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Breaking New Ground: Skeleton athlete Caitlin Stuetz trains her 86-year-old grandmother to race against men

April 01, 2016, 11:16 a.m. (ET)

By Kristen Gowdy

Video by Jessie Beers-Altman.

In April, skeleton athlete Caitlin Stuetz found herself on the track at the Penn Relays, in a stadium packed with 50,000 screaming fans, watching as her grandmother, Betty Leander, competed in the 100-meter dash. The 85-year-old Leander was the first-ever woman to run in the 75+ age group, her bright pink t-shirt standing out against the yellow sea of her male competition. She crossed the finish line in 31.27 seconds.

Leander finished in 13th place — second-to-last — but winning wasn’t her main goal. It was to set a new standard at the Penn Relays. To show that, yes, a woman can compete against the men and yes, she can do it at any age. And to, most importantly, inspire others to do the same.

At the end of the race, Stuetz had to fend off a large crowd of fans who wanted a picture, an autograph, or even just to talk to her grandmother.

Leander couldn’t have possibly predicted the degree of success with which she would accomplish these goals. To do so, however, she relied largely on her granddaughter, who is no stranger to pioneering a sport herself.

Last season, Stuetz — who has since switched to skeleton — raced into bobsled history when she pushed for Brittany Reinbolt as part of the first-ever four-woman team to slide in international competition. In doing this, Stuetz carried on her family’s tradition of trailblazing sport, following her grandmother and her mother, who was a Penn State lacrosse and field hockey athlete during the Title IX era.

“It was special to me that within a few months of one another, my grandmother was a pioneer in this race at Penn Relays and I was a part of the first all-women four-man bobsled team,” Stuetz said. 

But Stuetz also played her own role in Leander’s newfound fame. Having recently graduated with a degree in exercise science from Shippensburg University and pursuing her Master’s at East Stroudsburg University, she was a natural fit to become her grandmother’s running coach.

It began with an all-comers meet two years ago. Leander entered the 100-meter dash and Stuetz put her through her warm-ups. During the race, Stuetz noticed that her grandmother was holding her breath when she ran.

They started there.

“She works with me,” Leander said. “She writes up my orders of what I should work on, then at the gym I do the same thing. She always has that notebook.”

After Leander’s breathing was corrected, the duo then worked on her balance, then her stamina, then her start. Stuetz found the challenge stimulating, especially since she spends time volunteering with disabled athletes.

“I really had to adapt a lot for her and I enjoy that,” Stuetz said. “I really enjoy adapting and saying ‘Okay, anyone can do this, let’s find how it works for you.’”

Together, they found what worked for Leander. It wasn’t too large an adjustment, she had been active her entire life. She had been part of a women’s basketball team long before Title IX was passed, and even now during her family’s gatherings, there’s usually some sport being played in the backyard. Leander can always be found in the thick of the action.

In the month before the Penn Relays, Stuetz and Leander began to train more seriously. Leander would drive the 20 minutes to Stuetz’s house, and they would head to the local track where Stuetz ran in high school.

When race day finally arrived in late April, Leander couldn’t believe the amount of support she received. She was the oldest woman to run the 100-meter dash — and it wasn’t even close. The women’s divisions only reach the 55+ age group.   

“The seniors are treated really well down at the Relays. You’d be amazed,” Leander said. “One of the runners, Ed Cox, he put it very well. He said it’s the only place, at my age, where you can have 50,000 people cheering for you.”

Meanwhile, Leander gained more and more fame. Boston-based filmmaker Jessie Beers-Altman featured her in her short documentary “Going the Distance” that has since placed second in NBC Sports’ Cptr’d contest and has nearly 65,000 views on YouTube.

But, most importantly, Stuetz watched as her grandmother began encouraging other women to trailblaze as well.

“The biggest thing that I’ve seen improve is her self-confidence,” Stuetz said. “She’s always been a confident, independent woman, but now she tells me, ‘You know, I feel like I can do anything now. And I feel like I can tell anyone else they can do anything now.’ It’s so much more than just a 30-second track race for her. It’s about her knowing that she can do anything at any age.”

In the process, Leander also inspired her granddaughter, who at the time had just decided to switch to skeleton. The transition hasn’t been easy for Stuetz, and she often looks to Leander for motivation.

“When I’m not too sure of what I’m doing, which is often when you’re in something new like this, it’s going so fast, it’s really nice to know that there are still people at her age when a lot of odds are against her,” she said. “She could easily just sit there and do the crossword puzzle every day and she’d be fine. No one would expect more from her. But she’s always done more.”

Leander’s efforts weren’t lost on the Penn Relays’ staff, either. She recently found out that the Men’s 75+ division was being changed to a Mixed 80+ division. She and Stuetz have already begun training for this year’s race.

“My goal is really to interest some other women to join in the fun,” Leander said. “It’s been a wonderful experience. I still haven’t come down to Earth after all of this. I can’t wait to do it again this year.”

Perhaps the most flattering compliment, however, was the comparison she drew to Rosie the Riveter, the World War II figure who represented women entering the workforce with her iconic raised arm and her “We can do it!” poster. Rosie had died just weeks before the Penn Relays.

“She was the one during WWII who went into the factories and was an inspiration to all the women because they had never had a woman go into the factories to work,” Leander said. “When she died, I was in training for the relay, and they picked up on this, that I was sort of like Rosie the Riveter and following in her footsteps.”

So when the announcer introduced Leander at the race, it was only natural that she got the loudest cheer yet.

She stood at the start line, smiling as 50,000 people screamed her name, and, channeling her inner Rosie the Riveter, raised her arm to the crowd.