Phyllis Cournan-Racek

(This is the 10th and last in a series of feature stories on the 2012 inductees into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame).

Growing up, Phyllis Cournan always was in motion.

If she wasn’t riding her bike, she was running or doing some activity at the New Castle Community Y.

That might not sound unusual for a female, but it was during Cournan’s childhood.

“Growing up in New Castle in the late ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, I always felt like a fish out of water. I was always very active and that wasn’t really accepted. Girls exercising was something like an anomaly,” she said. “I am really, really thankful I went to Neshannock. They were innovative and ahead of the game. They were in compliance with Title IX before it was instituted. It gave me and other girls opportunities to participate in sports.”

The 1973 Neshannock High graduate was a junior when the Lady Lancers’ track and field program debuted. She excelled in the 440, 880 and 880-medley relay.

“They had a lot of intramurals in the ’70s, but they developed a team in ’72 and ’73, so I caught the tail end of that,” she said. “I was always down at the Y, always swimming. I took aikido. I always rode my bike. I had my senior picture taken with my bike. I think people thought I was a freak, but I just enjoyed being active.”

Cournan continued to be on the forefront of new female athletic programs once she graduated and headed to Edinboro University. She helped form the university’s first women’s track and field and cross country teams.

“Back then it was night and day, in terms of what girls were doing,” she said. “I got together with some other girls and we started those first teams at Edinboro.”

Cournan’s trailblazing efforts are part of the reason she’ll be inducted into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame on April 29 at the New Englander.

“I was shocked when I found out,” she said. “I had thought people had forgotten about me. It was very nice and I do appreciate it.”

Cournan graduated from Edinboro in 1977 and became head coach of Wilmington’s girls basketball team that year. The Lady Greyhounds knocked off Laurel in the first half of section play, marking the first time Wilmington ever had been tied for the section lead halfway through the season.

Wilmington topped the Lady Spartans in the rematch on Laurel’s home floor, 53-42, to capture the school’s first section title. The Lady Greyhounds finished 9-1 in league play and won the crown by a game over the Lady Spartans.

“Back then, it was a split season. The girls played in the fall and playoffs were in March,” she said. “The girls went in rusty. We tried to squeeze some practices in (during the break), but we didn’t really have the opportunity to work out much. It was sad because it was good team.”

She taught at Wilmington High for 11 years and coached track there for eight, in addition to her one year as basketball coach. In her spare time, she remained active and won a bodybuilding contest in Youngstown.

Cournan, who aspired to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation, applied and went to training and became an FBI agent after leaving Wilmington.

“Because of my fitness scores, I became a fitness coordinator for the FBI for eight years,” she said.

Based in Arkansas, she remained active and won a state bodybuilding competition and participated in the Police Olympics there. Also, Cournan, now Cournan-Racek met her husband, Scott, who was a Secret Service agent. After they had their son, Tommy, Cournan-Racek retired from the FBI after 12 years. The family moved back to Pennsylvania and hoped to relocate near Pittsburgh. Instead, they wound up near Scranton due to Scott’s work transfer.

When they settled in the Scranton area, Cournan-Racek had the chance to coach cross country at the Penn State Worthington Scranton campus. Now an assistant principal at Pocono Mountain West High, Cournan-Racek, 56, focuses her energy on helping “coach” her son.

“Tommy is 16 and he’s broken all the fitness records at his school. He is a competitive fencer and qualified for the Junior Olympics. He is a great kid,” she said. “I am thankful to be able to help him. He is such a joy to work with. When he gets out of this house, I might have to find another ‘project.’”

Cournan-Racek, who still owns Pennsylvania powerlifting and bench press records, remains as active as possible.

“I am still very active; my love for fitness has permeated my life,” she said. “Unfortunately, I am little bit of a dinosaur. When I was at Wilmington, they had really strong fitness programs. Today, people don’t take physical education as serious as they should. I am old school when it comes to fitness. Sometimes, it takes a special person to appreciate that.”

Her son, Tommy, appreciates it, though. He enjoys participating in long bike rides and other athletic activities with his mom. He is training for his first triathlon.

“She’s a great motivator. She can motivate the laziest person in the world, trust me,” he said. “She’s always very good at encouragement. Whenever you feel defeated, she always presses you to move forward. I think a lot of it has to deal with her positive attitude. She’s the best mom in the world, hands down.

“Being active definitely helps us relate and is a common activity. It’s awesome to share that with a parent. I am glad she is going to be recognized, I can’t wait until she is inducted.”

TOMORROW: Hall of Honor honorees Mendall Altman and Eugene “Gabby” Kendra.


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Joe Sager is a former full-time sports writer for the New Castle News and currently freelances for the News and other Western Pennsylvania newspapers.

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