It is fitting that Al Buehler teaches a “History and Issues of Sport” seminar class at Duke.
Buehler has pretty much seen it all during his almost 60-year career in athletics. The man, who still wears his trademark wide-brimmed straw hat, coached cross country and track teams for 45 years at Duke, and served as the manager or on the coaching staff for four U.S. Olympic Teams. He has inspired and motivated thousands of athletes – and Duke students — with his timeless bits of wisdom, but he has been much more than just a coach.
Buehler has had first-hand experiences in race relations, gender equity and the politics of international sports, and received a lifetime achievement award from USA Track and Field at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June. The 81-year-old’s life story and accomplishments even inspired a documentary film and book – “Starting at the Finish Line” – by a former student, Amy Unell, who had been fascinated listening to Buehler’s experiences in the Duke seminar.
One of the biggest issues in sport was the passing of Title IX in 1972, increasing opportunities for women in collegiate athletics.
In the mid-1970s, Duke did not have a women’s track and field team. The day Ellison Goodall Bishop mustered up the courage to walk through the tunnel of Wallace Wade Stadium to Duke’s track, and ask Buehler for a chance to run sparked that to change.
“When this little gal came up to me and said she wanted to run, I said fine and offered to time her a few laps around the track and see what she could do,” Buehler. “She was a natural. She had been an age-group prodigy in swimming, so she was trim and slim and could run forever.”
“Al had no obligation to entertain my appeal to run,” Goodall Bishop said. “He simply saw in me someone who wanted to run but who also needed to run. Al saw that running was more than a sport for me, that it was a way for a shy introvert to hone skills for life. His ability to understand the individual, not just the athlete, is why Al Buehler’s impact is so strong. He is considered a teacher, mentor, and even ‘life coach’ by many who meet him. He is friend to all who meet him.”
Goodall Bishop competed in her first few cross country meets without Buehler in attendance because he was traveling with the men’s team.
“She trained with our guys,” Buehler said. “She wasn’t going to beat the very best [of the men], but she could more than hold her own in the middle of the pack. I knew she would be very good because of her natural talent.”
Goodall Bishop is one of the most celebrated female runners in Duke’s history, earning track All-America honors in 1978 and cross country All-America accolades in 1977. In addition, she was an AAU national champion and set four outdoor school records.
Buehler knew his decision to give Goodall a chance was the right thing to do, and it marked the creation of women’s track and field program.
“Al’s keen sense of equity allowed me to be successful; his skill with me as a coach and mentor made me successful,” Goodall Bishop said. “It may be that my success was a success for Duke athletics, especially in the creation of a women’s track and field program. But the success for Title IX and for gender equity in athletics was all Al. He gave me an opportunity because he saw me as an individual; he gave women’s athletics an opportunity, and a boost, because he understood what was fundamentally important to sports.”
As Joan Benoit, the 1984 gold medalist in the first women’s Olympic marathon, has said, “Al Buehler had the foresight to realize that women could be athletes, too.”
Of course, the humble Buehler downplays his role in social change.
“I just happened to be there when it was happening,” Buehler said. “I was not the leader … I was just a facilitator. Ellison was the right person to come join us at the right time.”
Sophia Treakle – currently the captain of the Duke women’s track and field team – assisted with the making of Unell’s documentary about Buehler, and was truly in awe of the courage Goodall Bishop summoned to approach the coach about running.
“Essentially, Ellison took Title IX into her own hands and created the women’s track program,” Treakle said. “She’s been known as the ‘One Woman Team.’ It was an honor when [director] Amy Unell asked me to reenact Ellison in the documentary. For a moment, it was like stepping in the shoes of an unsung hero in the world of women’s sports.”
Working on the Buehler documentary gave Treakle a great perspective on the pre- and post-Title IX eras in women’s athletics.
“It is easy to take the opportunity of women’s collegiate sports for granted now that 40 years have passed,” Treakle said. “To female athletes now, the lack of opportunity that existed before Title IX seems like restrictions out of the Victorian Era. But the 1970s were not that long ago. It is wild that the women who first began competing after the passage of Title IX are just now in their early 60s.”
The NCAA began sponsoring women’s track and field championships in 1982. Buehler was a member of the NCAA Track and Field Committee at the time.