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Remembering greatness

For 30 years, the girls' track team at William Penn embodied excellence.

Photo: Benjamin Herold

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Though Willam Penn High School experienced many changes during the last 30 years, one thing could always be counted on.

No matter what, the girls’ track team always ran fast.

Beginning in 1983, the Penn girls reeled off a 20-year regular-season unbeaten streak, winning 18 Public League championships and 18 Pennsylvania Coaches’ Association indoor state championships along the way.

Even more impressive, the team set five national scholastic records and reached the finals in at least one event at the Penn Relays for 20 straight years, winning twice during that stretch and three times overall.

Summing up the team’s greatness, The Inquirer called the Penn girls simply "the best, by far."

But now, with William Penn temporarily shuttered and the track program disbanded, their legacy is without a home. Beating the best

Memories of the Penn track team live mostly in the voluminous scrapbooks of legendary former coach Tim Hickey.

It takes a large bookcase, several tables, and nearly every wall of his home to hold the history Hickey has carefully preserved.

"Other people had families. I had my track girls," he says.

Leafing through the old clippings and photos, Hickey remembers every athlete and every meet.

But the image that generates the biggest reaction is not of his girls at Penn. Instead, it’s of their archrivals from powerhouse Brooklyn Tech, crying in defeat following the dramatic finals of the 4 x 800 meter relay at the 1979 Penn Relays.

"Oh, we loved this photo," laughs Hickey. "It was not a friendly competition."

‘No such thing’ as girls’ track

For over a year, Hickey and his runners – Rosie Richardson, Pam Hughes, Valerie Fisher, and Cynthia Colquitt – had been chasing the national scholastic record in the 4 x 800.

In a preliminary heat at the Penn Relays – then, as now, the biggest track meet on the East Coast – Hickey’s girls finally broke the record.

Unfortunately, they also finished 3.2 seconds behind Brooklyn Tech.

But in the finals the next day, running in a steady rain, the Penn team broke the new record and beat Brooklyn Tech by more than seven seconds.

"We’d been together so long, and we’d been pointing for the [record] the whole year," Hickey says. "To have it come off like that was just fantastic."

Just five years before that record-breaking 1979 relay, girls’ track did not exist in the District.

"They didn’t think girls could run 100 meters," Hickey remembers. "It was crazy."

He knew better.

During a three-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, Hickey had coached the Tanzanian women’s national track team.

And not long after he arrived in Philadelphia to become a math teacher at Vaux Middle School, he met 14-year old Pat Helms, who would go on to run with the U.S. women’s national team while still in junior high.

Hickey wanted to coach at Vaux but was rebuffed.

"I asked about girls’ track, and they said there was no such thing," he said. "If you were a girl at that time, the only way you could compete was at the club level."

So Hickey started his own club team, Klub Keystone, which quickly began competing all over the country.

In 1972, Hickey followed Helms and some of his other young standouts from Vaux to William Penn, at the time still an all-girls school serving grades 10-12 in the building on North 15th Street that is now Franklin Learning Center.

It wasn’t until 1975, after the federal government enacted Title IX, which bars schools from excluding students from educational programs of any kind on the basis of their sex, that there was a real citywide championship and Public League schedule of meets.

"That was when girls’ sports really exploded on the school level," Hickey says.

"We had some really good club kids, but the [first] really good William Penn bunch … was the group in ’79 that broke the national record."

The best years

It wasn’t long until Hickey had his next standout runners.

In 1982, Shawn Nix (nee Moore) started as a freshman at William Penn.

Eventually, Nix would go on to anchor a winning Penn Relays 4 x 400 team in 1985, as well as compete for the U. S. Junior World Team as a hurdler. During Nix’s sophomore year, Penn would win the first of what would become 20 consecutive Public League titles.

But first, she had to learn her way around William Penn’s new facility at Broad and Master Streets, which had opened in 1975.

"It was a huge, contemporary building – a unique school," remembers Nix. "I knew how to get to one class, nowhere else."

There were other problems to navigate.

Since the move, William Penn had begun admitting boys, added a 9th grade, and became a true neighborhood school – all of which contributed to rising disciplinary issues, Hickey says.

There were also significant issues with the new building.

"When you went behind the walls, it was a complete shambles from the very beginning," remembers Hickey, citing faulty heating, air-conditioning, and electrical systems.

"It was this big modern thing with 24 doors that could not be locked, which turned out to be a disaster," he continues. "You’d have guys who didn’t even go to the school run in, beat somebody up, run back out."

For Nix, there were two saving graces at William Penn: the track team and a self-contained Communications magnet program, where Hickey taught.

"We stuck together like a family in that magnet program," Nix says. "And once track practice started, I was comfortable."

The team didn’t have a practice facility but made the most of their surroundings, running sprints on the nearby 15th Street sidewalks. And despite a lack of outside financial support, Hickey always came up with the money to travel to meets and get adequate gear.

As it turned out, a skeptical principal and a fence erected around the school building presented Hickey and his girls with their biggest challenge.

"I had a principal who actually told me I was a failure as a coach because I hadn’t taught my girls how to lose!" Hickey says.

"She wouldn’t OK us leaving to go anywhere, and the only way out [of school grounds] was to climb over the fence. So for 15 years, [we were] sneaking out and climbing over the fence to go to the Penn Relays."

Hickey retired from teaching in 2003, but he still volunteers as an assistant coach, now with the standout Swenson girls’ track team, and he stays in regular contact with many of his runners.

The girls – now women, with careers and families of their own – say it was all worth it.

Rose Richardson, who ran the lead leg on the record-breaking 1979 relay team, briefly attended Delaware State University on a track scholarship and now works as a custodian at a North Philadelphia elementary school.

"Hickey brought out a lot in all of us," she says.

"I was always nervous, but when I ran, I was all right."

And Shawn Nix, now a physical education teacher and real estate agent in Atlanta, went on to the University of Tennessee, where she won a national championship in the 4 x 800 relay and earned her degree in criminal justice.

She said although she got to travel the world because of track, William Penn will always be home.

"It shaped who I am today," Nix says.

"If there was a place I could go back to in my life, it would be running high school track."

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