Tracy had coached our San Luis Obispo Track Club the 1972-73 school year when we had both lived there, then he had taken a job with the La Jolla Track Club near San Diego. Tracy knew I’d met Wilt a few years earlier and wanted to meet him, too. Since Wilt loved track and field, especially women’s track and field, it seemed natural to make the connection at a track meet. My best friend Patty Van Wolvelaere was America’s top hurdler at the time. Patty, Wilt, and I had spent a lot of time together, so when Tracy reminded us again that he wanted to meet Wilt, Patty Van and I brought him with us to the state meet.
“Wilt had been a huge track buff for years,” said Tracy. “We clicked immediately and in a few weeks, right after the nationals, we were off on a two-week motor home trip through the Pacific Northwest. Patty Van popped in and out a few times while visiting family in Seattle. One time Wilt was asleep in the back of the motor home and I was driving. I had no idea where we were. We were waiting in a line at a drawbridge in East Puckyboo somewhere. There’s a knock at the door. Someone said, ‘We heard Wilt is here. Can we meet him?’
That’s what it was always like traveling with Wilt: The Wiltie hotline spread the news like wildfire and people flocked toward him for a chance to see or meet him.
“During those two weeks, I was eating with him mouthful for mouthful, “said Tracy, “and I gained 23 pounds. At the end of the trip, Wilt bet me that I couldn’t lose that weight in the same two weeks I had gained it. Whoever won the bet would pay for a meal at any restaurant of the winner’s choosing.”
Tracy made the weigh-in and told Wilt he wanted to eat at their favorite restaurant in Vancouver. “That’s not fair,” Wilt complained, but laughed when Tracy said, “that’s where I gained it, and you didn’t say it had to be any specific place.” Back in Vancouver, at Simon Frazier University, Wilt and Tracy were shooting around in the gym. Wilt was nailing it, hitting only the net from all over, even at half court. “What’s your problem with the foul line?” Tracy asked him. (Wilt was notorious for missing free shots.)
Wilt’s Wonder Women Track Club started after that. Wilt was retiring from the NBA and even though Sport Illustrated said said they didn’t pay anyone for interviews, they came through with $5,000 for Wilt to announce his retirement in their magazine.
“That started the club,” said Tracy. The La Jolla Track Club became Wilt’s Wonder Women. The photographer from SI showed up to take some casual shots of the new team as part of their work on the article.
Wilt’s Wonder Women Track Club was a major player in women’s track and field on both the individual and team level. The team did well in all the categories: Youth, Junior, and Senior, and in all events, with several athletes winning national championships and making their national teams. There were a lot of young “age groupers” running around at practices, and every once in a while Wilt would show up unexpectedly to rake the long jump pit or simply cheer them on and offer some friendly sports advice. He may have been a basketball play, but he loved track and field.
“He changed all these kids’ lives,” said Tracy. “I can say that without any hesitation because of who he was and what he told them and how he carried himself and the affection he showed to them in a genuine, caring way. He was always looking out for their best interests. They all knew he was a big deal, but they didn’t treat him like a big deal. He sincerely cared about each one of them and everything he did was purely natural and from the heart. They were all very lucky to have this marvelous, unique father figure.”
While many of the athletes were young girls up to high school age, there were a few of us old enough to hang out socially with Wilt. We would go dancing at the Jabberwocky night club in San Diego or other places Wilt liked in L.A. None of us were really drinkers — we just enjoyed dancing and laughing with this larger than life man who knew how to have fun.
On race days, we showed up fully present at the starting line. At 27, I was the oldest female on Wilt’s team, and during my college days, no one had suggested that sprinters do any distance training. But Tracy entered me in my first 1.75 mile cross country race in 1974. I had never raced longer than 220 yards, so I went out much faster than an experienced runner at that distance would have. That meant I faced a huge hurt for a very long time as I refused to slow down. That race made a good last story in my autobiography, A Running Start: An Athlete, A Woman. And it had a great last photo. After three years of bantering with Wilt, that was the day that I felt I had finally earned his respect.
Elite athletes sometimes contacted Tracy to join the team. Sprinter Cathy Lawson was a world class sprinter and would move to La Jolla from New England if Tracy could provide chiropractic care for her. Tracy was directed to learned of John Thie, D.C. in Pasadena by Cathy’s chiropractor in Massachusetts, but when he called, learned that Dr. Thie was on vacation for two weeks. LeRoy Perry, D.C. was Dr. Thie’s partner and said he could do everything Dr. Thie did. With much skepticism, Tracy drove Cathy to Pasadena and Cathy liked what he did for her. Before long, Tracy was regularly taking the girls in a motor home to Pasadena after practice. They invited Dr. Perry to some of their meets, but he wasn’t allowed in the training area by “the real doctors,” so he set up a table underneath the stands and the treated the athletes there.
Wilt’s Wonder Women and Dr. Perry made their mark on the track world when Patty Van Wolvelaere and Tracy organized a track and field clinic at Mira Costa College in 1974. Their friends were the biggest names in the sport and over 500 athletes and coaches came to the clinic. At one point during the clinic, everyone was in the gym. Dr. Perry had Al Feuerbach who was the world record holder in the shot put lying on a table. After some manipulations and acupressure, Al couldn’t lift his arm and he couldn’t do a sit up. Then LeRoy undid his work and Al could move normally again. It seemed to those watching that Dr. Perry had performed some kind of magic. LeRoy became the center of chiropractic in T&F.
“Wilt never got the credit he deserved in supporting women’s athletics,” said Tracy. “Here was the world’s most famous, most visible athlete of the time promoting women’s athletics right around the time of Title IX, showing up at women’s track meets. He was saying, ‘Hey World, wake up – these women are great athletes.’ He put them front and center. It was very good for the sport as a whole, because he would go to track meets all over the world. Wilt’s visibility contributed to bringing the women into the big time.”
Women’s track meets had been held separately from the men’s meets. But the media was hungry for Wilt, so meet promoters began thinking differently about including women in their meets since they knew it could mean Wilt would show up. He might sit in the press box or to help measure the long jump or the javelin. That was a story all in itself. Wiltie greatly enjoyed being around the sport he loved, and since he was focusing the powerful light of his presence on women’s track, it helped change the sport. Starting in 1976, the sports reporters wrote about both men and women who were competing together for the first time at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Tracy Sundlun coached Wilt’s Wonder Women for two seasons. When he left to coach at USC, the team returned to its former name of La Jolla Track Club. Wilt maintained his relationship with the sport, attending the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, the World Cup of T&F in Montreal in 1979, and the first World Athletics Championships in Helsinki in 1983. Also in the 1980s, he started Wilt’s Athletic Club with UCLA track coach Bobby Kersee. Team members were the top track athletes in the world: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner, Andre Phillips, Gail Devers, Valerie Brisco, Jeannette Bolden, and others.
Years later, Wilt found a way to merge two of his loves, music and running. He had owned a night club in Harlem during the years he played for the Philadelphia Warriors. He loved music as much as he loved athletics. So when Tracy Sundlun established the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998, Wilt became involved as a celebrity founder.
At the pasta dinner the night before that first race, Wilt spoke, telling of his affinity for cross country when he had been at Overbrook High School. Every Fall he would run cross country only to be crushed by faster distance runners. He told the crowd that night that when basketball season started, and he got to see those guys and those teams again, it had been purely for revenge as he ran up the score against them.
August 21st would have been Wilt’s 78th birthday. Each year, I enjoy a walk down memory lane by writing the blog about some aspect of the 28 years I enjoyed his company.
Lynda Huey, M.S., founder of CompletePT Pool & Land Physical Therapy and Huey’s Athletic Network, was a member of Wilt’s Wonder Women. She has cross trained many of the world’s best athletes in water from track and field, basketball, baseball, tennis, ice hockey and other sports. Lynda, an international speaker, is the author of four books on water exercise and water rehabilitation. She has licensed her pool protocols to major health care providers, and her training methods will soon be available online at LyndaHuey.com.