Toni St. Pierre Just Wanted to Run
How a headstrong teenager took the Minnesota State High School League to court in the 1970s, setting a precedent for high school girls to compete in sports.
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At 16, Toni St. Pierre was a natural athlete in the way of someone who’s grown up careening around the neighborhood on bikes, playing kick the can, five hundred, and hot box, and since this was Minnesota — all manner of messing around on snow and ice. She held her own in all the unorganized sports kids did circa 1970.
But opportunities for girls to train and compete in organized sports were slim to none at Hopkins Eisenhower High School in suburban Minneapolis. Since there was no girls cross country team, St. Pierre was invited by the coach to work out with the boys’ team. But competing, that was tricky. If any other coaches or officials complained, that was it — she couldn’t run. Section 8 of the 1971-1972 Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) handbook prohibited girls from participating on boys’ teams.
This didn’t sit well with St. Pierre, who wasn’t fond of people telling her what she could or couldn’t do. She loved running, she could keep up with the boys, and saw no reason why she, or any other girl, shouldn’t be able to train and compete like the boys. And, since there was no girls’ program, with the boys. It was simply right; it was the rule that was wrong.
A Precedent Opens Possibilities
So, her junior year of high school in early 1972,Toni St. Pierre sued the Minnesota State High School League, requesting she be able to train and compete in cross country running and skiing, which at the time were only boys’ interscholastic sports. The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union combined St. Pierre’s case with that of Peggy Brenden, a tennis player who’d filed a similar lawsuit.
On May 1, 1972, the U.S. District Court of Minnesota decided in the girls’ favor.
Ostensibly a victory, it’s also notable for what the decision did not do. The court did not say that competitive sports for St. Pierre and Brenden was a right, rather that the girls proved that they were talented and committed enough to participate. Something no boy had to do. And the decision affected only those two girls in those three sports.
But what it did do was set a precedent. People, other girls, saw possibility where there had been none. The state high school league saw it too. Unless they wanted to spend their time and money defending themselves against more lawsuits, they had to put some muscle behind their 1969 resolution to develop girls’ interscholastic sports. The same thing had been happening across the country. Critical mass had been reached. On June 23, 1972, the Equal Opportunity in Education Act — Title IX — was signed into law.
In retrospect, what Toni was able to accomplish was an astounding paradigm shift. Previously, if the absence of women’s sports came up at all, it was met with a shrug — that’s just the way things were, like gravity. Perhaps some women convinced themselves they didn’t really want to sweat and get uncomfortable anyway. And then there were the cumbersome logistics. Who do you call? How do you file a lawsuit? Writing letters, going to court — it’s a lot of work. Better let someone else do it.
The few women who entered races knew and accepted the rules, like Bobbi Gibb. As long as you didn’t rock the boat and try to race officially, sure, you could run in the Boston Marathon. But circumventing laws rather than challenging them head on isn’t how you change anything. Real, systemic change means ruffling feathers.
Take, for example, Kathrine Switzer, who drew fire in 1967 because she insisted on racing the Boston Marathon officially, number and all, like a man. Similar to Switzer, Toni was not content to compete under the table to appease some old men on the wrong side of history. She wanted to run and compete officially, like the boys, for all the same reasons boys did: to pursue athletic dreams and destinies. Because she enjoyed athletic competition; it made her feel good. And that was the crux of the matter — she wanted to be treated as fully human.
A Family of Strong Women
Who was this headstrong girl? Toni passed away in 2013 at the age of 58 of a rare cancer of the smooth muscle, which came to light, ironically, while she was training for the Boston Marathon. So we have to rely on others who crossed her path, different views of this rebel who wanted not only to run but to compete, and was willing to shift the world a little to make that happen. We tracked some of those people down.
There was just Toni — Antoinette, but no one called her that — her younger brother Sam, their mom, Marie, a nurse, and dad, a railroad worker. The family of four lived in small town Staples, Minn. The parents divorced when Toni was 11, and the kids and mom moved in with their maternal grandparents in Hopkins, a western suburb of Minneapolis.
“It was kind of an odd thing to happen back then,” Sam told PodiumRunner. “Divorce had kind of a stigma. Moving and trying to find her place, it was hard on Toni.”
Between cousins and a neighborhood full of kids, the two were quickly assimilated in their new home. “Nobody believed in sitting around watching TV,” Sam remembered. “We’d go off on our bikes, from place to place all day long. Toni wasn’t exceptional in terms of athletics. But she was real headstrong — she wouldn’t take shit from anyone.”
West Junior High included grades 7, 8, and 9. That was where Toni first encountered Pat Lanin, a science teacher, who was also the boys cross country coach, and the high school’s boys’ track and cross country ski coach. He was also founder of the Minnesota Distance Running Association, president of Minnesota AAU track, and all-around instigator of endurance sports, for men and women.
Toni, Sam remembered, participated in sort of one-off track meets in 8th or 9th grade. “She was looking for something to do, an outlet,” Sam said. “I was at the other end of the spectrum. I was smoking dope and going to keggers. She did some of that, but realized that wasn’t where she wanted to go.”
The running thing became more frequent. Toni started going out on her own in the morning, with her grandfather hunched behind the wheel of the car, trailing her around their green and leafy neighborhood. Apparently a security detail. This, like much of their lives, was an edict from the unrivaled boss of the extended family, Grandma Loosen. Devout Catholic, bowler, chronic speeder, plain talker, described as “tough as a boiled owl” — very few messed with Toni’s grandma.
Grandma Loosen was outwardly a staunch conservative — there were things that men and boys did, and things that women and girls did. Running around in shorts and competing against boys was definitely not something girls did.
“She put up a little bit of a stink at first, but when she saw that’s what her granddaughter really wanted, she was 100 percent behind it,” Sam said.
Marie, Toni’s mom, had managed to extricate herself from a bad marriage, and was raising two kids on her own. She was used to standing up for herself, and her children.
Toni, Sam said, was of the same mold. “She wasn’t a rule follower — no, I wouldn’t call her that. She was a bit of a rebel, but not for the sake of breaking rules. She wanted to do what she thought was right.”
“I don’t remember a lot of talk about the lawsuit,” Sam said. “But mom was forward thinking as far as civil rights go. She wanted Toni to be able to run, but other girls too. She would go after something like that. She made me go down to the courthouse [during the trial] because she said it was important.”
While he admits to being “out there” in high school, Sam got into road biking later, a pursuit that helped him understand Toni’s love of running. “[The lawsuit] was never self-driven. She was always looking out for other people. She wanted other girls to be able to have that feeling she got from competing.”
A Social Life That Revolved Around Getting in Miles
Tim Heisel lived and breathed the distance guy lifestyle — two-a-days, a social life that revolved around getting in the miles. In other words, he was the perfect training partner.
Pat Lanin, Heisel’s coach and mentor in all things endurance, had just discovered Toni’s incredible potential. But at the time, it seemed she was more devoted to partying than training. Lanin was afraid he’d lose her over the summer.
“We met through Pat. He knew about her ‘extracurriculars.’ He told me she could use someone to run with over the summer because she didn’t believe in it enough to go by herself,” Heisel said. “She was 14 or 15, I was two years older. She was cute, and I was afraid to talk to girls, so this meeting up to run was a plus for me.”
They ran and chatted, and jumped in some road races and AAU all-comer races, Junior Olympics. “When she started winning races, beating women and some men, that’s when she realized what she could do. In the fall, she started listening to Pat, and really pushing herself as a runner.”
According to Heisel, there was zero pushback from the boys on the cross country team when she joined their practices. She had no trouble keeping up in workouts and had an easy, non-threatening attitude. “There weren’t any other girls doing this, but we didn’t see anything wrong with it,” Heisel said. “We were mostly nerds; Toni brought some coolness to the team.”
But if they enjoyed the female presence at practice, they didn’t think much about her absence at meets. “To be honest, it didn’t affect me, and I wasn’t very curious about how she felt [about not being an official team member],” Heisel said.
He graduated the year before Toni filed her lawsuit, and he didn’t remember much of the trial, but looking back, the seeds of activism were there. Actually challenging the high school league rule didn’t come up in their conversations, but Heisel thought such an idea would have found fertile ground with Toni. “She didn’t like following a rule just because it was a rule. I think the state high school rule really pissed her off, and that’s why she was willing to fight them, with vigor. She was competitive in all things; she hated to lose more than she liked to win. That was her personality. And her mom and grandparents really supported her.”
He moved on to St. John’s University, and two years later, Toni matriculated at St. Johns’ sister school, St. Benedict’s, in the well-respected and demanding nursing program. They started dating seriously.
They married when he was 22 and she was 20, and had their first child four months after she graduated. Life was “pretty chaotic.” Toni worked as an obstetric nurse, they fostered some children, and their second child came along 19 months later. “Neither of us even thought about running. That part of our life went on hold. And it wasn’t missed. This was what we wanted and we were plenty fine with it.”
They eventually had three children, and divorced without rancor in 1985. Struggling with drug dependence, Toni returned to running, and later competed in triathlons. Heisel said she never lost her competitive spirit.
A Challenge to Coach
The PE teacher hurried over to talk with Pat Lanin. A 9th-grade girl had just crushed the school record in the 600-yard dash, and since Lanin was the track and cross country coach, she thought he’d be interested. And he was. But they both knew Toni was a handful. She had what Lanin called “an attitude.”
“She was leery of me,” Lanin says, which he attributed to her troubled relationship with her father. She might have great potential but she was certainly a challenge to coach. Of course, the friction may have been a result of their similarities — both were very opinionated. Whatever the source, there was not an immediate meeting of the minds.
At the time, there were hit or miss opportunities for girls to compete — some AAU all-comer track meets (Lanin was president of the Minnesota AAU in the late-1960s), some road races. If they knew of girls who wanted to run, coaches might put together a girls’ race.
Lanin invited Toni to work out with the boys, and gave her workouts she could do on her own. He hadn’t really seen yet what she could do in a race, so he entered her in an all-comer meet that served as a testing ground for the as-yet informal University of Minnesota women’s track team. Toni ran the half-mile, and beat both the university entrants.
“Holy buckets, this kid can run,” was Lanin’s reaction. “She had this short, clipped stride — it was not beautiful, but it got the job done. There were other girls at these races, but what set her apart is that she not only had talent, she had determination and focus. She was a competitor.”
Any opportunity to race, any opportunity to improve, any schedule of workouts, Toni ate it up. She practiced with the boys in the fall of 1971, competing on JV, informally. Of course, she couldn’t run varsity, couldn’t participate in district or state championships where MSHSL rules were more closely monitored. Lanin had to tread lightly around the League. He already had a reputation for going rogue; he couldn’t push too far or he’d be out of a job.
Coach and harriers together transitioned from cross country in November to cross country skiing in December. Again, Toni knew the drill — she could practice with the boys, and race JV, but there could be no appearance of being a legitimate team member.
As far as Lanin knew, this arrangement was working. Until he got a subpoena to appear in court as a witness for one Antoinette St. Pierre.
“She said, ‘I didn’t want to tell you about it [the lawsuit]. I thought you’d be mad.’ I said, ‘I am mad because you didn’t trust me. I’m 110 percent behind you, but I’m still mad.’ The guys on the League were sure I’d put her up to this, but I knew nothing about it until I got that subpoena,” Lanin said.
A Day in Court
The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union combined Toni’s request to participate officially on the boys’ teams with that of Peggy Brenden, a tennis player in St. Cloud. The April (1972) court date had some immediacy, since Brenden was a senior. Toni was finishing her junior year. The MCLU thought, rightly, it would be easier to win a case involving just two girls, rather than an unwieldy class action suit, and one limited to nice, non-contact sports like tennis, running, and skiing. They claimed that since there were no girls’ teams offered in those sports, the girls’ Fourteenth Amendment rights were being violated, i.e. they were discriminated against based on their sex.
Judge Miles Lord, known for protecting average citizens from giant corporations, presided over the case. Lord and Lanin were compatriots, having grown up in the same time period, “dirt poor” on Minnesota’s Iron Range.
At the trial, Lanin recalled, Toni was asked to explain why she wanted to run and ski, and provide proof of her dedication to the sport, and ability to compete at the boys’ level. Lanin’s testimony was supposed to provide that proof, but soon after he took the stand, the questioning took a strange turn.
“They started asking about whether, as a coach, I might have to perform first aid on athletes, boys or girls. Was it possible I’d have to perform first aid on the groin area? It was ridiculous. Judge Lord put a stop to that. The high school league was a good old boys’ club. They didn’t want girls to compete, period. There was no basis in physiology. They just wanted to protect their sports — football, basketball, baseball.”
Immediately after the court’s decision came down granting the two girls full participation, Toni joined Eisenhower High School’s first official girls’ track team, coached by the wrestling coach. She dominated the half-mile during the brief season, and at the state championship, won the 880 Yard Run in 2:18.3, hailed as one of the fastest high school times in the country. The 880 Yard Run was the longest event.
Several months after the trial, Lanin attended a MSHSL meeting of cross country coaches and was “cussed out like I haven’t seen since the marine corps” by members of the league. Convinced of the great harm that could come from girls being allowed on boys’ teams, the MSHSL immediately appealed the decision (it was upheld). No love was lost between Lanin and those members of “the good old boys’ club.” Though, Lanin praised the work of the one female member of the group, Dorothy McIntyre.
Though he was not the girls’ track coach, Lanin entered Toni in the 1973 Drake women’s mile, a far more competitive event than Minnesota high school meets. It was the spring of her senior year. She placed third in a personal best time of 5:04. “I was impressed, but she wasn’t happy because she didn’t win,” Lanin said.
An Advocate in Opposition
Dorothy McIntyre pointed out that both sides in a court case are motivated by the desire to do the right thing. And in fact, though they’re cast in opposition, they often want the same thing. It would be natural to assume that Dorothy, a member of the league that fought against Toni’s lawsuit, was opposed to girls’ sports. But it would be wrong. Even Pat Lanin agreed, few have done more for girls’ sports in Minnesota than Dorothy McIntyre.
She started teaching high school in 1957, when the Girls Athletic Association provided fun activities for girls whenever the boys weren’t using the gym or track. Competition, aggressive play, and actually striving to win or improve were considered unseemly and harmful, to be avoided, she told PodiumRunner. So, Wilma Rudolph’s stunning performances in 1960 were indeed surprising given the attitude about competitive sports, and doubly stupefying when sports officials wondered aloud why there were so few other U.S. women out there winning gold medals.
In response, high school teachers were trained to be coaches. Dorothy was one of the first such persons, organizing a girls’ gymnastics program at Eden Prairie High School, and meets with other schools. Gradually through the 1960s, intramural and extramural programs popped up, and interest grew from the grass roots — the girls.
“Girls were coming up to me asking for more — more sports, more opportunities to play. They wanted to play like the boys,” Dorothy said. In the fall of 1968, she made a proposal to the all-male high school league to institute girls’ interscholastic sports. There were skeptics about whether girls could mentally or physically handle sports, but also the realization that the budget to hire coaches and buy equipment was going to have to come partly from boys’ sports, and facilities too would have to be shared. It was a hard pill to swallow for those who for decades had enjoyed the whole sports pie. Maybe because they saw that girls’ sports was inevitable, the MSHSL voted 32-0 in favor of establishing girls’ interscholastic sports. They hired Dorothy in 1970 to head that project up.
To say she was starting from scratch would be an understatement. Trying to find interested and qualified people to coach even a few sports, to establish the same sports in enough schools to hold competitions, accommodating girls at the beginning level of a sport along with those, like Toni, who were ready and hungry for much higher level competition — it was daunting to say the least. But still, the steepest hurdle and the hardest to change was the societal attitude that girls couldn’t or shouldn’t do sports.
Track and field was chosen as the easiest to pull off and the most likely to sway those stubborn attitudes. Most schools had a track, running was not skills intensive, it was non-contact (basketball, while popular, could be a bit rough), and girls had been exposed to elements of track and field in PE class. By 1971, just a year after Dorothy started, there was an embryonic track season for girls, and by the beginning of 1972, the first official girls’ track program, with qualifying meets and a state championship, was on the schedule for that spring. That’s when the MSHSL was apprised of two girls’ lawsuits.
“Our responsibility was to encourage girls to participate in sports, and schools to provide them that opportunity. Our responsibility was to all girls, not just a few of the most talented,” Dorothy said.
The MSHSL opposed Toni and Peggy’s request because they saw three scenarios resulting from it, all of them deleterious to their goal of establishing girls’ interscholastic sports. One, if a few talented girls like Toni were allowed to join the boys’ team, there would be little incentive for schools to create a girls’ team. Second, if schools didn’t form a girls’ team there would be no opportunities for the vast number of girls who were not experienced or talented enough to compete on the boys’ team. And third, if girls were allowed to join boys’ teams, there would be nothing stopping boys from migrating to girls’ teams, which would also diminish opportunities for girls.
“Pat Lanin wanted to help one young woman run; I wanted that young woman to stand on the podium at a girls’ state championship,” Dorothy said. “Looking back, I do regret the way it turned out for girls like Toni, who were ready for high level competition before we could provide it. In a sense though, the lawsuit was an opportunity for the courts to carve out an exception for those girls. What needed to happen did happen.”
About a month after facing Toni in court, Dorothy watched her top the podium at the first Girls’ State Track Championship. She doesn’t recall any conversation with Toni, just an overwhelming sense of triumph. In 1975, Minnesota passed its own version of Title IX that allowed girls to participate on boys’ teams whether there was a girls’ team or not; but boys could not join girls’ teams. Today, Minnesota has 18 girls’ interscholastic sports, the most of any state.
“I’m a historian. I know the only way anything changes is by women rebelling against the status quo,” Dorothy said. “Many have felt we [the MSHSL] have been in that position of maintaining the status quo. I respect and admire the young women who held their own on that.”
An Odd And Messy Postscript
In the fall of 1972, the first opportunity to take advantage of her legal victory and compete officially on the boys’ cross country team, Toni chose not to.
An October 4, 1972 article in the Minneapolis Tribune explained: Just before the season started, Murrae Freng of the MSHSL informed Toni of a new rule that barred athletes (it was directed at boys) from participating simultaneously in an AAU sport and their high school program. The rule, Freng told the Tribune, “will open up opportunities for more kids to compete in organized sports because high school athletes will not be taking part in other programs.”
That reasoning was murky at best, the timing was oddly coincidental to Toni’s first season on the boys’ team. Murrae Freng has passed away, and Dorothy McIntyre doesn’t recall the discussion around it. Lanin too didn’t remember this rule, though it effectively clawed back the rights he’d helped Toni win in groundbreaking fashion just four months earlier.
She had to choose — AAU women’s cross country or Hopkin’s boys’ cross country. Over the previous three years, she’d been heavily involved in AAU and Junior Olympics because it was national in scope and provided better competition. AAU cross country consisted of US regional meets, and a national championship, like today’s NXN and Footlocker, but was open to women of all ages. Toni told the Tribune that the only reason she ran with the boys’ cross country team was to gain competitive experience for the national AAU meet. She chose AAU. But there were workarounds. She worked out with the Hopkins boys, and ran some meets unofficially, as she had in the past. And more meets were adding a girls’ race, including the longstanding Swain Invitational in Duluth that she won handily that fall, covering the hilly 1.5-mile course in 8:36.
But under close scrutiny by the MSHSL, Lanin eventually shut down even her informal participation with the boys’ team. The Tribune reported, though sad about the turn of events, Toni was “still practicing and working — washing dishes two afternoons a week at a nursing home and being an aide at the home from 10:30pm to 7am on Friday and Saturday nights — to earn money to go to the AAU cross country meet in California.”
Optimistic, feisty, a rebel and a realist, Toni saw what was possible for herself and other girls, what was worth fighting for. She experienced the thrill of winning, both on the course and in the courtroom. But as a teenage veteran of the sports system, she saw more clearly than most how tenuous her rights, women’s rights, were. Even hard-fought victories could be taken away. She wondered about her right to compete in cross country skiing to the Tribune, “I’m scared they’ll change that too. I have this dream that something will happen just before the season starts.”
As it turned out, Toni did compete on Eisenhower boys’ cross country skiing (it was too new a sport to be included in the high school league’s rule), placing as high as 4th according to Coach Lanin. And not one to let an opportunity go by, she also skied in USSA meets, earning a spot on the US women’s B team.
Toni was inducted into Eisenhower High School Athletic Hall of Fame, and was honored for her advocacy at the 2013 Minnesota Girls and Women in Sports Day. Maybe closest to Toni’s heart, close enough to chafe her competitiveness, Tim Heisel said, was when their daughter, competing for Boston College, ran a 4:59 mile. Toni had never quite been able to dip under the 5:00 mark.