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Track and field bond continues to link former student-athletes

By Zak Keefer

They’re blaming Connie for this one.

The trip was all planned out – a couple of days in the Florida sun, three old friends catching up and looking back. The tradition held steady every five years, each of the former track and field stars taking a brief respite from their chaotic schedules and the unending demands of the real world. 

At 30, 35, 40, 45… they hadn’t missed one yet. Marriages, kids, coaching, new jobs; through it all, they’d always found a long weekend, a couple of days here or there, to make it work. This time? It was going to be special. It was the big one. They were all turning 50.

Then, out of nowhere, the real world intruded: Southern Illinois, where Connie Price-Smith is the head men’s and women’s track and field coach, decided to replace its men’s basketball coach and Smith was on the search committee.

Goodbye, Florida.

“We wanted to kill her,” said Price-Smith’s longtime friend, Candy Young, who first met her at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships 28 years ago. “But we weren’t all that surprised something like this happened.”

The outing, for now, will have to wait. They’re all busy: In addition to Price-Smith’s work at Southern Illinois, Young is the associate athletics director at Delaware State and Joetta Clark Diggs, is an entrepreneur and motivational speaker based in New Jersey.

Track and field brought together three of its rising stars from different sectors of the country, each with a unique road to success. Young was a Farleigh Dickinson Knight who ran hurdles. Clark Diggs was a Tennessee Volunteer who specialized in the 800 meters. Price-Smith was a Southern Illinois Saluki who threw the shot put and discus. 

Though they’re now strewn across the country, the bond remains firm for the three accomplished female track stars. They first met in the 1980s, trekking from one continent to another to compete against the best athletes the world had to offer. 

“That’s the most important thing to remember, that the sport introduced us to each other,” said Clark Diggs. “Track and field has played such a huge role in our lives, and it’s taught us so many things. As you get older, you begin to appreciate that.”

Young, one of the nation’s top female hurdlers for the better part of two decades, set the women’s world record for the 55-meter hurdles as a 16-year old in 1978. That summer, she was invited to spend a week at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. There, she met promising middle-distance runner Joetta Clark who would soon set an 800-meter high school record that would stand for 28 years.

“We’ve been friends ever since that camp,” Joetta recalls. “When we weren’t together, we’d write letters, keeping each other up to date on how we were doing.”

A few years later, at the ’84 NCAA outdoor championships, a Southern Illinois basketball player moonlighting her senior year as a discus thrower and shot putter entered the national track and field scene. Albeit a bit late, Connie Price-Smith had found her true talent lay in the track arena and not the basketball gym.

Eight summers later, she became the first female in 32 years to win both throwing events at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

And through it all, she had her two closest friends.

“What I remember the most are the laughs,” said Price-Smith. “We had such a ball. We were always traveling, competing all across the world, on buses going from one meet to the next. It was fun, it was a lot of hard work and it was a great experience.”

“They became that home, the family away from home,” said Young.

These days, the trio, all of whom turn 50 in 2012, catch up when time allows. They see each other at track meets, various conventions and at their five-year reunions. This year’s trip to Florida will be pushed back until late summer: Price-Smith is a U.S. Olympic coach for this summer’s Games.

Nonetheless, it’s a trip “that will happen no matter what,” promised Clark Diggs.

Each has drawn from their careers on the track for their life off it. Young jumped into the coaching world soon after the birth of her daughter in 1992. She worked at Seton Hall and Ohio State, among other schools, before landing her current gig at Delaware State.

Clark Diggs became renowned for her longevity. A five-time U.S. outdoor national champion, she won NCAA titles in 1983 and ’84. She qualified for the Olympic squad in 1988, ’92, ’96 and 2000. She made headlines by grabbing her final Olympic berth at age 37, snaring third place by .01 of a second in the 800-meter trials final.

She now runs Joetta Sports and Beyond in her home state of New Jersey. She’s an author, motivational speaker and executive director of the Joetta Clark Diggs Sports Foundation. In the summers, she runs a track and field camp.

Price-Smith also competed in each Olympic Games from ’88-2000. Her best finish came in Atlanta in ’96, where she grabbed fifth in the shot put. Following her final appearance four years later, she took to the coaching circuit. Young hired her at Ohio State.

Now Price-Smith is in her 12th year coaching the women’s track and field program at her alma mater (she’s coached the men for seven years). She’s served as a coach at the national level on a number of occasions.

With the accolades now a memory, the conversations between the three these days have drifted from personal bests and summer circuits to kids, coaching and families. 

Every once in a while, they’ll revisit their heyday, popping in old videos of track meets and reminiscing about the glory days.

“When we see each other, it’s almost like no time has passed at all,” Connie said. “The love, admiration and friendship… it’s all still there.”