Middle-distance runner Gretchen Saar of Montgomery-Rockville Community College competed with the men's team all season.
Last weekend in Dodge City, Kan., she walked away from the National Junior College Athletic Association women's track and field championships with a gold medal in the 880-yard run and a bronze in the mile. Competing as a one-woman squad representing the Knights, she brought the Rockville school its first national championship.
"It was the first time in college that Gretchen had competed against women," said Montgomery coach Jim Davis. "In the mile the pace was slower than she had been used to running with the men, so she took the lead early and led by as much as 50 yeards before she burned herself out. If not for that, she might have had two golds."
Saar, in her final year at Montgomery, has been compelled to run with the men since the school has no women's team. She was no newcomer to mixed competition, having run with the boys' quarter-mile team in winter track at Magruder High School. The Pennsylvanian has lived in the Washington area for eight years.
Although Saar never placed among the top three in a race this season, it did not bother Davis. His objective was for Saar to record times low enough to qualify her for the women's national meet. She would often start with the men in a mile race and drop out halfway through to get a clocking for the 880.
Saar, who has run best times of 5:13.1 in the mile and 2:15.2 in the 880, is undecided about her athletic future. "If she were in Kansas or someplace like that where women's track is big, she would have no trouble getting a scholarship from a four-year school," Davis said. "But she suffers from the lack of interest in women's track in this area."
Knight squad did not trouble Saar, her teammates of competitors. "Gretchen's bubbly personality immediately won over whomever she came into contact with," Davis said.
"We had a meet at Navy and you should have ssen the shocked expressions on their faces at first. But soon after the initial surprise, she had them in her hands. The guys she competes against are all impressed with her times," Saar was the team's unanimous choice as most improved runner this year.
Davis, who is stepping down after 13 years of coaching at Montgomery, but will remain on the faculty, has been most affected by Saar's attitude. "Gretchen does not miss practices or complain like so many males I've coached," he said. "It is so enthusiastic. She was so popular at the Dodge City meet that women on the other teams were rooting for her to win.
"When we were driving back from teh nationals early one morning I glanced over at her holding her medals," Davis said. "I'll tell you, seeing that sunlight streaming down on her face while she was looking at those medals was a beautiful way to end a coaching career."