Deanne Vochatzer is a pioneer.
As a student at Chico State, Vochatzer couldn’t run track because there was no women’s team. To add to that, the men’s coach told her she wasn’t allowed out on the track. But Vochatzer fought and was hired as the first women’s coach of track and field upon her graduation.
Now almost 40 years later, Vochatzer is a women’s track icon, having coached an Olympic squad and headed a commission to bring the 2000 track and field Olympic trials to Sacramento.
After her team competed in its first meet of the season, Vochatzer sat down with Aggie sports editor Max Rosenblum to discuss her trailblazing in women’s track and field, her Olympic experience and her team’s prospects this upcoming season.
You went to Chico State. Did you run track there?
There was no track program. There were a few women sports but track wasn’t one of them. I started the program there with some great help. We had one of the professors who was in the physical education department volunteer to come sit at practice while I worked out. That’s how it started. It quickly changed because the men’s track coach told me I wasn’t allowed out there. It began a very long and interesting history. In the end, we started a women’s track team. They hired me upon my graduation to continue coaching there. There were very few teams in the country that even gave women an opportunity. That was pre-Title IX. There was no equality. It was a really big thing. This weekend, they’re having a reunion dinner at Chico State honoring the pioneers of women’s track and field. There are people I haven’t seen in years. It was a struggle, but it ended up being a good thing and a huge learning experience for a young female athlete back in the day.
Speaking of being a pioneer, you were coach of the 1996 women’s track and field Olympic team in Atlanta. On a personal level, how did that feel?
I was only the third woman to be a head coach in track and field. There were two before me that laid the groundwork. It was absolutely an experience that I would not pass up, but I would absolutely never do it again. It was life changing because we were hosting. It was the centennial games and being one of the very few females to lead their countries delegation, there was a lot on me. Then you add the bombing to it the night before track started and it was quite extraordinary. The whole world changed. I still remember it.
I understand that it was a big commitment to be the coach of the Olympic team. What were those three years like leading up to the games?
You had to go and select where the training was going to be. We were looking at making sure the facilities in Atlanta were coming along like they should’ve been. We were going to look at different athletes compete that I thought might be on the relay team. That’s the head coach’s prerogative – to select the relay team. As you know if you’re a track fan, the relays are always a huge issue with the United States. It’s the premier event and we’ve not done very well in men’s and women’s. Luckily, in 1996, we won both gold medals on the women’s side. That hadn’t happened since 1984. It was a relief because I didn’t want my name to go down in the book as the coach of the failed Olympic relay team.
You talked about being a pioneer for women’s track and field. How does it feel to have produced three finalists for Woman of the Year award?
That was an extraordinary group of young women. Interestingly enough, they all ran on the same relay team. They were all different years in school but at one time during one year, all of them ran on our 4 x 400 relay team. They still have a tremendous bond today. Those women were very gifted and very giving. I would give anything to have a whole team of them.
Do you see anyone on this year’s squad with the same potential?
I’m not going to name names, but absolutely. There are some personalities on the team that have that same combination of hard work ethic and talent but who are also very caring.
You owned an apparel company. What was that like?
I was coaching at the same time I had the company. The reason why was because at the time I was at the University of Florida – and this is a not an attack on the South – but they were light years behind on what women could and couldn’t do. This was 1975 and the apparel they wanted women to wear was atrocious- like cave man days. It was horrible, ugly and baggy. I began designing. One thing led to another and I owned a company.
You were on a committee to bring the 2000 Olympic trials to Sacramento. Talk about that.
After 1996, it was like, “Okay. You’ve had a high-profile position. So how can you use that to serve your community or your sport?” So I was approached by the Sacramento Sports Commission to lead up a bid to bring the trials to Sacramento. It was a long process but very rewarding because it was a phenomenal event. We drew 23,000 people per day. To be meet director for that was a lot of hard work but it was great. [Men’s coach Jon Vochatzer] and I directed it together and our whole staff worked their butts off. It was kind of weird because it was at Sacramento State. It was a little touchy.
Your team had its first event of the season last week. Four school records went down. How big was that for your team?
For the first event of the year, it was extraordinary. Both [men and women] are starting to come together. The men were second [in the Big West Conference] last year and are knocking on [Cal State] Northridge’s door. The men are gearing for it. They can taste it. On the women’s side, we have a little more work to do. We were fifth last year and are definitely shooting for top three.
MAX ROSENBLUM can be reached at email@example.com.