Before Red Simmons, women’s athletics at the University were relegated to second-class status.
But Simmons saw potential in women’s athletics at a time when sports were thought to be just for men.
In 1960, he founded the women’s track and field program in Ann Arbor. The program paved the way for the first varsity women’s track and field team in 1978.
Simmons got the inspiration for the program while he was coaching the men’s team at the University. He attended the 1960 Olympics in Rome and saw that the American women’s track and field team was performing poorly.
“The women did so badly that I said, ‘We’re going to start a women’s track team,’ ” Simmons, 96, said as he watched a recent meet.
The program was not officially affiliated with the University because there was inadequate funding for women’s athletics in the pre-Title IX days, Simmons said.
Simmons asked his wife Betty, a teacher, to help recruit girls in her middle school class.
“Find the best girl in your gym class, and we’ll start a track team,” Simmons said he told his wife.
The athlete started in the program as a 13-year-old. Her name was Francea “Francie” Kraker Goodridge. She would go on to make two Olympic teams and become a coach at University.
The team was named the Michigammes. It was one of the only athletic programs open to women in the area. At the time, competitive sports were thought to endanger the internal organs of young women.
Goodridge took the risk, and the rest is history.
Immediately, Goodridge realized she needed to follow Simmons’s instructions if she wanted to improve.
“He was a firm believer in overall training for strength and flexibility,” Goodridge said. “He trained me just the way he would have trained a boy, including lifting weights.”
Simmons’s investment paid dividends. Goodridge became the first Michigan-born woman ever to earn a spot on an Olympic team.
She was a long-distance runner on the 1968 squad in Mexico City and 1972 in Munich.
Goodridge, who coached the Michigan women’s track and field team from 1981 to 1983, had Simmons’s full support when she sought the job.
In Munich, her semifinal performance in the 1,500-meter was the second fastest all-time by an American woman at the time.
Simmons said he has seen vast improvements in the abilities of female athletes.
Simmons qualified for the 1932 Olympic team by running the 400-meter hurdles in 54.2 seconds.
“The women are running 53.8 now,” he said. “When you see what they’re doing now, in relation to what they did then, it’s amazing,”
Simmons said he provided all the girls needed – equipment, a facility and a coach.
“With that first group that we had, I was the bus driver, the trainer, I set up the hotel reservations – I did it all,” he said.
These sacrifices gave the Michigammes an opportunity at a time when organized women’s athletics programs were, in many parts of the country, still more than a decade away.
(Mis)perceptions of women’s weight training
Simmons said he has always believed weightlifting helps athletes avoid reaching performance plateaus. He saw the activity’s benefits at a time when many thought it produced minimal or even no results for runners.
“There really was no weight training (during that time), but I trained all of my women with weights,” Simmons said. “(Women) always thought weight-training would make them look fat and bulk them up. But then they realized they could get stronger and look better (without giving) them big muscles.”
Goodridge said the idea of women getting bigger drew skepticism.
“My parents had to be reassured I wouldn’t become the Incredible Hulk,” Goodridge said.
But Goodridge said she never feared the regimen Simmons prescribed. She said she saw results soon after starting a lifting routine.
“He had expertise in weight-training and could see obvious muscle weakness just visually, as well as imbalances when I ran,” Goodridge said. “With weights, you can see muscle development fairly quickly, so I saw development in my quadriceps, and I never had a knee injury because the support muscles were evenly developed and in balance.”
‘Yes, we can do that’
Although Simmons said weightlifting helped women achieve better results, he attributes more of their success to finally getting the chance to prove their talents.
“There got to be a point where women said, ‘Yes, we can do that, and we are capable of doing it,’ ” Simmons said.
Most people thought women belonged in the home at the time, he said.
“Now they realize they can do it, and they are getting very competitive,” Simmons said.
Goodridge thinks the expansion of the NCAA, specifically the rise in female participation, has greatly contributed to better performances across the board.
“More women are competing now,” she said. “In a larger pool of athletes, there are bound to emerge better and better athletes.”
According to Simmons, athleticism was not seen as a feminine characteristic when he began coaching. Many girls shied away from competing because of negative perceptions they imagined would follow.
“They didn’t think (training) was ladylike,” Simmons said. “They didn’t want to sweat.”
Simmons said an increase in the number of girls who participate in sports camps and who try to earn athletic scholarships has helped women come closer to equaling men’s performances.
Simmons is confident that women are destined for even greater feats in sports.
“Women are still breaking records, and that’s happening in all sports – not just track and field,” he said. “I don’t think they have reached their plateau yet.”