Passing the Baton
A collective of UC Santa Barbara Track & Field alumni have come together to support scholarships for current student-athletes. They may have competed in different eras, but they share a conviction that track and field means being part of a family — and families support each other. Their generosity, alongside this year’s 50th anniversary of Title IX, tells a story of opportunity.
Shirley Connors ’63,’72, a native Californian who spent her high school years in Connecticut, played several sports before it was common for girls. At UC Santa Barbara, Shirley participated in the very beginning of sports for women on campus, playing basketball, golf, field hockey, and volleyball.
After she graduated, Shirley taught perceptual motor training and coached three high school sports just as girls were allowed to have teams. Her husband, Richard, was an Olympic official in track and field, and the couple ran together for exercise. Eventually, Shirley joined Richard as an official for elite, collegiate, high school, and youth athletes in track and field.
“To have the opportunity to compete in college was very exciting and special for me,” said Shirley. “Officiating has given me a very broad view of all levels of athletics, and track and field student-athletes stand out as kind, caring, and full of belief in what they’re doing.”
Opportunities for women in sports expanded with the passing of Title IX. By 1972, the year Shirley received her master’s in kinesiology from UC Santa Barbara, the landmark law had banned discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. While Title IX does not mention athletics, it is known for giving young women access to competitive opportunities.
Shirley observed that change over her decades as a mom to her two sons — international athletes — and as a teacher and officiant. Her philanthropy will continue to help female student-athletes compete. In addition to her annual giving, Shirley has established a planned gift that will benefit Women’s Track & Field.
UCSB Track & Field scholarship recipient Hope Bender ’19 was a hurdler who also competed in the Heptathlon, which includes 100m hurdles, 200m, 800m, high jump, long jump, shot put, and javelin. She is now an assistant coach for UCSB Track & Field.
“Since becoming a coach, my eyes have been opened to the impact that alumni and donors truly have on the student-athlete experience,” said Hope. “I have tremendous gratitude towards the people who have chosen to give back to our team now that I have a more comprehensive view of what it meant to my time here and what it continues to mean to our current Gauchos.”
Alumni scholarships support all student-athletes who run, hurdle, jump, and throw. Many Gauchos say their experiences off the track were as transformative as those competing.
“My proudest moments were not necessarily competition related,” said Jerrick Zhang ’17. “Our event group was able to develop a camaraderie. Going through the highs and lows of training with other javelin throwers was great.”
“The track and field team was my first family in college,” said Trent Bryson ’98. “We leave home and high school and all our friends and come into a new world. That’s where the mentorships started for me: learning from the older guys about how to run at a Division I level.”
Gauchos have a history of accomplishment on and off the track. In 1998, Trent broke the UC Santa Barbara record for Steeplechase: 3,000 meters, with hurdles and a water jump. His drive for giving back began when he realized the necessity of scholarships as a student. Through a referendum, he rallied his classmates to increase fees by $9 a quarter so two more student-athletes per sport could receive scholarships. Trent remembers the special days when alumni would help the team attend a meet, or get them new spikes. It inspired him to start giving back as soon as he could.
"This fund makes an impact you can feel,” said Cody Fleming, director of UCSB Track & Field and Cross-Country. “Every donation we receive goes right back to our student-athletes in the form of an athletic scholarship. Our development office has set it up where I can, in real-time, see what our fund totals are and I have access to them to give back to our team immediately.
“There are two parts to this: recruiting new student-athletes into the program, but also rewarding the student-athletes we have who are thriving and developing on the team. My goal is to have every Big West scoring (top-8 at the Big West meet) athlete on our roster to be on scholarship. It's never happened before, and this year will be the first year in our program's history that I think we can actually do it, thanks to the generosity of our alumni.”
“I am inspired by and have gratitude for the alumni who have come together to provide additional scholarships to support the financial needs of our track and field student-athletes. To have alumni reflect on their experiences and want to support current and future track and field student-athletes exemplifies what it means to be a Gaucho. Their direct impact on the student-athlete experience is huge and we are all incredibly grateful,” said Kelly Barsky, Interim Athletics Director.
Shirley, Jerrick, and Trent are just three of the many UCSB Track & Field alumni who have come together to help student-athletes succeed through scholarships. With each graduating class, more Gauchos enter the alumni family.
“I think that UC Santa Barbara is such a special place, but for us to make a difference, we have to do it in numbers,” said Trent. “It can’t just be one or two people; it has to be a collective of alumni coming together. Every athlete and every opportunity that someone has makes us stronger.”