He got his chance to find out. In 1990, Harter moved to the University of Arkansas to serve as head coach for the women’s cross country and track & field programs. Now entering his 27th year with the Razorbacks, Lance Harter, together with the athletes he has groomed, has accumulated achievements that are unmatched on the collegiate level. Individually, his athletes have captured 22 national titles, 157 SEC crowns, and 435 All-American certificates. His teams have won 28 SEC titles and have earned NCAA national track & field championships in 2015 (indoors) and in 2016 (outdoors). Not surprisingly, Harter has been honored as a 5-time National Coach of the Year, 27-time SEC Coach of the Year, and has been inducted into various Halls of Fame – including those of the USATFCCCA and the two universities he has served.
Harter’s career as a women’s coach coincided with the emergence of athletic opportunities for collegiate women. For some male coaches, the shift to coaching athletes of the other gender has proved to be awkward and bumpy. But for Harter, the transition was seamless. “I think the caliber of female athletes at Cal Poly corresponded to male athletes in high school. So that transition as far as the X’s and O’s of training was not that bad at all,” notes Harter, who also recognized the transformational power of the federal legislation enacted to mandate funding equality between the sexes.
“Title IX has really allowed women’s athletics – no matter what sport – to accelerate much, much faster than it would have without it,” Harter declares. “To be able to hire quality coaches who really know their stuff technically and physiologically has elevated women’s sports. When I first started, I could out-coach the majority of my peers because they got the job maybe without the background that they really, truly needed. But they were the ‘head coach.’ But Title IX prompted the pouring in of great coaches and the evolution of young women who originally were athletes to decide to stay in the sport and become a coach. All that has just allowed the next generation to evolve to even a higher level.”
As the years slid by, Harter not only witnessed changing attitudes toward women in sport and the manner by which women viewed themselves as athletes, he also served as a catalyst for change by skillfully preparing his female athletes and then celebrating their accomplishments. “It is a bit of a cultural thing,” notes the Razorback coach. “Back in the ’60s and ’70s, if you were a female athlete, there were some places where they would lock you [women] out. They wouldn’t even let you even get in on the track. Women would have to climb the fence to be able to use the track because, hey, men’s track practice was over,” explains Harter, who embraces the changes that have occurred. “There were no scholarships, no support. It was, ‘You have a gift. Let’s see if you can overcome every obstacle we can throw at you to realize that gift.’” Harter has seen the transition that has resulted in women being comfortable – even reveling – in their role as strong, powerful, accomplished athletes. “Now, culturally, to be an athlete is recognized as a very special and positive feature for any young women.”
Lance Harter – who, along with others such as recently-retired Peter Farrell of Princeton – has served as a trailblazer for women’s track & field and cross country. He notes that after Title IX provided funding and opportunity equality, the inevitable heightened performances by women prompted a societal change in how women in sports were viewed. “There was just this cultural identity that women couldn’t do this; they’re inferior; they’re not as strong as men; they’re not as big as men,” explains Harter. “But as of late, it is really a pleasure to see that our sport and the big sports channels are now giving credit where credit is due. They see the degree to which women tolerate discomfort in the endurance events; how powerful they are in the weight room. It’s just that whole evolution of seeing women being recognized as equal to their peers on the men’s side.”
The Razorback coach, who has mentored such accomplished athletes as Olympic medalists Deena Drossin Kastor and Victoria Campbell Brown, as well as Amy Begley Yoder, Kristin Wurth Thomas, and more recently Dominique Scott, Sandi Morris, and Jessica Kamilos, knows that further evolution of female track & field athletes is on the way. “To me, it’s exciting. And the next generations that are coming up, these women are very intelligent and articulate and very much recognize now that they can make a career if things go well and they stay healthy and make good choices. It wasn’t that long ago when that was not even a thought.” Harter – who proudly notes that 10 Razorbacks participated in the Rio Olympic Games – notes that today’s young female athletes identify and pursue athletic goals never dreamed of by their female predecessors. “Part of my philosophy is that female athletes, of course, will have an opportunity to evolve in the collegiate ranks. But if you are curious about the next level, our job is to be sure that you are ready to continue to evolve post-collegiately. Collegiate women athletes now realize that their physiological and endurance capabilities will not be maximal until they are 28 to 32. An increasing number intend to build their careers around the idea that they can financially support themselves so they can continue to train until they are in their late 20s or early 30s. And they are committing to do this when they are 15, 16, 17 years old. I think it is pretty cool that people realize there is life well after college as an elite athlete.”
Looking back over the many exceptional athletes he’s coached, Harter – now in his mid-60s – pauses to reflect on two. “You always have to have praise for someone like Veronica Campbell Brown who came to us an Olympian. But then she continued to rise to the world’s most elite level as a gold medalist and continued to evolve,” states Harter. “This [Rio] was her fifth Olympics. That’s something that you’re really, really proud of. She turned pro after a year at Arkansas. That was her springboard to the world level. She still got her degree in international business and now serves as a spokesperson.”
Like many coaches, Harter takes special pride in unheralded athletes who extract the most from their potential and blossom under his guidance. “The athlete who surprised us all was Kristin Wurth-Thomas,” exclaims Harter of his surprising middle distance star – at the time only the 4th American woman to break 4:00 in the 1500m, an ’08 Olympian at that distance, and 5th place-finisher in the 1500m final at the ’09 World Championships. “Her fastest quarter is only 57,” marvels the Razorback coach with a smile. “I think I gained more respect from my own peers –the way Kristin evolved – probably than my work with any other athlete,” he says with pride. “She and I clicked and the progression was excellent, remarkable.”
Lance Harter has a theory as to why he is able to make a positive coach-athlete connection with the young women he leads. “I think part of it is the ability to communicate. The approach is very much holistic. And I feel like I can connect with them as far as communication goes,” explains the Arkansas coach. “But also I think they realize pretty quickly I am committed way beyond just seeing them at practice at 3:30pm and hoping the workout goes well. And part of it is advancing the idea that I care about you well beyond the sessions on the track.”
It’s a commitment of caring that the young women Lance Harter mentors would be quick to add they not only feel, but also reciprocate.
by Dave Hunter, www.track&fieldhunter.com