June 1, 2012
By Amy Hughes
Jeanette Bolden's track and field career started at Campanella Park in Compton, Calif. Just as she was learning to overcome childhood asthma to become an athlete, Title IX was passed into law.
"All my life, I grew up in a situation where men and women were the same," said Bolden. "At Campanella Park in Compton, the track team was for boys and girls. My coaches were men, but the girls were treated just like the guys were growing up. I never saw the difference of being male or female. I was an athlete. A fast athlete. Period. That's all I was."
Growing up, Bolden's biggest hurdle was not her gender, but her lungs, having been born with asthma.
"I have always struggled with having asthma," said Bolden. "People who have asthma are not supposed to run track and be an Olympian, especially when you're from Compton, California. I've always had people around me saying 'you can't' or 'you're not supposed to do this.' But I've also always had my core people, my aunts, my parents, saying 'No. You can do anything you want to.'
"I never let things hinder me. I've always worked hard to show people that yes, I can do this."
Bolden's hard work on the track is what brought her to UCLA as a sprinter in the fall of 1980.
"I didn't feel a difference (between men and women) until I transferred to UCLA," said Bolden. "When I transferred, it dawned on me that the women's track team was not allowed to train at the same time as the men's track team.
"Luckily, our coach Bob Kersee was a pretty big advocate for women in athletics," Bolden continued. "Dr. Judith Holland was really instrumental in making sure the women were brought up to the same level as the men. One thing Bobby and Dr. Holland did was ensure that the women would not be training at a separate time. We had classes, just like the men, and we got a chance to train at the same time. The world did not end."
Bolden's competitive career included a selection to the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team and winning a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games as part of the 400m relay team. She also earned a fourth-place finish in the 100m at the 1984 Games. As a student-athlete at UCLA, she was part of the 1982 NCAA Championship team. Sadly, her track career ended with a torn Achilles tendon at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials.
During her competitive career, she saw the inclusion of women's sports under the NCAA umbrella (during the 1981-82 school year), a move that has helped advance women's athletics in the United States. Still, the piecemeal approach to progress rankles with Bolden.
Since making the move to coaching, Bolden has guided the Bruins to 10 conference championships and three NCAA titles (2000 Indoor, 2001 Indoor and 2004 Outdoor team championships). She also served as the U.S. Women's Head Coach for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, becoming the first head coach in U.S. Olympic history to have previously won an Olympic medal as an athlete.
"I've seen the Olympic Games and Olympic movement learn to embrace women," said Bolden of the evolution from the early 1980s to today. "You have had such strong women like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who was modeled after Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Now, somebody like Hyleas Fountain [2008 Olympic Silver Medalist in the heptathlon] is now a multi-talented athlete who will hopefully medal in 2012. You see women doing some amazing things, and I see the committee, the Olympic movement, not putting restrictions on women the way they used to."
Currently in her 21st year on UCLA's coaching staff and 19th year as the Bruin's head coach for women's track and field, Bolden sees plenty of room to expand the role of women in the coaching ranks, and the numbers back her up. In the Pac-12 Conference, two schools (Oregon State and Utah) sponsor only women's track and field. UCLA is the only school with separate programs for men's and women's track and field, and a head coach for each gender. The remaining nine schools have a combined men's and women's program with a single Director of Track and Field.
Bolden is the only woman in a track and field head coaching position in the Pac-12 Conference.
"The United States mandated that the Olympic women's track and field team had to have a female head coach," said Bolden. "I think 1984 was the last time the head coach was male. They made a decision that they were going to get competent women out there, and they have. That's a good thing. I was happy and very honored to be the Olympic head coach in 2008."
As more and more collegiate athletic departments are combining men's and women's track and field under a single coaching staff, women head coaches are becoming a distinct minority.
"I really hope that from now on, more and more women will be considered for both positions, to be directors," said Bolden. "We're one of the few programs that has two head coaches. I'm glad about that. I just wish that more programs, if they do combine, would consider hiring a female. Just consider the person."
"I would really like to see more women become directors of track and field," said Bolden. "The tendency now is to combine the programs to save money, which I understand totally. But those director positions are going to males, and that's unfortunate. There are so many competent women out there that just need the opportunity."
From the beginning, Bolden has fought for her place as one of the rare female head coaches in her sport. Called "Janet" instead of Jeanette for years, she has learned to let the competitive success of her student-athletes speak for her.
"You just have to be better," said Bolden. "You can't take it personally. I would vent to my husband, of course. He'd say 'you need to quit taking things so personally. You need to decide whether you're going to let these things define you or crush you.' They define me. They motivate me. People ask me how I do all of these things. I'm just extremely motivated. I enjoy what I do, and I like seeing people achieve."
A fierce competitor as one of the top American sprinters in the U.S. in the 1980s, Bolden now passes that fire along to the student-athletes that she mentors.
"I enjoy watching them develop from confused, scared freshmen into young women," said Bolden. "I remember Dawn Harper, who won the 2008 Olympic Games in the 110-meter hurdles. On her recruiting trip, she was crying, her mom was crying, 'my baby is gonna leave!' When I went to her home visit, it was more crying. I couldn't get through my whole speech. It was tissues the whole time.
Bolden recalls Harper coming into her office crying as a freshman in 2004 because finals were approaching and she didn't do well on a mid-term. "She didn't know how she was going to pass," Bolden said. "She was so discouraged and saying `what am I going to do, Coach Bolden?' I told her `Dawn. You need to calm down.' We laugh about it now. Then, a year removed from school, she wins an Olympic Gold Medal. Seeing that development, seeing somebody come in and get the opportunity to be here and flourish. To do the things that Dawn did and come here and get her degree, and then win an Olympic Gold Medal? That's the fairy tale right there. Now she can inspire young women. She can do anything."
Bolden has high hopes for women in sports.
"I don't want women to just aspire to be great athletes thanks to Title IX," she said. "I want them now to be great coaches or directors. That's what I'd like to see. I'd love to see a female head coach for a men's team."
Bolden's career, as an athlete and a coach, has benefitted from UCLA's position on the leading edge of women's equality in athletics.
"I'm grateful and indebted to UCLA," said Bolden. "UCLA gave me the opportunity and has continued to support me. They have always been on the cutting edge. I'm glad they saw me as a coach. Period. My record stands for itself. Not only am I the only female, but if you combine my conference record and NCAA record, I'm probably the winningest coach in the conference. There isn't another school that has won 10 conference titles. That combination, along with producing more Olympians than any other university and having a good graduation rate, speaks for itself."