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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Athletics

She Is Legend

Coach Heritage retires

Doris Heritage, five-time world champion and two-time Olympian
Doris Heritage became not only a Falcon icon, but also one of the trailblazing women athletes in the world.

Every era must come to an end — including one of the most notable eras for Seattle Pacific University. Doris Heritage, legendary five-time world champion and two-time Olympian, has turned in the keys to her longtime Brougham Pavilion office, making her retirement official. Sort of.


During her 30 years as head cross country coach and assistant track coach at SPU, Heritage has been instrumental in establishing Falcon runners as an NCAA Division II force. At the end of her final cross country season last year, she saw the women’s cross country team battle to its best-ever finish — second in the nation — with sophomore Jessica Pixler taking the national title. Topping off the season, Heritage was named the 2007 Great Northwest Athletic Conference and West Region Coach of the Year. (All told, she’s been named conference Coach of the Year nine times, three times in the GNAC and six times when SPU was part of the PacWest Conference.)


This year, she took on the role of assistant cross country coach, helping new head coach Erika Botha Daligcon ’98 lead the Falcon women harriers to fourth in the NCAA Division II cross country championships. Again, Pixler led the way, earning a second straight national championship.


Most of Heritage’s 66 years have been spent at Seattle Pacific. Raised in Gig Harbor, Washington, she grew up work-ing on the 25-acre family farm — and running whenever she could. It was, she remembers, an ideal childhood. “When we were done working, we’d run down the beach, or run through the woods and see if we could find a bear,” she says, laughing. “He’d go one way, and we’d go the other.”


She entered Seattle Pacific College as Doris Severtsen, majoring in physical education. She also began training with Falcon track and field coach Ken Foreman before any women’s athletic teams existed. In his book The Fragile Champion, Foreman recounts their first meeting in 1960. The petite freshman had heard he had experience working with female athletes and “wondered if I would help her achieve her dream of being a successful runner.” By the time she graduated in 1964, she had set two American records.


From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Heritage was at her running peak — setting national and international records at every distance from 440 yards to 800 meters, the mile, and 3,000 meters. She was the first woman ever to run a mile in under five minutes.


It was this kind of ├╝ber drive and experience that Heritage brought with her when she returned to her alma mater after teaching and coaching at a Shoreline, Washington, junior high school from 1965 to 1969.
She became a Seattle Pacific physical education professor, as well as a cross country coach — first as assistant and later as head — and assistant track coach. When she eventually left the classroom with emerita status, she remained as head cross country coach.


Spending decades in the same workplace, Heritage’s personal life mingled with her career: In 1974, she took nine students and five others on a study abroad trip to climb Mt. Everest in Nepal. Although she broke her wrist during the climb — while carrying a student’s 50-pound pack in addition to her own — another member of the climbing team, Ralph Heritage, who was experienced in mountain search and rescue, splinted her wrist, brought a doctor to her, and helped her continue the climb. She and the students ultimately reached the 19,000-foot level, and she and Ralph became friends, marrying in 1975.


Two years later, she and her husband worked side-by-side with the track team to build their Pan-Abode log home in West Seattle. (It was a year after she ran the New York Marathon, the second — and last — marathon she ever ran. She finished second in the women’s division.) “This woman is amazing,” says her husband of 33 years. “She has been a blessing in my life that I don’t deserve.”


Fast forward to 2004: Following 11 surgeries and years of running in pain, Heritage had her left hip replaced, and her orthopedic surgeon advised her to stop running. Because her muscles were stronger than her bones, the new hip dislocated repeatedly, and painfully. She had the hip replaced again, this time with a larger joint, making her left leg slightly longer. “It’s like my legs belong to two different people,” she says. Still, she convinced her surgeon to let her run again … uphill. “It’s low-impact and a short stride,” she says. “That has worked for me, and the doctor is OK with that.”


In 2008, Heritage finally stepped down and was replaced by her longtime assistant, Daligcon. “How can you actually step into Doris’ shoes?” asks Daligcon. “I have to look at it as a different pair of shoes.” Adds SPU President Philip Eaton, “Doris has had an extraordinary career as an athlete and coach. We celebrate her outstanding achievements and her remarkable loyalty to Seattle Pacific.”


In addition to being asked to take on assistant coach duties for Daligcon, Heritage has also been sought out by her former runners who are now junior high and high school coaches to work with their young runners. Yet she and Ralph have discussed visiting missionary friends in Israel and Nigeria. “God has a plan for service, and we can’t just sit out in the garden and watch the grass grow,” says Ralph Heritage. “We want to do something that continues to make a meaningful contribution to life.”
Adds Coach Heritage: “Victories can be pretty hollow if all you did was beat everybody else. It’s the journey toward the destination that gives you the satisfaction, and meaning, in your life.”


—By Hope McPherson (hmcpherson@spu.edu)

 

Online Exclusives:

Doris Heritage Has Her Say

Doris Heritage: A World-Class Trailblazer


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Department Highlights

National Champions!
Falcon women’s soccer win a national championship in overtime.

Soccer, Pixler Headline Season
The Falcon fall included individual and team national championships.

She Is Legend
Doris Heritage retires after 30 years as cross country and track coach.

Foreman Honored at U.S. Olympic Trials
A retired Falcon coach honored for boycotted Moscow Olympics.