It wasn’t the potential of running the 100 meter dash in under 11 seconds that allowed a young black woman from Denver, Colorado, to grow up and become the first African-American woman to lead a Division 1 men’s and women’s track team.
It was the lifelong bond between that runner and her childhood coach that influenced the one-time All-American sprinter to run in a different direction after things didn’t go the way she intended on the track.
“It took me awhile to accept the fact that I was going to be a coach,” University of Southern California Track and Field Coach Caryl Smith Gilbert said. “I feel like I didn’t make it as an athlete the way that I wanted to.
“But it took me even longer to appreciate that I’m changing lives and that I have influence on people and that they are looking at me as a role model.”
The setback in her track career led to a setup to her decorated coaching career where she acknowledged and grew to appreciate the opportunity to impact the lives of student athletes. The approach is similar to the mentorship that her former high school coach, Tony Wells, provided throughout her life.
“When I graduated from college and came back home to Colorado, he was the one who forced me and told me that I was going to go up to my old high school, George Washington, and coach,” Smith Gilbert said.
“I didn’t want to do it, but he made me and then I got a call from Penn State and he encouraged me to take the job. He taught me and all my teammates the history of the sport and was really pivotal in my decision to become a coach.”
Smith Gilbert’s first stop as a collegiate coach was at Penn State as an assistant. She then went on to the University of Alabama, University of Tennessee, and was then hired for her first head coaching position at the University of Central Florida before landing her current job at USC.
Today, she is one of the most prominent coaches in the sport, where women in leadership — especially women of color — are few and far between.
“I think that women have a tough time with track and field, if you want to have a family with the time that’s required,” Smith Gilbert said. “It’s a year-round sport. It’s very demanding. If you’re going to be good at it, it’s long hours. All of your weekends are filled from February to June.
“I feel like a lot of women think that they have to make a decision, and if you don’t have someone that’s there to support you and is willing to help you, then it’s a tough field to be in,” she added. “I know that women aren’t paid on par with men, and the good women that we do have end up leaving the sport because they feel like they have to choose family or track and field.”
Out of last year’s Top 25 rankings in NCAA Division I in men’s and women’s track and field, three programs were led by female coaches. Smith Gilbert was the only female coach to rank in the top 25 in both categories as she finished fifth in men’s and seventh in women’s.
Another woman of color, Texas A&M Coach Connie Price-Smith, made a top 25 finish in women’s indoor track as well.
As for the former six-time Conference USA coach of the year, she had her mind set on making all the sacrifices she needed in order to get to where she wanted to be. Luckily for her, she was able to be both successful at the highest level and find a partnership that complimented her lifestyle.
“I didn’t get married until I was 35. I didn’t have a child until I was 38,” Smith Gilbert said. “But all of that is because I was coaching. I was able to pack up and move to Penn State when I was 28 years old because I didn’t have any kids, or a relationship.”
Smith Gilbert met her husband, former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Greg Gilbert, while she was coaching at Alabama. But it wasn’t until she moved on to Tennessee that they decided to marry.
“He’s been with me helping make the moves and strategic decisions that we are able to make together,” she said. “I think women are impatient. And to them, even for me, back then 28 felt like 68. They panic and jump out of the profession before they give themselves a chance to get immersed in it, and learn and move up the ladder.”
As a proponent of patience and waiting, success has followed Smith Gilbert. After putting in time as an assistant, she got her first head coaching job at Central Florida where she won six Conference USA track and field outdoor and indoor crowns.
Most recently, her program at USC received national praise after senior Andre De Grasse made a splash at this past summer’s World Championships. He racked up a pair of bronze medals, including a third-place finish in the 100 meters behind the publicly proclaimed “fastest person ever,” Usain Bolt.
The lack of female coaches in the sport hasn’t stopped Smith Gilbert from continuing to set the expectations higher and higher for herself and her staff, which is split 50-50 between women and men.
“I don’t want to have just a great team, I want to be a great program over time. Year in and year out top three at national championships,” Smith Gilbert said.
“I’d like to be the first woman (which would be the first African-American woman) overall to win both men’s and women’s [titles].”