Meg Ritchie remembers the day in 1985 that she first walked into the weight room at the University of Arizona as the Wildcats' strength and conditioning coach. Running back David Adams, then a junior, was working out on the Nautilus double-shoulder machine. As Ritchie passed him, Adams said, "You're going to have a lot of problems on this job."
As the only female head strength coach at a Division I school, a distinction she still holds, Ritchie expected resistance from athletes used to a mostly male-run sports program. But she says that she has never been intimidated by anyone and that she wasn't cowed by Adams.
She turned to him and said, "I'll tell you what. They hired me for a year, and you're going to be here a year. Are we going to knock heads and spit and swear at one another and have a bloody miserable time? Or are we going to get on with it and make something of this?"
Today Ritchie is still on the job in Tucson, and Adams, who is playing for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, has become one of her biggest boosters. "She was benching 335 pounds and cleaning 350 every day of the week," says Adams, "so I figured she had to know something to put up those numbers. That's as much as I was lifting."
Ritchie was a natural for the job. For starters, she is a two-time Olympian. A native of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, she came from a sports environment in which men and women trained together. "I'd worked with men all my life, so that wasn't a problem," she says.
Moreover, many of the Wildcat athletes who came under her supervision already knew her, or, at least, they knew of her achievements as an athlete. As an undergraduate at Arizona from 1980 to '84, the 5'9½," 185-pound Ritchie won five women's national collegiate titles in the shot put and two in the discus (two years ago she was elected to the university's Hall of Fame). She represented Great Britain in the discus at the 1980 and '84 Olympics; she finished fifth in '84. "You could make out a case that she's the most successful athlete in the school's history," says Dave Murray, the men's and women's track coach at Arizona. "She had the respect when she started."
It also helped that at the time of Ritchie's appointment, the Wildcats' head trainer, Sue Hillman, had been on the job for nearly three years. Still, the athletes weren't prepared to have a woman supervising the weight training of 500 competitors in 17 sports. "It was the idea of it more than anything else," says Ritchie. "It helped that they'd seen me lift and knew I was very, very strong. But I still had to sell myself, especially to the football players."
Former Wildcat linebacker Chris Singleton, who was selected by the New England Patriots in the first round of this year's NFL draft, says Ritchie's knowledge of weight training was the biggest point in her favor. "Guys came around in a hurry once they started working with her," says Singleton. "Man or woman, it didn't matter. She knows what she's talking about."
Ritchie, 38, came to Arizona on a track scholarship. She had been teaching high school physical education and lecturing college students on the subject in Scotland when, at age 27, she decided to pursue the shot put and discus full-time. But she couldn't do that at home because nobody was willing to sponsor a woman thrower. "I hate to say it," says Ritchie, "but women throwers are the lowest form of athletic life. The best thing for my career was to get a scholarship in the States."
However, when she got to Tucson, Ritchie found that she couldn't get the up-to-date coaching in her two events that she had grown accustomed to in Britain. She insists that Arizona had competent coaches, but they weren't as knowledgeable as those in Europe. That left Ritchie to research and develop her own strength-training program. "I had to depend on myself to get strong and compete, and that helped prepare me for this job," she says. Ritchie did additional research in the year that she spent coaching the Wildcats' throwers following her graduation with a degree in geography.
Ritchie has never lacked confidence. She wasn't surprised that she beat out 33 other candidates, including one other woman, for the job. Nor did she feel special pressure to succeed because she was the first woman to hold the position. "I might have felt it if I hadn't known my stuff, but I did," she says. "Quite honestly, and I hope this doesn't sound big-headed, I knew that because of my background, I was as qualified, if not more qualified, than anyone."
That opinion was not shared by the Department of Labor, which in 1987 denied her labor certification, which she needed to become a resident alien. The government argued that in hiring her the university had overlooked more qualified American applicants. The law requires that qualified U.S. citizens be given job preference over foreigners. After a lengthy appeal process, which Ritchie lost, the university sued the Department of Labor, and in August a federal district judge ruled in her favor.
Cedric Dempsey, the Wildcats' athletic director, is relieved that Ritchie will be staying, not only because she is a first-rate strength coach but also because she counsels athletes against taking steroids. "As an international competitor she saw the prevalent use of steroids and is strongly opposed to it," says Dempsey. "We didn't want to lose her for that reason. But her value became even more evident when I saw the reaction of our athletes to Meg."
After news broke of Ritchie's dispute with the Department of Labor, she was deluged with phone calls and letters of support from friends and fellow coaches around the country. "I had proposals of marriage from half the football team," she says with a laugh. "They said they'd do anything to keep me here."
Among the 500 varsity athletes Ritchie works with at Arizona are Rick Warren (top) and his fellow offensive linemen.
Leo Banks, a writer who lives in Tucson, has written several stories for SI.