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Tampa’s Heidi Hertz Sweet was an unassuming pioneer in women’s sports

John Romano | The Florida track star passed away last week at the age of 64.
Tampa's Heidi Hertz Sweet poses with the plaque she won for winning the pentathlon at the 1976 national championships of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the organization that governed college sports for women before the NCAA. Hertz Sweet was Florida's first female track athlete to win a national championship.
Tampa's Heidi Hertz Sweet poses with the plaque she won for winning the pentathlon at the 1976 national championships of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the organization that governed college sports for women before the NCAA. Hertz Sweet was Florida's first female track athlete to win a national championship. [ Courtesy Tammy Vanek ]
Published Dec. 6, 2020
Updated Dec. 6, 2020

The stars were all around Gainesville that spring of 1976. You might have seen Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter running past red-brick frat houses with legendary high school miler Marty Liquori by his side. PGA pro Gary Koch was finishing up his degree, and future NFL players Wes Chandler and Scot Brantley were months away from another heartbreak against Georgia.

These were the usual suspects. The athletes accustomed to headlines and TV cameras. And for most of that spring, there was little reason to believe they would be upstaged briefly by the first ovations of a coming revolution.

Four years earlier, and several months before President Nixon would sign Title IX into law, a University of Florida department head named Ruth Alexander had convinced the administration to begin funding women’s athletics. The process was slow and the disparity of funds obscene. The Independent Florida Alligator reported the men’s athletic budget in 1973-74 was almost $3.6 million, and the women’s program got $24,329.

And yet, looking back, the women say they never had reason to complain. For the first time ever, female athletes were getting scholarships, even if it was just two per sport. And so the women’s track team gathered on the grass at the start of the program’s second season, and Alexander explained how, one day, they would all be part of history.

As it turned out, history arrived quickly for a 20-year-old from Tampa named Heidi Hertz.

• • •

The last few years were difficult for Hertz, now known by her married name, Heidi Sweet. Her husband, Dan, died unexpectedly from a heart attack, and her own health was failing between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer.

Sweet was hospitalized late in November and, after several days on a ventilator, passed away on Nov. 28. She was 64 and left behind two sisters, a daughter, Gillian, and a son, Gabriel.

She also left a legacy that deserves retelling.

Her father, Gil Hertz, was the first athletic director at the University of South Florida and her mother Marguerite taught physical education at Saint Leo College. Heidi and her younger sisters Kim and Tammy grew up playing sports near their Temple Terrace home.

“From a young age, we were all encouraged to participate,” her sister, Tammy Vanek, said. “We used to attend classes at USF, because our dad wanted us involved.”

Gil Hertz was a Big Ten track champion at Wisconsin and encouraged Heidi to take up the hurdles and long jump when King High School began its girls track program in the mid-1970s. The future wasn’t bustling with opportunities for female track athletes, but Florida had begun offering two scholarships a year in 1974-75 — one for an in-state recruit and one for an out-of-state recruit.

Heidi Hertz Sweet was one half of Florida’s second-ever recruiting class.

The campus she discovered was nothing like the one in Gainesville today. Female athletes didn’t have a separate weight room, training room or even locker room. They didn’t stay at Yon Hall like the male athletes, and instead were placed in housing down the road. After practice, they’d leave in their workout clothes and head back to the dorms to shower.

The women’s track and swimming coaches were UF graduate students making a few bucks in their spare time.

“We took vans to all of our meets because they weren’t going to fly us anywhere. We didn’t get to eat at Yon Hall. Poor (coach) Katie (Paulos) was trying to figure out how to pay the bills whenever we did anything,” said Diane Poole, a walk-on track athlete from Brandon High. “I can see all of that now, but as 18-year-olds we never thought about those things. I don’t remember ever feeling like we had less than the men’s team.

“We were just this small, tight group of women who used to double- and triple-up on events because there weren’t enough of us. And we had so much fun. Looking back now, I think what a tremendous privilege it was to be part of the early stages of something that has grown so much.”

The women’s track team was fortunate, because men’s coach Brooks Johnson didn’t mind sharing practice times with his team. (As opposed to the women’s swimming team, which held practices in an outdoor pool at night in the winter because the men’s team swam during the day.)

As a pentathlete, Hertz Sweet benefitted because it meant additional, individualized coaching from the men’s staff in her field events. Olympic-level athletes such as Shorter and Liquori were also working out at the same time with the Florida Track Club.

As a freshman, Hertz Sweet finished 12th in the pentathlon at the national championships for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), the organization that governed college sports for women before the NCAA. The following May, on a rainy day in Manhattan, Kan., Hertz Sweet became UF’s first female track athlete to win a national championship when she topped the pentathlon field at the AIAW event and set herself up for a berth in the 1976 Olympic trials that summer.

“It was such a big deal. Back then, we all thought we were super women who were going to the Olympics together,” said Carol Parsons Robertson, who was Hertz Sweet’s roommate in Gainesville. “Heidi was in the middle of it all.

“She was always smiling, always happy. She had this way of making you feel like you were the most important person in the world when you were talking to her because of the way she listened and looked you in the eye.”

In a vote conducted by the Independent Florida Alligator, Hertz Sweet was named UF’s athlete of the year, the first time the award had gone to a female athlete. She would eventually be inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame.

The Olympics never came for Hertz Sweet, and she finished fifth and fourth in the AIAW championships in her final two seasons. She eventually turned to coaching, working at Florida State, Cal State Los Angeles and Tulane, among other schools.

She returned to Tampa in the early 1990s with her husband and began a decade-long career as a physical education instructor in Hillsborough elementary schools. In 2004, she was cited for helping students during a state-mandated standardized test. An administrative law judge recommended a reprimand due to extenuating circumstances, but a state commission permanently revoked her teaching license.

Hertz Sweet struggled with her health in recent years but often returned to Gainesville, where she sat on the committee for the school’s Hall of Fame and attended many of the inductions.

“Even as her sister who was aware of what she’d done, it didn’t really hit me until she was inducted in the Hall of Fame and I realized, ‘My gosh, she really was a pioneer for women athletes,’” said Kim Lane. “I know she was proud of her accomplishments, but it was the camaraderie and friendship with everyone on the team that meant so much to her. She carried all those memories with her for all those years.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.