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Interview: Cheryl Treworgy

Then and Now: Cheryl Treworgy in 1966 as a college runner at Indiana State (above) and today as a mom, businesswoman and recreational runner (below).

Cheryl Treworgy, formerly known as Cheryl Bridges, was the first woman to earn an athletic scholarship to a public university when she entered Indiana State in 1966. She was a member of five U.S. World Cross Country Championship teams, with a best finish of fourth in the world in 1969. She then went on to set a world record in the marathon with a 2:49:40 at the 1971 Culver City Marathon. Treworgy remains involved in the sport through her online business,, and as a track mom -- her daughters Maggie and Shalane Flanagan are both successful runners for Marblehead (MA) High School and the University of North Carolina, respectively. (1/16/01) We saw on your web site that you started running as an overweight teenager, was weight loss really your motivation?
Cheryl Treworgy: Absolutely. The only motivation (laughs). It was too hard otherwise.

FW: Did you do other sports before you started running?
CT: There really weren't any available… just intramurals or "play days"… nothing that really involved much work. Phys. Ed. class was my only outlet so I took full advantage and took it all four years.

FW: At what age did you start running?
CT: I probably started at 16 and for a whole year just went to the track after band practice -- I was a majorette, that was about as physically fit as you could get -- and tried to go one more lap each time.

FW: Did people view you as strange?
CT: Back then I was painfully shy, so I didn't even know if people knew that I was doing it. I went to a really large high school -- North Central, in Indiana -- my graduating class was close to 1000... I was pretty obscure.

I grew up in an abuseful situation and [the running] was me getting in touch with my own strength. It gave me real solitude. I started going through a personality change... The School Board would not let me run in the same area of campus as the boys. Once I got my stamina up so I could run a mile or so, Mr. Reilly, the track coach and my social studies teacher, would start telling me little things to do. I'd be on one side of campus and the guys would be on the other. But someone saw me one of the first nights, close to the guys, and it went straight to the School Board, if you can believe it.

FW: What was the threat, in their minds?
CT: I don't know, they just didn't think it was a good idea. So I was isolated even more.

FW: But (running) was just something you were determined to do?
CT: Well, I didn't even think of it that way. The mentality is that when you've been abused, you do what you're told. You sort of don't think for yourself. I knew that I wanted to lose weight.

What started all of this was that I had read an article by Bill Bowerman in the Sunday newspaper supplement. He was talking about "jogging". It was a word that no one had used. He talked about running slowly and walking, and the cardiovascular part of it.

Both my parents had been athletic but they had boxy hips… all I could see was me with the boxy hips and I didn't want that. There were female swimmers at my school and they were my role models... but I couldn't swim. So I had to find something that I could do. [The swimmers] were in a sport that it was acceptable to be in -- and boy, I'll tell you, I would have done anything for a body like theirs. The thin hips, the broad shoulders the Greek God kind of majestic look, and of course it didn't hurt to have the streaky blond hair and all of that (laughs), but when I read about Bowerman's article, that was the impetus for me to get out of there and do it. That's when I started running and there were a lot of obstacles thrown up in front of me. But there was something inside, I don't know what it was, that kept me going. I guess it's the same thing a lot of people confront now -- they don't know why they keep doing it, but they know that they have to. And I felt the same thing.

FW: When did you start becoming competitive about your running and when did you realize you had talent?
CT: It took a while because the longest we were allowed to run was a half mile, and I was a big girl (at 5' 8") so they put me in the longer events because I couldn't come out of the blocks without killing myself. They kept moving me up thinking okay, the bigger the girl, the better she can handle the distance. So I tried it and it wasn't that I was good at it, I was just the only one willing to try it.

FW: This was the 800?
CT: Yeah! Everyone wanted to be a sprinter because that was more glamorous. Distance was not cool for a long time. I guess it was the summer between my junior and senior year that we had heard about this new sport that women were doing -- cross country. So I worked my way up to 2-1/4 or 2-1/2 miles, and I would either win or finish second to this one girl from Illinois (Lori Schutt) in all the races. We decided that I should go to the AAU Nationals. It was only the second year of the Nationals -- it was out here in Cambridge (Massachusetts) and I got seventh... It was pretty exciting. I went back thinking nobody knew I had done this because it was over Thanksgiving so you didn't have to miss school… but some people at my school did find out about it and I was recognized at an assembly...

FW: Were there other female runners at your school?
CT: No

FW: Any sprinters?
CT: No, nothing.

FW: Who did you compete against?
CT: My competition came from out of state. All through college, in order to get competition, on the weekends we would drive from Indiana to St. Louis... we would drive to Chicago... we would drive to Detroit... It was a haul. It was a real commitment that way. It wasn't easy, none of it was easy. To me it was sort of like an adventure - I got to go away every weekend. But even with the competition, it was either [Lori Schutt] or me and if I went to these other locations, I still won by so much that I didn't know what I [was capable of]. Even training-wise I wasn't sure what I was doing. And my whole goal was still just not to be fat.

FW: Even in college?
CT: In college, it started getting better. I was given what they called a "talented student scholarship." They didn't have women's athletics scholarships yet -- the only school that had them was Tennessee State... Indiana State has this fund for talented students -- and it was a first for a public school to give a woman an athletic scholarship. They had a lot of foresight in doing that. When I was a senior, we went down to the first AIAW Championships. There were four of us and we all tripled and ended up tying for second place as a team. It was great, we had a ball. Most of the teams had 24 kids, but there were just the four of us. We didn't even have money for a chaperone... Luckily back then you didn't have to be 25 to rent a car so I rented the car because I was the oldest one and I drove everybody. I kind of took the bull by the horns and we got ourselves a room and it was a real adventure. You don't see that kind of thing going on anymore.

When I went to Indiana State, they did not have a girls program, they kind of built it around me. I went through school in three years. The whole time I was there I didn't run collegiate meets because there weren't collegiate teams -- I still ran AAU. My first year of college, we contacted all the local boys high school teams and asked them if it was okay if I ran in their meets. I ran in the boys high school meets as a college kid and -- this is the humiliation we had to put up with -- so that I wouldn't mess up the start, they made me wait five seconds before I started. They got a five-second head start, but I never finished worse than third, and I won a lot of the races... What the coaches didn't realize was that it made me want to try harder, it made the guys want to try harder… we all really benefited from it.

FW: Did you have a coach during college?
CT: I did. He actually ended up being my first husband... He came back to Indiana State to do some graduate work. He was the assistant men's coach and I just worked out with the guys because there weren't any girls. I always trained with guys my entire life. The only time I got to train with girls was if I made an international team and we went for jogs when we went on the road.

FW: What kept you motivated to run through college?
CT: Well, you develop a certain pride in doing something well… Winning is addictive (laughs) it makes you feel awfully good. And I loved the sport. I loved [having] the ability to go out and push myself. And that's what I see that Shalane has. That's why I think Shalane will be a very good runner, because she loves training just as much as she does racing. I think the whole experience of being able to take on a challenge, like a hill or weather conditions... or seeing how fast you can go and how long you can hold it... All of those things all wrapped into the satisfaction [of knowing] that you are in charge of your own destiny... as well as the bond that you have with your mind and body... I think it's hard to get anywhere else.

FW: Was there any point in your career that the situation (for women) got better, or did you end your career before that happened?
CT: The big breakthrough was probably when they started letting us use the bathrooms (laughs). I'm not kidding. On the way home from meets we had to go to a gas station and I'd take a towel in and take a stand up shower.

You know, a lot of those breakthroughs came after I left the sport. The rankings of the elite… money came in after I ran. A world record nowadays… I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing, probably. Or maybe I would. But when I was running, we couldn't even accept money for travel. When I made the five World Cross Country teams... I had to pay my own way, I had to find my own funding... Society continually told us that we weren't valued… although they wanted great Olympic teams. But they didn't realize that there was this connection…. Even nowadays, it makes me sound like an old lady, but when I hear the athletes that are getting paid complain. I think, you've got nothing to complain about. You either love the sport and you'd be doing it regardless, or you wouldn't.

FW: A lot of today's runners say that you can't work full time and run a good marathon…How did that work out for you?
CT: You have no life. I taught phys. Ed. at the middle school level. Now that's draining enough. But then to do workouts before and after school... You have to have a routine. Thursday night was ironing night, Friday night was traveling night… I did lot of my best training when I was living in San Luis Obispo, California -- I had to drive 3-1/2 to 4 hours to find competition.

FW: When you were out there (in California) did you have a coach?
CT: Yes, it was still my then-husband. Except, at the ripe old age of 23, I thought I was washed up. And according to those standards, I was an old lady back then. And I was ready to retire. I was spent, I was really burned out. That was back when Prefontaine was running hot, and I decided I wanted to go out on top. So I wrote Bill Dellinger and asked him to coach me by mail. He wrote back and said "well, I've never coached a girl but it can't be a whole lot different, tell me your fastest times and what kinds of workouts you're used to doing and we'll give it a shot." And we did. And it was great. I was 3rd or 4th at Cross Country nationals again. I'd been in the top 10 for about 13 or 14 years and I didn't want to towards the 10 end, I wanted to be more towards the one or two end. And that's when I ran my world record in the marathon, because I was in such good shape for cross country. I wasn't doing the ultra distances, I was doing 65 miles a week average but I was just in awesome shape.

FW: Did you ever go above 65 miles a week?
CT: Yeah, yeah, I did some hundreds.

FW: How did that work out?
CT: It was okay, but I also had a tendency towards anorexia. When I moved out to California. I was much older than Mary Decker and my other competitors. These girls were much tinier than I was. I denied myself food in order to bring my weight down. Here I was -- I was 5'8" and I was competing right around 127-132. I got myself down to 115, after marathons I'd be 112. It wasn't good. I was one of the first women to be physiologically tested and I had 6 percent body fat… With what I did, it's amazing that my kidneys didn't shut down. I'm lucky. That's why with Shalane I was always on her case -- being thin is not the answer... I talked with her really early on about how that's not good and fortunately she's probably one of the [better] eaters that I've seen.

FW: It seems like [eating disorders] are still a big problem in the sport.
CT: Oh yes. And it's with the guys too... It is a big problem. I could rationalize it because I was running against [prepubescent girls]. I looked overweight compared to those kids. I would look around me and they were flying by me, so I really let that get to me. And because I had [previously] had a weight problem, I knew that I could easily put the weight back on… It took me a full five years before I could eat and not be afraid of the weight.

FW: What made you decide to quit running competitively, was that part of your decision?
CT: No, I was getting burned out. I had Shalane at 33 and Maggie at 36. This whole time I was working full time and trying to train. I was just burned out. I really did not stop running until 1986. I had ventricular tachycardia, a heart condition where you have an accelerated heart condition where it won't come down, and I was fortunate enough to be able to live through it. When they discovered me, my heart rate was around 275 beats per minute and I was there for an hour. They decided afterward that if I hadn't been the runner that I had been, I wouldn't have survived it.

FW: Did they know what caused the condition? Did it have anything to do with your running?
CT: It took them a long time to figure it out. They finally figured out that it was congenital, that there had always been these rebel cells inside my heart... My heart would just be racing and racing. It's the weirdest thing to just be sitting there and have a heart rate of 150, but that's what it was like. I was on some life-saving but horrible drugs for 7-1/2 years, but finally they came up with a procedure called radio frequency ablation. And basically it's microwaving your heart… they find the rebel cells, they go in and they fry them.

FW: Are you completely cured?
CT: They're 99.99% sure… The medication that they have for these heart conditions basically were meant for people in their eighties, not for people in their forties. I had no energy… I basically didn't do any running for seven years… I really stepped it down a notch. I'm really a fun runner now. It would be so easy to get competitive again (laughs) and I think about that, but every time I try to go out there, I've got all sorts of anatomical problems with my hips and my hamstrings, so that keeps me low key.

FW: You're able to enjoy running now?
CT: Oh yeah. My whole goal, when I have goals, is to train to be able to warm up with Shalane (laughs)... or warm down. Now it's much more fun for me to watch her and be there for her because for whatever reason, my parents rarely saw me run. I love watching her run. I go to every meet I possibly can… Jonathon Riley's dad (who is from Massachusetts also) came up to me at a cross country meet this fall and introduced himself and said "the four years go by really quickly, get to every meet you possibly can." I love being there, I love watching how she's learned to handle situations. I get to watch my daughter do something that we both love. And she's good at it. It's such a reward for me to be a part of that because a lot of parents, I don't think they can appreciate it to the same extent because they haven't experienced it. I know how hard it is to do what she's doing. I know what the pressures are, I know what's going on in her mind… It's nice to know that she wants me to be a part of it.

FW: Could you tell me about your business?
CT: It all started with the kids. When I had Shalane and Maggie, I was in business with Frank Shorter. We had a four-store chain... We got big enough that we had corporate offices. I became the buyer because out of all of the guys, I was the only one that paid attention to numbers... When I had Shalane, I still had a runners' body and I had an 'A' cup... but I went up to a D cup. And because I was a buyer, I knew all of the bras out there [and that nothing was satisfactory], so I started playing around with these bandages and I'd do everything to bind [my breasts] up... It wasn't until Maggie came along in 1983 and I thought here we go again... A friend of mine stitched up some samples and I'd go to the grocery store with two kids in tow, looking for big-breasted women, asking them if they wanted to be testers. No one turned me down. Boulder was such a wonderful environment, people didn't look at you cross eyed. So we would have these wine and cheese parties and we would put samples out on the table and we'd take measurements and have these women test them...

My real concern was the 'D' [and] 'DD' [cups]… I talked with buyers from all the big department stores and they just didn't have the money to put into it... When [businesses started going] on the Web, I thought, that's it, go directly to the consumer... And [when Shalane qualified for the World Junior Cross Country team] I bought myself a digital camera, took some quick lessons, hopped on the plane, went over, took pictures, and I was off and running. When I came back, I started going to more and more [events]. Since May, I really started going full force on this, trying to get the site up and trying to be creative and jump on opportunities when they come my way.

...I want this site to be an opportunity for people to let me know what it is that they can't find. Like when I went to National Scholastics, [I asked] the high jumpers that are 6'1" and obviously have a longer torso, "is there anything that you need that you can't find?" And immediately [they said] "longer pants, longer shirts." Well that's a no-brainer, that doesn't take a lot. …Even though I'm starting with the athletic market on my site, because the athletic market understands jogbras, my designs go beyond the athletic market. They really go into any woman who wears a bra that wants to be more comfortable, and that's where the 'D', 'DDs' are going to come and that's where the mastectomy bras are going to come and the fact is, everybody knows somebody else and just because it may be runners coming to my site, they've got mothers and sisters and other women who may need my other bra designs. [The site] is also another opportunity to market other small manufacturers who have good products but they can't get in the stores.

It's one of those opportunities to get back with a sport that I love and also serve women... So many women feel that their identity is tied up with their breasts, so they have love-hate relationships with their bodies. And because I was abused as a child, I could identify with the confusion that they were going through... I know women who have been uncomfortable in bras all their lives and they just want something that feels good. And I'm thinking, well, try mine.

I look at my whole life and everything has been a logical step... Nothing has really come out of the left or the right field, it's just sort of always been there as a natural progression. What's fun now is that no, I didn't make the bucks running the world record in the marathon, but I am still involved in the sport in such a way that I get to go to these meets and watch the kids and meet the parents and take the interesting photographs because I know where all the interesting stuff happens... It's just a real opportunity to hopefully make a living and get back with all the things I absolutely love.

FW: What did you wear for a bra when you were running?
CT: (Laughing) I wore the Bali Snowflake underwire that gave you the little scabs between your breasts -- so I knew exactly what women needed. When I started running, I was a 'C' cup and I knew that if those breasts moved, by golly, you were in deep trouble. I can remember being a 'D' cup -- it's been 17 years now, but boy, you never forget it, and I still have the little scars there.

FW: Did you look up to anyone when you were running?
CT: Oh yeah. Madeline Manning was a beautiful half-miler, absolutely gorgeous. I would have loved to have been able to to run like her. I can't say I really had any long distance idols because there weren't many... Madeline was probably the one I admired the most because she was so graceful and such a beautiful runner.

FW: When you ran your marathon world record (a 2:49:40 at Culver City in 1971), did you encounter any opposition?
CT: After 20 mile mark an ex-marine kept kind of trying to force me off the road -- guys around were trying to block him... The week after I got hate mail and it came from a Marine base down in San Diego and it was like boy, wow. But for the most part, people were very encouraging -- they knew that you had done your work...

FW: Did you run other marathons after that?
CT: I ran Marathon Marathon sponsored by Marathon Oil Company the next summer, a 2:55:43 in August... That was probably a better effort than the 2:49. I ran a couple others, nothing terribly notable, I ran Chicago in 2:58... Marathons were okay but I really liked 20ks, 15ks, I liked being able to go fast more than I liked being able to endure.

FW: Do you think you were more of a cross country runner than anything else?
CT: It's interesting, I always ran track. Cross country was probably where I did best. If they had ever put that in the Olympics, look out! ...Back when I was in college I ran steeplechase races for workouts because of the hip flexors and the stamina that it took. A lot of people don't even know that I ran cross country -- they know me for the marathon -- they don't even know that I made five [World Cross Country Championship] teams. I'm proud of that because it was not easy...

FW: Who were the big names that you competed against internationally?
CT: Well, Doris Brown (Heritage) won forever... A lot of the English gals -- Rita Ridley was winning back then, Joan Page... It wasn't until the later seventies that they allowed some more of the countries in. At first it was just Wales, England, Scotland, the US In the later years Australia started competing, France, Italy and some of the other countries. It was before Ingrid Kristiansen, before any of the real popular names. I was just in there in obscurity with the rest of them (laughs).

FW: Did you ever run in an Olympic Trials?
CT: No, no because 1,500m was as long as they went! ...I thought steeple would have been my event. I was so much bigger than everyone else. In my workouts we used to hurdle 4x4s. I wasn't allowed to step on them -- I could hurdle them just like the guys. That was probably the event that would have been mine if times had been different.

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