“Did you ever see steeplechase before you were asked to do the event?”
“I did not see women doing it, but I saw it at the Olympics,” said Jen McGovern, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology and former NCAA runner.
In 1999, McGovern went to the NCAA Track & Field Championships for steeplechase. “That’s largely a result of, yeah sure, a lot of my hard work that I put in and a little bit of luck, but also a good deal of my coach putting forth the effort in communication to get me into the right meets. My coach was particularly proactive in that way, so I’m much appreciative to him of that.”
Steeplechase is a long distance event of 3,000 meters that involves the runners jumping over multiple hurdles, one of which has a water pit located on the landing side.
After joining the Sacred Heart University cross country and track & fields teams as a walk-on, McGovern told Head Coach Christian Morrison that she was interested in running the steeplechase.
“He said… ‘Well, Jennie, unfortunately, won’t have that event for women in all of the meets we go to,” said McGovern. “So he was very serious and just honest with me and says, ‘I believe that you can do it, but I just want to let you know, there’s not a ton of opportunities out there. Mostly this is a race for men,’” continued McGovern.
Thankfully, Coach Morrison didn’t agree with the idea that it was only for men. That’s just how it was at the time.
Coach Morrison would call the meets ahead of time asking if the women’s event would be listed on the itinerary because he had an athlete that wanted to run it. McGovern recalls a particular time when her coach took the whole van to a separate meet that was going to have the women’s steeplechase event. After McGovern raced, Morrison drove the van more than an hour over to the originally planned meet.
“So essentially, instead of leaving campus Friday and going to the big team meet, we left campus on Friday, went to the meet just for me, and then all got in the van and drove to the other meet for the whole team,” said McGovern. “That was pretty cool that he would do stuff like that.”
While she was still in college, McGovern learned that the main reason meet directors and universities cited for not holding the women’s event was the lack of race equipment. This was another physical barrier added to the race.
Hurdle height is based off of the average height of the athletes running the race. In the standard hurdle races, adjustable hurdles are used to easily transition between the men’s and women’s events. This does not hold true for steeplechase which uses a barrier that crosses the lanes and is not adjustable. The men’s steeplechase barriers stand at 36 inches while the women’s barriers stand at 30 inches. That marginal difference can be crucial in clearing the hurdles properly and efficiently.
While men’s steeplechase had been run at the Olympics starting in 1920 and in the NCAA Championships in 1983, the women’s events were not on the international or even the national stage until much later. The first women’s steeplechase event at the NCAA Championships was in 1991 and it was only added to the Olympic stage in 2008.
Because the women’s race was not yet on the world stage when McGovern was running in college, there was no governing body that regulated the races or the equipment.
“Some of the very first races were actually done at the men’s height, and some of the first races I did were at the men’s height, which did make a big difference because you are allowed to step on the barrier as you jump it, but you can be technically more efficient if you can hurdle it,” said McGovern.
At some meets, there would be a women’s event but they would just run a shorter distance or would not jump over the water obstacle. “Just imagine week to week, never knowing what you’re going to get until you showed up to the track, how high the barriers were going to be, if they were going to let you do the water jump or not,” said McGovern.
None of that stopped McGovern.
As a professor of sociology, she knows that there are barriers put up by society to hold groups of people back. These barriers are physical and ideological. McGovern believes that the two often reinforce each other.
“One of the biggest reasons that was often given is this like circular logic that we’re not offering it because women aren’t going to sign up for it,” said McGovern. “We can’t sign up for it if you’re not offering it.”