By Marguerite Cleveland
Photo courtesy of Samantha Elise Tillman
Martha Mendenhall is a local Level 3 Certified USA Track and Field Coach and a Level 5 IAAF Coach who has coached at two local high schools and two local colleges, and has worked with Dick Fosbury, 1968 Olympic gold medalist, for the past seven summers at his Dick Fosbury Track Camp.
Mendenhall was a competitive high school and college athlete during the Title IX transition for women’s sport. Unfortunately, she did not have the opportunity to access the level of coaching needed for an Olympic pathway. Later in life she returned to competition with the Masters Track and Field meets. In a career spanning more than 26 years, she has won 17 National and four World Championships in the high jump. She also competed in the long jump, 100 meter, 200 meter and 4x100 relay. In the Pentathlon, she won or placed nationally and on the world circuit.
Q. You began competing right around the time that Title IX was being introduced. How did that groundbreaking decision affect your sports career, and did it open any opportunities for you?
A. I honestly have to say that the biggest benefit I received in my high school and college years was that the coaches for the men’s teams couldn’t turn me away. Despite my high school and college not having a women’s team, the coaches were bound to allow me to be on the team; however, they just tolerated my being there and gave very little attention or coaching to me.
In my high school years, I practiced with the men’s team and was relegated to competing in men’s events. I can remember running the 180 low hurdles and the shuttle hurdles at some of the boys’ meets. They did let me high jump, which was my favorite event, so I was happy.
In college, being the first, and only, girl on the men’s team meant pretty much the same thing for me. The coach just had me “go run with the guys” and “do what they do.” The difference was that many other colleges in Michigan were now establishing women’s teams, so when I would travel to the meets with the guys, often there were other women’s teams there, competing against each other for their schools.
I earned the respect of my teammates after a big invitational meet. We went to 1976 when I competed in five events against other women’s teams. At that meet, it turned out that I scored more points representing the Aquinas College Women’s Track Team than our whole men’s team did. I finally got to sit with the team at the "Track Table” for meals.
Q. Your latest title was won last summer at the 2019 National Masters Outdoor Championships in Ames, Iowa. You competed in your 60s with two hip replacements. What is your secret to maintaining your fitness level?
A. I think I’ve been able to do what I love for so long because I simply have never really stopped, except to have children (three girls, Claire, Grace, Hannah). I began to feel as if I was losing myself. I needed something in my life that fed my soul and was just for me. I decided I wanted to get involved with competitive Masters Track and Field. In 1994, I competed in my first local USATF-sanctioned meet, and the fire was lit.
As for recovering from bi-lateral hip replacement in 2013, I was in great shape physically when I went in for my surgery. I interviewed and chose a fantastic surgeon who understood my lifestyle and what I was looking for, and finally, I had a great physical therapist that also was an athlete himself and cared deeply that I was able to maintain my lifestyle as best as possible. He made it possible for me to run again on the track 12 weeks post op. I feel so blessed.
Q. You have coached at two local high schools and two local colleges, and really helped our youth get expert coaching in a sport that most usually don't participate in until high school. What are some of the differences you see from when you started out as the only girl on your high school team?
A. The biggest difference, of course, is that there is a women’s team! Another is that I see more and more coaches on the high school level pursuing coaching education to be more knowledgeable technically and more educated about the emotional intelligence of coaching athletes. There are a lot of very experienced, great coaches out there to learn from. USATF offers incredible coaching education, as does USTFCCCA, and many others.
Q. How long did it take you to master the "Fosbury" Flop, and what kind of influence did Dick Fosbury have on you?
A. Honestly, the “Flop” technique just clicked with me. I took to it very quickly. As a kid, I was such an active, athletic “Tomboy” that I just never thought there was anything physical or athletic that I couldn’t do. I was so excited about the fun, new way of jumping!
Dick Fosbury changed everything about the event of high jump and had an incredible impact on the sport of track and field. When I saw him jump over the bar backward, it was astounding to me, as it was for everyone who witnessed it. A year after the 1968 Olympics, my family moved to a very small town in Texas, and our town had a girls’ track team. I was in heaven. This team traveled around the state competing. It was my coach for that team that taught me the Fosbury Flop.