Will Stephens might have seemed an unlikely candidate to be one of the great pioneers in coaching girls’ and women’s track and field in the days building up to and through Title IX. Sure he enjoyed sports, including football and track, growing up and in high school in Portland, Ore. But upon graduation in the late 1930s he became a logger and worked for a railroad for four years. Then he served in the Marine Corps during World War II.
Upon returning, though, Stephens returned to Portland to get his degree at Lewis & Clark College, aspiring to a career in teaching – and with his athletic disposition, he hoped for an opportunity to coach. He then became a teacher and coach at Franklin HS in Oregon from 1954-59, the moved to California and became a teacher and a coach of the boys track team at Encina HS in Sacramento.
Then a curious thing happened. Stephens noticed several girls at the school who also wanted to run track. Of course the school had no sports teams for girls in the early 1960s – no schedule, no uniforms, no permission – but he agreed to give them workouts. On a whim, he created a club called Will’s Spikettes and – at the dawn of an era when women were beginning to aspire to reach athletic potential in ever-growing numbers – others in the area soon wanted to join.
Stephens hadn’t been extensively trained as a track coach and didn’t have elite competitive experience himself. But he had passion, empathy and common sense in abundance, and the ability to strongly urge on his troops without being harsh. Success built more success and by the middle 1960s, Will’s Spikettes became the leading track club for young women in the country. They won five consecutive AAU national women’s cross country championships from 1964 to 1968. His successful athletes included HS-age elites, American record-setters and Olympians like Dino Lowery, Eileen Claugus, Marie Mulder, Kathy Hammond, Kathy Weston and even, for a time, Olympic champion Evelyn Ashford. He coached eight national champions and 18 national team champions.
Stephens came to understand that someone had to clear a path for women in this sport and that he could be one of those individuals. He taught his athletes independence and self-reliance … and demanded responsibility and resourcefulness. He showed that girls could be successful, could train and get better, and run well.
Stephens eventually returned to the Northwest, coached during the late 1970s and early 1980s at Oregon State, before passing away in 1982 at age 61.
Did You Know?
Will Stephens was inducted into the Sacramento Running Association Hall of Fame in 2017.