Coaching at the 1996 Olympics motivated Dee Vochatzer to give to UC Davis
Deanne Vochatzer coached the U.S. women's track and field Olympic team in winning seven medals during the 1996 centennial games.
(UC Davis photo archives)
by Sarah Colwell
It was a winter evening in 1994 when UC Davis women’s track and field coach Deanne “Coach Dee” Vochatzer got the phone call inviting her to coach the 1996 Olympic Women’s Track and Field Team.
“I was only given 30 minutes to decide if I wanted to take the assignment. I remember sitting my husband down and saying, ‘Here’s the deal. There won’t be any groceries in the refrigerator, there won’t be any laundry done,’” Vochatzer said, recalling the conversation with Jon Vochatzer, who coached UC Davis’ men’s track and field team for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2010. “I knew I wasn’t going to be there.”
She knew the commitment would be intense. It would be 2 1/2 years. It would be unpaid. It would require her to travel between Davis, Atlanta and Colorado Springs, Colo. frequently all while she was coaching and teaching at UC Davis. It would be stressful coaching under the pressure of perfection in front of a worldwide audience.
But it was also the chance to represent her country on the world stage at the centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. More importantly for Vochatzer this was her chance to live a dream that had been a lifetime in the making. She would be the third woman in history to coach a U.S. Olympic track and field team.
Vochatzer began running track and field in the 1960s when she was a junior in high school at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, Calif.
“What I love about running is that there is no place to hide. It tests all the elements that make you who you are,” Vochatzer said. “Eventually you learn to embrace that challenge and make friends with it.”
Vochatzer excelled at the sport in high school and ran at the collegiate level. Despite her athletic accomplishments, she often had to battle women’s rights on the track and assert herself as a female athlete through practices and competitions.
“I had a bad experience with the men’s track coach when I was in college. He wouldn’t let me practice at the same time as the men. He wouldn’t let me use the starting blocks and locked up the hurdles,” Vochatzer said. “As I went through that experience of doors being slammed in my face, my father pulled me aside and said, ‘I’ll help you in being part of the solution, but I won’t let you be part of the problem.’”
Vochatzer said that moment changed her life. Soon after she changed her major from speech communications to athletic coaching and pursued a career as a women’s track and field coach. She eventually ended up with a coaching job at her alma mater, alongside the very same men’s track coach who had shunned her years before.
“It was an interesting journey,” said Vochatzer, who coached track and taught at UC Davis for 19 years before retiring in 2010. “But it prepared me for the rest of my career because I figured out how to get through a closed door.”
Back in her living room in 1994, Vochatzer returned the phone call to the U.S. Olympic Committee and accepted the once-in-a-lifetime invitation. Her next call was to her parents.
“Your crazy little daughter is now an Olympic coach,” she said, recalling the conversation that makes her emotional 18-years later.
The Olympic experience was even more intense and spectacular than Vochatzer anticipated.
“It was absolutely life changing. I wouldn’t have passed it up for anything in the world, but I would never do it again,” she said. “The Olympic experience had every element in it. It is an all out attack on your senses. If it hadn’t been for Jon, it wouldn’t have turned out the way that it did.”
Vochatzer coached the U.S. women’s track and field team in winning seven Olympic medals at the Atlanta games, including Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s memorable bronze-medal-winning long jump on an injured hamstring.
“I remember going up to Jackie and asking her, ‘Can you jump?’” Vochatzer recalled, “She said to me, ‘Coach, I’m not only going to jump; I’m going to medal.’ And to see her pull it off was amazing. Those are the experiences I’m never going to forget. Those are the things that made it extraordinary.”
In addition to her husband’s support, Vochatzer said those extraordinary experiences and the chance to live the Olympic dream were made possible because of the support of the UC Davis community including administrators, the intercollegiate athletics department and student athletes.
“The kids on the (UC Davis) team were great,” said Vochatzer, “They were excited to share in the experience with me and that made it really fun.”
Seeing firsthand how a vast network of supporters can make a dream possible, the Vochatzers were motivated to give philanthropic gifts to UC Davis in hopes of bringing more dreams to fruition. The couple has been making donations to UC Davis Intercollegiate Athletics since 1996.
“I think it’s important to look back and remember those who have gone before us and what they have made possible,” said Vochatzer, who recruited UC Davis graduate and 2012 Olympic track and field athlete Kim Conley. “I think the same holds true for philanthropy. It’s important for those of us that are in a much better position to reach back and help those who don’t have much, because otherwise we won’t go anywhere.”