17 February 2012

Before Martina, There Was Nancy

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along who completely dominates his or her sport, at least during his or her career.  I'd say that in my lifetime, there were four such athletes:  Eddy Mercx, Martina Navratilova, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan. 

(With all due respect to Lance, I think Eddy was the most dominant cyclist because he won every type of race that existed while he was competing.  Like Mercx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain also won the Tour de France and a variety of other races.  However, they never seemed to have the same aura of invincibility Mercx had in his prime.)

Of the four, perhaps Navratilova's timing was the most fortuitous.  She came along during the 1970's, when women's sports first started to achieve anything like a wide audience, and was at her peak during the early and mid 1980's.  

Recently, I learned of another great athlete who may have been on the other side of the mirror from Navratilova.

Nancy Burghart accepting the trophy for her 1964 National Championship from USI President Otto Eisele Jr.

Nancy Burghart (now Nancy Burghart-Haviland) won eight US National Championships during the 1960's.  She was one of the most versatile riders of her time, as she also won pursuit and sprint championships.  Nearly any time she mounted a bicycle, people expected her to win, much as they did when Navratilova entered a tennis court.

Some would say that Burghart had the misfortune of racing at a time when relatively little attention was paid to cycling, and to women's sports, in the US.  However, she garnered great respect from both the men and women in her sport, and even got some overseas press, which was no small feat in the conditions I've described, and in the absence of the Internet and 24-hour news cycles. 

During Burghart's career, the traditional cycling powers of Europe and Japan did not take American racing very seriously.  However, one could argue that, even then, American female cyclists were among the world's best.  In countries like France, Italy and Japan, bicycle racing, and the media that covered it, were focused almost entirely on male racers.  This could only have stunted the development in women's racing in those countries.  On the other hand, bicycle racing in the US during the three decades after World War II was entirely an amateur affair.   Some have argued that this is a reason why male and female racers were on more or less equal footing, and may have been what allowed women's cycling to gain more prominence in the years before Greg LeMond won the Tour de France.

In my research, I found another interesting detail about Ms. Burghart:  She was born and raised in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, barely a couple hundred pedal spins from the Kissena track--or my apartment.  That track, of course, is where any number of American racers have trained as well as raced.  And it's also where the trials were held for the 1964 Olympic team.

In 1957, when she was 12 years old, she won the Girls' Midget title.  Her twin sister Melissa also competed in the race, and others Nancy rode and won.  It would have taken plenty of determination for an American boy to pursue a bicycle-racing dream at that time:  Imagine what it must have taken for two girls!

From what I've gathered, Burghart-Haviland now lives in Maine.  Given her role in cycling, and American sports generally, I am surprised she isn't better-known.


  1. THIS post was an exceptional gem! Thanks.

  2. This was really interesting. Along that line about women's cycling, and women's sports in general not getting the recognition they deserve, it's rarely mentioned that (in one sense) the first American to win the Tour de France was not Greg LeMond in '86, but rather Marianne Martin in '85 -- in the inaugural Tour de France Feminin. Okay, not exactly the same thing -- but not many people know it.

  3. Brooks--It's eminently unfair that almost no one ever mentions Marianne Martin. In fact, I now feel I was remiss in not mentioning her in my blog--until now.

    These days, if people think about the Tour de France Feminin, they usually think about Jeanne Longo--who, from what I understand, is still racing in her 50's.