After Branwen Smith-King announced that she was leaving the university after a 35-year career in Tufts Athletics, some of her former student-athletes gathered to honor their coach and mentor.
They shared stories about why Bran, as she is affectionately known, was so important in their lives. One related how Bran’s positive encouragement had stayed with her and helped her fight cancer later in life. Another spoke of how Bran had privately guided her through college while her family was falling apart due to an abusive situation at home.
“Branwen was able to be that support system for all of her student-athletes,” said Jan Brown, J85, G89, a member of Smith-King’s first women’s track and field team who arranged the get-together. “Besides her commitment to making sure we succeeded athletically, it was her personal relationships with us that mattered most. At times it didn’t even matter if you stepped on the field or ran a race. She just wanted to make sure that the person was OK.”
Smith-King found her calling at Tufts. Hired in 1982, she became one of the most influential women in the history of Tufts Athletics, mentoring hundreds of student-athletes as the head coach of women’s cross-country and track and field teams for 18 years and as assistant director of Tufts Athletics since 2000.
Born and raised in Bermuda, Smith-King decided to return home this spring, accepting a position as executive director of the Bermuda Sloop Foundation, which provides an alternative learning experience for young Bermudians on board the floating classroom Spirit of Bermuda.
“Bran is a warm and caring human being who is a valued and respected colleague and a good friend to so many of us at Tufts,” said Bill Gehling, A74, G79, A05P, director of athletics emeritus who worked with Smith-King for more than 30 years. “She brought compassion, integrity, toughness and thoughtfulness to everything she did.”
By the time she arrived at Tufts at age 26, Smith-King already had extraordinary experiences to draw upon as a coach. She had been a member of the Bermuda National Track and Field Team and was the first in her country to win a gold medal at an international competition—in the long jump at the CARIFTA Games in Barbados in 1973. She held Bermuda records in the shot put, pentathlon discus, long jump and 100 meters. (Her daughter, Arantxa, who competed for Stanford, eclipsed her mother’s long-jump record.)
Smith-King developed into an Olympic hopeful—she competed in the Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia, in 1971 as a 15-year-old, and she attended the Olympic Youth Camp at the 1972 Munich Games. She was Bermuda’s assistant track and field coach for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The camaraderie she experienced as an athlete strengthened her desire to pursue a career in sports. “To me, athletics represents the beauty of humankind,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak, what color your skin is, what country you’re from. That didn’t matter when the starting gun went off or the game would start. I had experienced that firsthand, and I loved that.”
Coming to America
Smith-King left Bermuda in 1974 to study physical education and compete at Springfield College in Massachusetts, which was the hub of physical education and coaching then. She came to the States two years after the passage of the landmark federal legislation Title IX, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex. She said she learned from great female role models in Springfield’s physical education department.
She went on to be an All-American and New England champion at Springfield and still holds school records in the indoor and outdoor shot put (48 feet, 3.5 inches). She was the shot put champion at the Penn Relays in 1977 and 1978. But she said her proudest achievements came while fighting the discrimination she and her teammates faced. Their protests led to varsity status for women’s track and field at Springfield College. She also single-handedly integrated the weight room, where women had not been allowed to work out with the men. She was inducted into the Springfield College Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
When a second knee injury curtailed her athletic career, Smith-King set her sights on coaching. She was pursuing a Ph.D. at Louisiana State University when her college roommate mentioned that Tufts University was looking for a women’s track coach. Tufts Athletic Director Rocco Carzo offered her the job. She turned it down. She wanted to finish school and was tired of the New England winters, but Carzo wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Smith-King arrived at Tufts just as women’s varsity athletics was starting to be taken seriously. The women’s cross-country and track and field program had begun in 1976, but was still very informal. She elevated the program immediately.
“She had the experience and the background, and she was serious about the sport,” Jan Brown said. “That gave us a role model to say that if we take this seriously, we could achieve whatever goals we had. She would take the time to work with you to really make sure that you had what you needed in terms of being an athlete.”
During her 18 seasons as a coach, women’s track and field became a powerhouse. More than 50 of Smith-King’s athletes were All-Americans, including eight-time indoor and outdoor national champion Vera Stenhouse, J91. Several of her teams earned top-five finishes at NCAA meets, including a third place at the 1989 indoor championship.
She stepped away from coaching in 2000 to spend more time with her husband, Adrian, and their daughters, Arantxa and Akilah. As assistant athletic director, she continued to mentor student-athletes, along with carrying out her administrative responsibilities. Among her achievements was promoting wellness to incoming freshmen. She also worked closely with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
“She always brought a calm, sensible point of view to senior management discussions, even during highly charged conversations,” Gehling said. “When dealing with students, she could be firm, but always with a smile. They knew she was their advocate.”
Smith-King said the decision to leave Tufts after 35 years was difficult. “I don’t feel like I‘m leaving,” she said. “I’m moving to do something new with all that I’ve learned while I was here. I’m taking all this with me.”
Sports Information Director Paul Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.