Considering all things, Jeanette Bolden never stood a chance.
Bolden, who is about to embark on her 18th season as coach of the UCLA women’s track and field team, was born with asthma. Her athletic development stymied, she often found herself on the sidelines of typical childhood activities.
In fact, the condition became so severe that in the sixth grade, Bolden was taken out of her home in Compton and placed in an asthmatic home in Tujunga.
“That’s when I got introduced to athletics; everyone there had to learn how to swim and how to overcome their fear of having asthma,” Bolden said.
Learning to persevere through the difficulties and fear of recurring asthma attacks, Bolden eventually found her footing in athletics, particularly track.
“Running track was just a way to be normal, just to be like all of the other kids,” she said.
Indeed, she channeled her ability to overcome asthma into her budding track and field career, pushing herself to be the fastest on the neighborhood block, often beating the boys in street races. Although initially just a way to feel as normal as the other children, Bolden became so adept as a runner on her high school track and field team that she made her first international team in just her junior year.
Blowing past the competition
Bolden then raced on to fulfill a most cherished dream: competing for the UCLA women’s track and field team as a student-athlete from 1981 to 1983.
As a Bruin, Bolden established her niche, earning All-American honors five times and helping UCLA win its first NCAA Outdoor Championship in 1982.
Then, in the summer of 1984, the Olympic Games beckoned. And for Bolden, who was chosen to represent the U.S. track and field team, there was no better venue to don the red, white and blue than in her hometown.
“Competing here in Los Angeles, in my hometown, was just fantastic” Bolden said. “It was a feeling beyond words. I felt very honored to represent my country and my UCLA family.” Bolden went on to win gold in the 400-meter team event.
Years later misfortune would strike. A torn Achilles tendon suffered during the 1988 Olympic Trials stunted Bolden’s career as an athlete.
Despite the injury, her legacy wasn’t done just yet.
Coming full circle
Bolden returned to her alma mater and joined her collegiate coach, Bob Kersee, as an assistant in 1991.
But when Kersee resigned from his position in 1993, Bolden stepped in to take the helm, the beginning of an illustrious career as a mentor for young adults.
“I get so much enjoyment at seeing individuals achieve their goals,” Bolden said. “I enjoy seeing a very shy, introverted freshman grow into a team captain while they excel academically as well as athletically.”
Bolden’s career reached new heights in 2008 when she became head coach of the U.S. women’s track and field team at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
And success came through yet again, as Bolden’s women won a total of nine medals.
But the triumphs weren’t embedded just overseas. In the span of her 17-year tenure as UCLA head coach, Bolden has led the Bruins to three NCAA titles and has produced 50 All-Americans.
It’s a small wonder that her athletes and colleagues hold the utmost respect for the seasoned coach.
“She’s not doing this out of what she’s learned out of a book or schooling,” longtime friend and assistant coach Johnny Gray said. “The only school she went to was “˜reality school,’ and that’s going out there and putting in the hard work on the track with the talent she was blessed with.”
“She’s able to oversee a lot of events, not just the ones she was able to do, and that helps on a larger scale,” redshirt junior hurdler and jumper Ke’Nyia Richardson added.
Bolden’s feats were recently recognized when she was inducted into the United States Track and Field/Cross Country Coaches Associations Hall of Fame in San Antonio, Texas on Dec. 15.
“I felt a lot of joy to be considered among a lot of great collegiate coaches,” Bolden said. “I don’t think my feet touched the ground all day.”
These days, what rewards Bolden has reaped, she hasn’t forgotten to return.
She founded the Jeanette Bolden Asthma and Allergy Track Clinic and is currently on the board of directors for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation.
“I wanted to start track clinics just to have kids feel normal, just to have them run around and play,” Bolden said. “I started at a time where asthmatic kids were told they couldn’t do much.”
But as 10 Olympic medals and four NCAA titles as a runner and coach indicate, Bolden overcame those difficulties and now stands as one of the most prolific coaches in her sport.
For Bolden, life has come full circle, but the race is still on.