'The Apple' stands alone
"To tell the story of field hockey for women without telling the story of Constance Applebee would be to give a dull, dry segment of an unfolding history, with little meaning for past or present student generations. Constance Applebee has been the pioneer, the leader, the inspired coach, literally the emblem bearer on hockey fields around the world. She was the teacher and coach who put wings on lagging feet, speed and endurance in young bodies, courage and integrity and good fellowship into the minds and hearts of thousands of … hockey players of many nations."
-- Constance M.K. Applebee and the Story of Field Hockey
Hilda W. Smith, Helen Kirk Welsh
Affectionately known as “The Apple”, because of her sweet temperament, but sharp tongue, Constance Applebee elevated women’s sports to an unprecedented level across her 81-year career.
It was all started by a chain of chance circumstance.
Applebee’s story began Feb. 24, 1873 in Chigwell, Essex, England. She was a frail child until she began playing field hockey, which provoked her interest in studying Physical Education in college.
In 1901, Applebee traveled to the U.S. to take a summer course at Harvard. One afternoon, a discussion started about the differences between women athletes in England and America. This prompted a makeshift demonstration of field hockey in the courtyard behind the gym, which then blossomed into the creation of a collegiate sport and the beginning of one of the most influential careers in the history of women’s athletics.
“Long before Title IX, the Apple was pushing women to exceed both athletically and academically,” former president of the United States Field Hockey Association Jenepher Shillingford said.
Applebee’s demonstration caught the eye of Vassar athletic director Harriet Ballantine, and soon enough the sport was picked up by the Seven Sister Schools with help from Applebee’s travelling demonstrations. Three years later, she was invited to head the physical education department at Bryn Mawr where she founded the school’s health department and coached the field hockey and gymnastics teams, while working to introduce seven new club sports for women.
“The fact that Apple espoused 'competition' for women was a sticking point for some educators,” Sharon Taylor, former coach and athletic director at Lock Haven said. “They were OK with 'play days' and even 'sports days' for women, but any emphasis on actual match play, certainly between schools, but also even in intramural competitions, was frowned upon.”
A champion of women’s sports, Applebee was more interested in a holistic approach to athletics and making sure women of all abilities could participate in a sport of some kind because it was a stepping stone for other women’s rights.
“[Field] hockey is an intellectual game,” she would say to her players. “It is a creative game. Doing what you’re told doesn’t amount to much. We women are social beings and hockey is a game of fellowship and friendship.
“Being a member of a team gives you confidence and power. This is the breath of life.”
Tough, but fair
As a coach, she was seen as tough, but fair. Applebee required each woman to exercise a certain number of hours a week, anyone who failed to do so would pay a fine that was then used to buy equipment for the budding gymnastics program.
She was inspiring and acid tongued, often times calling athletes “hippos” or screaming “move, you dumb things” from the sidelines during the games.
In fact, players felt neglected if they were not the target of her friendly insults. Women who played for her said that she taught them to play with backbone and spirit.
“It is impossible to write an ordinary appreciation of Miss Applebee,” former player Millicent Carey McIntosh said in Constance M.K. Applebee and The Story of Hockey. “Nothing but absolute perfection [was] good enough for her. She believed in individual discipline.”
Although she could get fiercely competitive on the field, she was uninterested in the overly competitive aspect of sports, instead focusing on the enrichment of her athletes. The first field hockey championship was not until 1973 because of her strong belief that naming a champion caused unwarranted jealousy and pressure.
“It is hard to describe, for those who have never experienced it, Miss Applebee’s genius as a hockey coach,” former player Cynthia Wesson said in Miss CMK Applebee, A Sketch of Forty Years of Service. “She can take 22 players who literally have never seen a game or a hockey stick…and in less than half an hour she has her players playing hockey… It is impossible to be coached by [her] without being stimulated to do one’s best; without leaving the field wanting to play more and better hockey.”
In 1922, on top of her coaching duties, Applebee founded The Sportswoman, the country’s first magazine devoted to women’s athletics. It was originally meant to focus on the U.S. Field Hockey Association that she cofounded, but soon it spread to cover other growing programs such as water polo, badminton, track and field, tennis, swimming, archery, fencing and basketball. She used the magazine as a platform to give a voice to female athletes.
At the same time that she was editing the magazine, coaching and heading the physical education department, Applebee founded a field hockey camp in The Poconos at Camp Tegawitha.
“Through her own magazine and her hockey camp…she has furthered the athletic interests of women,” McIntosh wrote.
The attendance at the Poconos hockey camp grew from 300 participants to more than 1,000 as Applebee brought in the best field hockey players and coaches from England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa and Australia.
“We had sessions morning, afternoon and evening every day. You were there for seven days, if you weren't in shape when you came it was torturous,” Four-time USFHA president Grace Robertson said. “It was a wonderful experience with the exposure to the game and to the world of hockey.”
The camp incorporated a wide array of teaching techniques, from theory lessons to English folk dancing.
“By evening our muscles ached and charley-horses cramped our legs, but nothing would do, we [had to] limber up with an hour … of English country dancing after supper,” Edith Harris West said in Constance M.K. Applebee and The Story of Hockey. “An extra step or wrong turn [could] irreparably tangle up the set, nevertheless, Miss Applebee trained huge concentric circles and long lines of sets to perfect performances.”
The camp was 80 percent field hockey and 20 percent lacrosse. In fact, it was at her camp in 1931 that the U.S. Women’s Lacrosse Association was founded by Joyce Cran Barry.
“[The camp] was a wonderful experience with the exposure to the game,” Robertson said. “I met some wonderful people… I still have best friends from that group.”
Slowing down -- sort of
In 1929, Applebee retired from Bryn Mawr as the physical education director, but continued to coach. When World War II broke out, Applebee couldn’t go back to England so she took a coaching job at William & Mary and raised enough money to send three ambulances to the troops overseas.
At the age of 56, Applebee slowed down, but not much. She continued to travel around the country to coach and speak to teams whenever asked. Despite worsening arthritis, Applebee continued to run around and play with her players until the age of 96 when she was no longer able to travel outside of England due to doctor’s orders, which she was hesitant to follow.
“If, in January of 1968, when I was … watching the Statue of Liberty pass – if I had known that I wouldn’t be using my return ticket to the United States, I think I would have gone below and demanded that the pilot let me return with him,” Applebee wrote later in a letter to the USFHA for her 100th birthday. “If I can’t be with you in the flesh, at least I am with you in spirit.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Applebee began garnering recognition for her work, including the “Award of Merit” as a “Foremother of Sport for Women” from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).
“It was only the third-ever merit award given to anyone,” Taylor said. “The first two went to the first president and the first executive director of the AIAW. “
Robertson and Shelly Shellenberger flew to England to give Applebee the award and explain its significance. Applebee only had two questions for the women upon receiving the plaque, “Why me?” and “Who were the first two?”
Despite the fact that Applebee could no longer make her yearly visits to the U.S., players and coaches still visited her regularly.
“I raised some funds in the '80s for a trip my hockey team was taking to England and the comments from some of her students were priceless,” Shillingford said. “Some could not say enough good things about her and others were simply terrified.”
The Apple seemingly made an impact on everyone that knew her and every student she taught. She remained in contact with the USFHA and the international hockey community until her last days. Her idea to “build hockey from the ground up” and remain thoughtful and kind is still practiced today at the club level up to the national and Olympic teams.
“It is my fervent hope that field hockey, one of the last strongholds of purity in sport, will be able to resist the evils of professionalism and enable you, your children and young people for generations to come to play the game for the simple pleasure of [fun, fitness and friendship],” Applebee wrote in a letter to Jean Putnam of Central Washington University.