‘I wanted to run’
Cathy (Semanie) Cullen, Mohawk’s first female cross country runner, comes back to honor 40 years of women’s sports; team clinches league title unbeaten
Cathy (Semanie) Cullen, the first female runner on the Mohawk Trail Regional High School’s cross country team in 1973, waits on the track in her original jacket while runners prepare for Tuesday’s meet.
Cathy (Semanie) Cullen, the first female runner on the Mohawk Trail Regional School cross country team in 1973, and current Mohawk girls’ cross country team runners clown for a group photo after the quadrangular meet Tuesday. Mohawk runner Tasha Olanyk, 16, of Ashfield (3rd from right) placed first, beating her own personal best record. The team won the meet finishing with the league title after running unbeaten for the season.
BUCKLAND — In 1973, when Cathy (Semanie) Cullen was an eighth-grader, the only girls’ team sport at Mohawk she can remember was field hockey.
But Cullen, like her two athlete brothers, was a runner — and she wanted to run for Mohawk. By the time she was a junior, in 1976, Cullen would go from being the only girl on Mohawk Trail Regional School’s cross country team to winning the state championship, along with her sister Karen, and five other girls on Mohawk’s first full all-girls’ team.
Forty years later, Cullen was back at school, as an honorary official, to start off competing women’s teams in a quadrangular Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference League cross country meet on Tuesday afternoon.
The girls team went on to win Tuesday, earning the league title for the North Pioneer Valley, running unbeaten for the season.
Along with Cullen, who now lives in New Hampshire, were her mother, Carole Semanie of Heath, two sisters, and her high school coach and trainer, former Mohawk Athletic Director Connie Putnam of Northfield.
“I had track in the spring, and I wanted to run in the fall,” said Cullen, when asked how she got started on the all-male team. “I had conned two girls to (sign up) with me for cross country. They quit soon after, but I kept going.”
It was in the early 1970s that the federal law, known as Title IX, said no one could be denied the right to participate in any education program or activity based on gender, remarked Connie Putnam, who was Mohawk’s track and cross country coach for 13 years.
“In the early ’70s, women across the state in the more urban areas were competing in these sports, and I was very willing to let her come out and compete,” he said.
He remembered going to a special conference of athletic directors in 1972 and proposing a seasonal schedule of women’s sports — but the idea was almost unanimously voted down. The only vote for it was his.
“I said, regardless of how you feel, you can either become proactive, and create these programs, or be told by the federal government that we have to create them,” he said.
When Cullen was the only girl competing on Mohawk’s cross country team in 1973, “I had to ask another girl to go with me (to the away-races), so that I would not be the only girl on the team bus,” she said.
In the early years, when Cullen ran “in the guys’ races,” she said some of her competitors seemed really surprised to see a girl running. “The guys weren’t really happy when they were getting passed by a girl,” she said. “It was quite a while before we had our own requisite team.”
“By my sophomore year, we had five girls — and we came in second in the state. A full team was seven, but we only had five. Also, there were no divisions, so we competed against the big schools.”
“By my junior year, we won the state championship,” said Cullen.
Cullen grew up in Shelburne Falls, in a family of seven children. She said her parents were very supportive. “They went to all our meets. As long as we were doing something productive after school, they were happy.”
She also remembers there weren’t as many safety regulations in her high school running days. “We would run along Route 2 or Route 112. We would run between six to 20 miles every day. When we went as far as 20 miles, it was usually because we ran the wrong way (and had to turn back). I think there was one time, we came close to running a marathon.”
Cullen said she continued running, although now, she no longer runs the distances she used to, “because my knees hurt. But that is still one of my exercises of choice,” she said.
Cullen is now a physical therapist. When asked how competing in track, cross country and winter indoor track affected her life, she said: “It probably gave me confidence, it showed me that, by perseverance, you can do well. It was nice being part of a small school team of guys and girls. We all did things together.”
You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
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