsen. “You’re going to have to tie a rope to Doris,” they suggested.

Fortunately, the family had many good outlets for an energetic child. The Severtsens lived on a 25-acre farm in Gig Harbor, Wash., on the shores of Puget Sound. The list of Doris’s daily chores was long: collect the eggs, haul water for the animals, bake bread, clean the house, hoe the vegetable garden, tend to the flower bed. Her father, a carpenter-boat builder, came from stern, no-nonsense Norwegian stock. He had an unstinting work ethic himself, and insisted on the same from his children.

Between school and chores, Doris had no free time until the late afternoon. Then, she could explore the woods and frolic along the beach. She often walked or ran several miles at a time; it didn’t feel the least bit unusual or difficult. “I loved the shore,” she recalls. “Once or twice, I happened upon a bear. He’d take off in one direction, and I’d run full speed in the other.”

Doris Severtsen, now known as Doris Brown Heritage

Most evenings, she practiced the French horn and listened to classical music with her parents. Or maybe a popular Broadway musical. But definitely none of that Elvis Presley nonsense that was sweeping the country. The Severtsens didn’t own a TV or go to the movies, and Doris wasn’t allowed to shake and shimmy at sock hops. Too frivolous. Her father would never approve.

Doris attended a two-room school about a mile from home. She usually ran the distance to school and back again. On weekends, the whole family took long hikes through the Olympic Mountains. “We lived in a beautiful area, and we spent a lot of our lives in the outdoors,” she says.

Around town, when her friends rode their bikes or horses, Doris would trot along on foot. She never thought about the extra effort involved. To her, running seemed a perfectly normal and natural way to get around.

In the mid-1950s, Peninsula High School didn’t have a girls’ track team; in fact, girls were not allowed to run on the track at any time. Doris would have liked to, but she knew better than to ask. She was the quiet type, inwardly-focused. She would never make waves or risk upsetting someone.

Still, everyone in Gig Harbor understood her passion for running. One day it was decided she should get a reward for all her hustle. The boys’ track team had an away meet; they were traveling to a rival school on a rickety old bus. Doris was invited to join them. “That was such a big thrill, to be on the bus with the boys,” she recalls. “I could never have imagined it.”

 ***

As a youngster, Judy Shapiro was so thin she couldn’t float. In a pool, she sank straight to the bottom. She had such bad scoliosis that her mother enrolled her in dance classes to improve her back health. This turned out well, as Judy mostly enjoyed the instruction, the music, the postures. Movement always made her happy.

She disliked just one thing. At some point, dance got competitive. And when it did, these competitions were based in part on subjective comparisons between the young participants. Judy hated being compared to her peers. “I had such a poor self image,” she says. “I didn’t have the Marilyn Monroe look that was the standard at the time. I didn’t like that we had judges evaluating us.”

Judy had been born in Brooklyn, the third child of two left-leaning Jewish parents. Her two older brothers had severe asthma, so the family moved to Tujunga, Calif., in the dry-air country northeast of Los Angeles. 

Life turned turbulent in the McCarthy era of the early 1950s when her father, an aeronautical engineer, was accused of harboring Communist sympathies. Nothing was ever proven, but he lost his job, and had to settle for another with lower pay and less purpose.

No matter how hard the times, however, her parents never deviated from their worldview: all for one, and one for all. The dinner table was often crowded with people Judy didn’t know, and her father taught her never to belittle a panhandler. “If someone puts out their hand, you put something in it,” he told her many times. “They wouldn’t be asking like that if they weren’t needing it.”

From her first days in school, Judy found the structure challenging. She lacked any talent for sitting still. She turned into the class clown and spent more time making jokes than she did in serious listening, reading, and writing. Her teachers sent letters home: “We can’t get Judy to be quiet and do her work.”

No one in her family played sports. Her parents put their energy into social and political activities, and the brothers were too wracked by their asthma. Judy needed a physical release and tried basketball.

The game had its appeal — lots of furious action up and down the court. But basketball had one big drawback that soon caused her to lose interest: girls were only allowed to play half-court ball. “It was so frustrating that they wouldn’t let us run from one end of the court to the other,” she recalls. “I was just getting going, and then we had to stop and turn back.”

In 1957, when Judy was 14, a girlfriend suggested they attend a local track practice. There was a small girls’ team at nearby Verdugo Hills High School, so getting there required no special effort. She and her friend attended a session where they joined a handful of much older girls who were sprinting, hurdling, jumping, and throwing.

Needless to say, the two newbies finished last in everything. That was enough for Judy’s friend. She couldn’t see any point in returning the next day. Judy did. She sensed almost innately that she had found a home. “I was so distracted when I was young,” she recalls. “Track gave me something to concentrate on. It forced me to channel my energy.”

 ***

After her family moved to Millbrae, Calif., Billee Pat entered her first track meet in 1959. She finished last in the 100. “Dead last,” she says. “I moved down the track more like a windmill than a runner.” She performed no better in the next event, the softball throw, and began berating herself. “I couldn’t even beat other girls,” she remembers. “I felt stupid for ever thinking I was good at sports.”

There was only one event left — the broad jump. Billee Pat had no idea how to sprint down the runway, plant one foot, and leap outward. A friendly black girl, Peggy, offered some hasty instruction. “C’mon, I’ll show you how to broad jump,” said Peggy.  “We’re broads, aren’t we?” 

When the competition began, Peggy took an early lead. Then came Billee Pat’s turn. She soared high into the air, cleared all the scuffed-up sand below, and landed in the smoothness beyond. An AAU official measured the jump, and announced Billee Pat had just broken the meet record.

The following January, Billee Pat attended an AAU track presentation where a speaker explained how special the Rome Olympics would be. For one thing, there was an exciting new event for women: the 800-meter run. “It will be our longest running race,” noted Roxanne Anderson, a retired hurdler. “We’ve been excluded from too many Olympic events for too long.”

Billee Pat didn’t pay much attention. Why would she? She was a jumper and sprinter. But several months later, her coach, Ed Parker of the San Mateo Girls AA, sat her down for a serious discussion. “You should try the 880 [yards],” he said. “You’re too young to beat the runners from Tennessee State. They’re the best in the world. Negroes are natural sprinters and jumpers.”

Although she could barely imagine running two laps of the track, Billee Pat followed her coach’s advice — but not without trepidation. Before her first 880, she suffered such an attack of nerves and diarrhea that she barely made it from the toilet to the start line on time. Coach Parker told her to begin slow and follow the other girls.

Billee Pat on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1964

Billee Pat couldn’t do it. She had only one gear: fast. She had only one goal: winning. She could only imagine one sure path to victory: get to the front, and don’t let anyone pass you. “I decided to use starting blocks even though no one else did,” she says. “I knew that’s how sprinters got a fast start.” The plan worked; she won the race.

Her track and field successes didn’t go unnoticed. The local newspaper called to arrange an article and photo shoot. Her mom was thrilled, and proceeded to iron Billee Pat’s green gym suit, comb her hair, and carefully apply makeup. Billee Pat felt foolish, but went along with her mother’s vision.

At the track, the photographer decided something was missing. More lipstick! He borrowed a tube from a girl standing nearby and told Billee Pat to fake apply it while sitting fetchingly, long legs amply displayed, on a guardrail. This is the shot that appeared in the paper.

The notoriety didn’t improve her status with classmates, however. At dances, she felt awkward and out of place, towering over all the girls and most of the boys. She was called “Billy Goat” and “Flatty Patty” so often that she began wearing falsies. One afternoon at track practice, she committed a cardinal mistake. When two boys challenged her to a race, she accepted, and easily outdistanced them. “Now you’ll never get a date to prom,” a girlfriend observed.

By May 1960, Billee Pat had won every 880 she entered and lowered her best time to 2:17.8 — a new American record. Just 16, she was the fastest in the country. That made her a favorite for the upcoming Olympic Track Trials in Abilene. Local service clubs raised money to fly her and Mr. Parker to Texas.

First stop, Corpus Christi, site of the USA national championships a week before Abilene. The conditions were deplorable. The cafeteria served some sort of dehydrated surplus Army meals that sent all the athletes in search of actual food. Against the oppressive Texas heat, the dorms had no ventilation (never mind air conditioning) and were infested with mosquitoes, cockroaches, vermin, and more.

Billee Pat asked to change rooms. No, that couldn’t be arranged. Instead, she says, “I got a nice helping of DDT in my room.”

At least the running went smoothly: she won the 880, lowering her American record to 2:17.5. Her off-the-track performances were less stellar. Always a headstrong prankster, she set off some firecrackers behind the dorm on July 4. This failed to amuse AAU officials, who immediately put out a summons to Frances Kaszubski.

Kaszubski was feared by all, and not just for her height and heft. As head of the AAU’s women’s track and field division, she ruled her domain with absolute power. Billee Pat figured Kaszubski was about to banish her from Corpus Christi and rule her ineligible for the Olympic Trials. 

Instead, Kaszubski gave her a pep talk of sorts. She said Billee Pat was a rising star being closely watched by important people in the AAU. “We’re trying to get more acceptance for women’s track,” Kaszubski explained. “It isn’t enough to have just colored girls doing it. We need more white girls too.”

Billee Pat didn’t know what to make of the strange remark. At 16, she had no thoughts about the future of women’s track. But she was hugely relieved to get the go-ahead for the Olympic Trials.

*** 

While Doris Severtsen never got to join a track team from Gig Harbor, her mom eventually heard about a small girls’ team in nearby Tacoma. It was called the Tacoma Mic-Macs. The coach, a Mr. McQuarrie, had developed an after-school activity for girls even though he knew little about track and field.

His practices couldn’t have been more simplistic. The handful of girls in attendance launched straight into jumping and throwing, no warm up necessary. The workout ended when McQuarrie turned their attention to running.

He lined everyone up at the start line of the 440-yard track and told them to sprint one lap as fast as possible. Ready, set, go! When the girls staggered across the finish line, that marked the end of practice. But the suffering lasted longer. Doris, not gifted with an ironclad stomach, frequently found herself under the grandstands throwing up.

At meets, McQuarrie had only one rule: you had to fuel up immediately before your event. How else could the human body produce energy? Honey, cookies, brownies, chips, and more — it was all good. “We’d be standing on the starting line, and Mr. McQuarrie would rush over with doughnuts, peanut butter, or whatever he had,” Doris remembers. As in training, Doris’s races often ended with an abrupt rush to the dark underside of the bleachers.

One weekend in 1960, the Mic-Macs traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 175 miles to the north. The meet included a women’s 880. The two-lap distance was gaining attention since it had been re-introduced for the Rome Olympics. McQuarrie thought Doris should give it a try, and she responded by winning in a sensational time — 2:21.2.

She was just 17, but suddenly among the fastest 880-yard runners in America. All that beach running, mountain hiking, and bear-escaping had produced a middle-distance talent. Doris was no speedster; she didn’t have the leg turnover or the stomach. But let her go a little farther, and a different kind of athlete emerged. “I loved long jumping and kept doing it for many years,” she remembers. “But when it came to running, I was much more a natural endurance athlete than a sprinter.”

A group called the Peninsula Booster Club now realized Doris was more than just an oddball runner-around-town. She actually had Olympic potential, and the word “Olympic” grabbed people’s attention. The club launched a “Dimes for Doris” fund drive to help her travel to the upcoming meets in Texas.

The drive reached its goal, $200, so on June 30, Doris and McQuarrie boarded a train headed, slowly, for Corpus Christi. They arrived five days later, having slept each night in the regular coach seats. Doris got no exercise the whole time except for several trackside dashes when the train made short scheduled stops en route.

“We were so tired and stiff when we reached Texas,” Doris remembers. “At the same time, I couldn’t have been more excited. I knew the races were going to be the most important events of my life to date. The Olympic Trials and Olympics were our only big chances in four years.”

For someone from the Pacific Northwest, the heat and humidity struck like a tornado. The entrenched racism was another blow. Doris knew nothing of segregation and Jim Crow laws. There was only one black student in her high school, and no one treated her any different. In Texas, at every turn, she saw restroom and restaurant signs that said “Whites Only.”

Her shock turned quickly to resolve. In Gig Harbor, she had spent years absorbing Sunday school lessons and church services that preached equality. Doris, who was white, wasn’t going to let the South change her. “The segregation was a harsh new thing for me,” she says. “I decided, ‘If my track friends aren’t allowed to do something or eat somewhere, I’m not doing it either.’ I’m sticking with them.”

She qualified for the 880 final, but then disaster struck. On the second lap, Billee Pat was leading from the inside lane as usual. Doris challenged on the outside, moving to Billee Pat’s shoulder. Both battled to get ahead; neither would back off. Their physical differences could not have been greater. At 5’ 2” and 105 pounds, Doris was dwarfed by Billee Pat.

At some point, Doris caught an elbow. It wasn’t intentional, but it dug deep into her side, and she collapsed to the track, blacking out. “I don’t remember what happened after that,” she says. “I guess someone helped me get back up, so I was disqualified for receiving assistance.”

A disqualification in Corpus Christi was a severe setback. Doris had traveled all the way from Washington and had nothing to show for her effort, not to mention the expectations and the fund- raising of the Booster Club back home. Worse, someone raised a technical issue: could a runner disqualified from nationals be allowed into the Olympic Trials?

The question was put to Frances Kaszubski, of course. She ruled in Doris’s favor based on her fast qualifying times. Doris was cleared to compete in Abilene.

*** 

Judy Shapiro kept attending the track practices at Verdugo Hills High School. A middle-aged woman named Stella Walsh presided over the daily gatherings. Stella was different — thicker and more muscular than any other woman Judy knew. Also fast. In 1932, competing for Poland, Stella (born Walasiewicz) had won the Olympic 100-meter gold medal. Four years later, she finished second in the same event. She became an American citizen many years later.

From time to time, Stella organized small track meets for her girls and other nearby clubs. Everyone would typically enter every event. This allowed Stella to produce a results sheet that listed a goodly number of participants when really it was just the same names over and over again. “Stella made it look like girls’ track and field was popular,” Judy remembers. “In fact, it was only a handful of us.”

At one such meet in 1957, Stella introduced a new race — the 880. She explained that the 800m had been added to the schedule for the 1960 Rome Olympics. This meant that more U.S. women could make it to the Olympics — a rare step forward for women runners. She encouraged the girls at her meet to give it a try.

When every other event had concluded, Stella called the 880 runners to the start line. She stepped forward herself. Judy followed. No one else budged. With no instruction or experience, Judy tore through the first 440 in 64 seconds. Her second lap took nearly twice as long. Midway through it, she recalls, “Stella trotted past me for the win.”

A year later, Judy won a couple of 880s and improved her time to 2:26. That was all Evelyn Shapiro needed. If her spindly daughter showed promise in an activity, Evelyn quickly became her #1 fan. She scoured local libraries for books about the 880. When her search produced nothing, she began looking for a private coach. A friend knew a friend whose son ran the 440 at Occidental College.

Evelyn tracked down Dennis Ikenberry, and he agreed to coach Judy. A physics and engineering student, he also went looking for books, and had more success than Evelyn. Sorta. He located a text written in German and intended for swimmers…close enough. Dennis figured he could adapt the most crucial principles. He studied the tome carefully and learned a new concept: interval training.

Dennis explained his training program to Judy, who was accustomed to the Stella Walsh approach: do a little of everything, break a sweat, but also have some fun. Dennis talked about a completely different approach — one that sounded downright agonizing. Judy was supposed to begin with a one-mile warm up. Then she would run a few “striders.” The serious training — a grueling series of 100- and 220-yard repeats — wouldn’t even begin until she had completed all the preparatory work.

Judy Shapiro (now Ikenberry)

Judy remembers that she argued with Dennis every day. “That’s crazy,” she would say. “That’s too much. Girls can’t do all that.” In the end, she always relented. After all, Dennis was older, and she had been raised to respect her seniors. Plus, it was nice the way he showed up and paid attention to her. He took her seriously. He believed she could improve.

One evening Dennis arrived and told Judy about yet another new-fangled workout. Oh-oh, that sounded threatening. He called it “over distance.” Huh? Dennis said she should run the boys’ cross country course, all two miles of it. “I argued really hard on that one,” she remembers. “I kept saying, ‘There’s no way a girl can run that far.’”

She also worried running might build too much muscle. A friend had insisted that a girl with muscle was a girl without a boyfriend — indeed, one who might never get married. Judy didn’t like the sound of that, but persisted in her training with Dennis. “I just found that running was so freeing,” she says. “For me it was a form of therapy. I needed more balance in my life, and running gave it to me.”

Her fast 880 times qualified her for the Olympic Trials, though the distance from Southern California to Texas looked daunting: 1,500 miles. Evelyn didn’t hesitate. She threw an old mattress in the family station wagon, packed in Judy and her two brothers, and added Dennis for coaching oversight and political discussion. The whole drive to Texas, Evelyn argued the positions of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, while Dennis backed Richard Nixon’s agenda.

In Corpus Christi, they encountered the same horrid conditions as Billee Pat and Doris — filth, insects, inedible food, and racism. Evelyn Shapiro was outraged that potential Olympians would be treated so shabbily, and she knew what to do: organize and protest. She complained to every AAU official she could find and drafted a petition that she circulated among the athletes. Every day, she drove into town to pick up fresh food for all.

Judy ran poorly in Corpus Christi, driving Dennis to frustration. With no sense of pace or tactics, she shot out fast and battled with the leaders, often running beside them in the second or third lane. On the next lap, she’d run out of gas and drop back. After her race in Corpus Christi, Dennis made her walk around the entire track with him. He pointed out where she squandered energy, and where she should have positioned herself.

“He showed me how much extra distance I had covered,” she recalls. “He wanted to drill a new strategy into me. He said I should conserve on the first lap and make my move in the third 220.”

The idea made sense to Judy, and she looked forward to trying it in Abilene. The excitement and anticipation were mounting. “We all knew the Olympics was something very special that didn’t happen every year, and that track and field was the most important part of the Olympics,” she says. “But first you had to qualify at the Olympic Trials.”

***

While Billee Pat fiddled with her starting blocks — adjusting the footrests and driving two stability spikes into the track — the other Abilene 800 finalists stood, stretched for their toes, and jogged in place. None of them used blocks, and Billee Pat by now understood they weren’t essential to her success. But she continued her old habit anyway. Who abandons a routine that’s 100 percent successful? Besides, “The blocks made me the center of attention for a few moments,” she says. “Maybe that gave me a psychological edge.”

The finalists had all run the previous night in a qualifying round. There were three heats, with the top three finishers in each heat advancing to the final. Billee Pat led wire-to-wire in the first race, winning in 2:16.6 — yet another American record. However, two other runners were dangerously close to her, within a second or two: Judy Shapiro and Louise Mead.

The other heats seemed pedestrian by comparison. Rose Lovelace won heat two in 2:23, and Doris Severtsen heat three in 2:20.4. According to Shapiro, the disparity in first-round times was no accident. “The AAU put most of the fast runners in the first heat because they had all signed my mother’s petition in Corpus Christi,” she believes. “That was the AAU’s way of retaliating against us.”

The Abilene 800 attracted runners from a startling range of ages — from Billee Pat at to Stella Walsh at 49. That’s right: Shapiro’s first coach was still pursuing the Olympic dream 28 years after winning a gold medal. She fell short, finishing eighth of nine runners in her qualifying race. 

Twenty years later, in 1980, Walsh died by gunshot in Cleveland, an innocent bystander to a convenience-store shootout. On autopsy, it was discovered that she had ambiguous genitalia, including a penis. This led to an infamous newspaper headline: “Stella’s A Fella.” In many ways, it also paralleled the Semenya DSD case (Differences of Sexual Development) that played out in global track circles for the last decade.

Billee Pat’s coach warned her that, as race favorite, she should expect some tactical challenges. In particular, he thought someone might “rabbit” the first lap. She didn’t understand the term, as she had never heard it before. After listening to a brief explanation — someone might start ridiculously fast to disrupt her normal front-running — she dismissed the threat. 

Billee Pat decided she wouldn’t let anyone get in front of her — no matter who, no matter what. “This was a do-or-die situation for me,” she says. “I knew that I had to escape from my family, and Rome was my best option. You could have put Frankenstein in the race against me, and it wouldn’t have mattered.”

Doris experienced a different kind of pressure. First, she was embarrassed to have been disqualified in Corpus Christi. She had to re-prove herself. She also reflected on the folks back home who had contributed their nickels and dimes to her cause. She didn’t want to let them down. “I remember feeling absolutely terrified before the Abilene final,” she says. “There was so much riding on that one race. We all knew this was the pinnacle, and there was nothing big coming up after Rome.”

As Judy got ready for the final, she noticed her legs beginning to cramp up from the heat, dehydration, and the previous evening’s hard race. She thought mainly about her mom and Dennis, and how much she wanted to make them proud. To quell her pre-race dread, she relied on a mental trick she had used before. “I told myself this would be the last [800] I’d ever run,” she says. “I used that to deal with the pain that I knew was coming.”

At the crack of the starter’s pistol, Billee Pat bolted from the blocks, and grabbed the lead. Her long frame and powerful stride spewed cinders and dust behind her. She remembers covering the first lap in 60 seconds. That seems unlikely, but not impossible. She and several of her rivals were capable of 57 seconds in a one-lap race. In this, their first Olympic Trials, they might have run crazy.

For sure, she began slowing the second lap. Everyone did. While half the field dropped out of contention, the top five bunched up, fatiguing in unison. The adrenaline was gone now. Their strides shortened, the pace slowed, and every breath came deep and labored. Out front, Billee Pat couldn’t believe the pain. “I was just hanging on,” she says. “I told myself, ‘Three hundred to go, 250, 200—you can do it.’”

Running according to plan for once in her life, Judy made a move in the third 220. She edged past Doris and pushed herself up to Billee Pat’s shoulder. The new plan seemed to be working. A hundred yards later, someone else joined them.

This was Rose Lovelace from Cleveland. She’d been competing at a top level since 1957 when she placed fourth in the national broad jump championships. The previous week in Corpus Christi, despite meal problems, Rose had finished second to Billee Pat in the 880 and also second in the 440. “Before one of my races, my coach and I got rejected at eight restaurants,” she recalled. “We ended up back in the dorm boiling eggs on a hotplate.”

Rose liked to joke that she excelled at track mainly because her mother had once said she’d never be good enough. The comment unleashed a steely determination in the shy teenager. While Rose competed in Abilene with hemorrhoids so painful she was nearly hospitalized, she had one advantage over her rivals: better coaching.

Alex Ferenczy landed a job with the Cleveland recreation department after fleeing from Russia-invaded Hungary. There he had belonged to a group of runnerswho set middle-distance records under the masterful Mihaly Igloi in the mid-1950s. “Alex knew all about the Olympics, and he made me want to train hard to try to get there myself,” Rose explained.

Alone among the favorites, Lovelace ran a modern 800, saving her speed and strength for the final straightaway. She got around Judy, who was tying up, and also passed the always-steady Doris.

Fifty meters from the tape, Billee Pat sensed a challenge on her outside, but kept her gaze fixed on the looming finish line. Getting there first meant everything. “I didn’t look over, but I learned later it was Rose,” she says. “She pushed me and pushed me. It was driving me crazy. I had to run to the max.”

Billee Pat Daniels outleans Rose Lovelace to win the 880 yards at the 1960 women’s Olympic Trials

In the final yards, Billee Pat simply had longer legs and a better lean. She crossed the line in 2:15.6, yet another American record for her. Rose was one-tenth back. Doris finished third in 2:17.6, Louise Mead from New York was fourth in 2:19.1, and Judy placed fifth in 2:19.5. All set personal bests.

Judy shrugged off any disappointment. “The truth is, I felt the other girls wanted it more than me, ran harder, and deserved it,” she says. “I was more a people pleaser than a competitor. I came from a culture where no one expected girls to try very hard at sports.”

Doris has always seen the world and her running through rose-tinted glasses. Like Judy, she found ways to accept the Abilene outcome. “It was such an exciting race in a big setting — the Olympic Trials,” she recalls. “It felt like heaven to get to run against the best girls. I was just a very stubborn person who really loved running.”

After barreling across the finish line, Billee Pat wanted to throw herself to the track. She resisted the impulse, ever mindful of Kaszubski’s no-collapses dictum. Instead she wrapped herself around her much-shorter coach, Ed Parker, using him for support. They waited anxiously for the official results to be announced.

Billee Pat didn’t know at first if she had survived Rose’s late-race charge. But she realized that winning meant everything.

Normally, the first three finishers in the Olympic Trials qualify for the Olympic Games. However, Europe and the rest of the world had been promoting the women’s 800 during the 28 years when the U.S. ignored it. The global standard in the women’s 800 was much higher than in the U.S., so the Olympic qualifying time had been set at 2:12.00. This meant only one runner in Abilene would be going to the Rome Olympics — the winner.

The stadium amplifiers crackled to life: “The results of the women’s 800. First, Billee Pat Daniels ….” Billee Pat’s exhaustion turned to jubilation. She hoisted Coach Parker off his feet and began flinging him around like a ragdoll.

“I think I won because I was more scared than anyone else,” she remembers. “I ran with a sense of complete desperation. I couldn’t go home to my old life. I had to move on, and Rome was my only way forward.”

Women’s running also churned ahead. Six years later, Roberta Gibb would become the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon, which began accepting women as official entrants in 1972. That same year, the Olympics introduced the women’s 1500-meter race — the “metric mile.” In 1984, Joan Benoit won the first Olympic marathon for women. The women’s 10,000-meter event was added to the Olympics in 1988, and the 5,000 meters in 1996 (replacing the 3,000, which had been added in 1984). Women first ran the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, finally achieving full parity with men.

It all started in Abilene.

***

POSTSCRIPT

Twenty-four years after Abilene, Billee Pat Daniels, Doris Severtsen, and Judy Shapiro came together again in the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 5, 1984 — the day Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic marathon. Billee Pat stood trackside, yelling herself hoarse. “We had been waiting so long, and then, there she was, the first marathon winner,” she recalls. “It was just so thrilling.”

Doris was the U.S. Olympic team’s official women’s distance coach in Los Angeles, hence Benoit’s de-facto coach. “Joan was just awesome that day,” Doris remembers. “I couldn’t have been any happier for anyone than I was for her.”

Judy stood cheering from the stands in the mammoth stadium. “It was eerily quiet while Joan was in the tunnel, but the entire Coliseum just exploded when she hit the track,” Judy recalls. “We were all on our feet cheering. We knew this was a seminal moment.” 

Pat Connolly, 60 years after her triumph in Abilene

In the years following the 1960 Olympic Trials, each of the three women cheering for Benoit had made immense contributions to American running. After the Rome Olympics, where she was disqualified for stumbling inside the track, Billee Pat Daniels discovered her true forte — the five-event pentathlon with its mix of sprints, jumps, and throws. She competed in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic pentathlons, and later became the first women’s track coach at UCLA. Her athletes have included gold medal-winning sprinters Evelyn Ashford and Allyson Felix. Now 76 and known as Pat Connolly, she lives in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

Doris Severtsen, now known as Doris Brown Heritage, qualified for the 1968 Olympics (800 meters) and 1972 Olympics (1500 meters). From 1967 through 1971, she won five consecutive International Cross Country Championships (the precursor to World XC) over distances from 1.9 to 2.8 miles. She coached cross country and track for 30 years at Seattle Pacific University. Now 77, Doris lives in Stanwood, Wash.

In 1964, Judy Shapiro married her coach, Dennis Ikenberry, and soon developed into a top marathon runner. From 1967 through 1974, she entered four marathons and won them all. In 1974, when the AAU finally got around to establishing a national marathon championship race for women, Judy captured the inaugural title in 2:55:17. Three years later, she and Dennis formed one of the country’s biggest road race timing companies, Race Central. Dennis died in 2012. Now 77, Judy lives in Crestline, Calif.

Rose Lovelace finished second in Abilene but stopped competing soon after. Five years ago she participated in a conference call with several of the other Abilene 800 runners. This spring, she couldn’t be located for additional interviews.

Louise Mead finished fourth in Abilene. Earlier in 1960, she had set an American indoor record in the 440. In 1996, she published the indispensable American Women’s Track and Field: A History, 1895 Through 1980. She died in 2008 at age 72.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the 1960 Olympic Trials were contested over 880 yards. The actual race distance was 800 meters. LetsRun.com regrets the error.

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