From Unexpected Runner to Hall of Famer: Jackie Blackett ’81

From Unexpected Runner to Hall of Famer: Jackie Blackett ’81

This alumnus has set running records, earned career-related accolades, and was recently honored by her alma mater

Jackie Blackett ’81

Jackie Blackett ’81

For more than four decades, Jackie Blackett ’81—a Columbia University coach and athletics administrator—has been a driving force in women’s sports and athletics management. In recognition of her achievements, the University of Rochester inducted Blackett into its Athletics Hall of Fame in the fall of 2023.

“Throughout her life, Blackett has redefined excellence,” says Terry Gurnett, associate director of Athletics. “When she was a collegiate runner, she set records. As a Rochester cross country and track & field coach, she led the Yellowjackets to their best-ever NCAA track & field finish in 1989. Remarkably, seven of the eight women’s cross country and track & field members of the Rochester Hall of Fame competed under Blackett’s leadership.”

During her 30-year career at columbia, Blackett has played a pivotal role in the athletic department’s senior management, steering the success of more than 5,000 student athletes. Wearing multiple hats as deputy athletics director, senior woman administrator, and deputy Title IX coordinator, she oversees crucial programs and ensures compliance with University policies.

Blackett’s foray into sports started unexpectedly, when a friend invited her to a track and field meeting during the first few weeks of her first year on campus. “Much to my surprise, that meeting was held in the men’s locker room,” she recalls. “That’s the first time I met Coach Hale, who told us that if we were serious about running to come see him the next day.”

Blackett and her friends were serious and did go back to Coach Hale. Encouraged by him and the men’s team, they competed in as many events as they could. Over the years, the number of events increased and, then, in 1978 the women’s varsity team was officially established. “Coach Hale ended up paving the way for us,” she says. “His support truly marked the beginning of an unforeseen path for me and others.”

Here, Blackett talks about her life and career in sports.

What was it like being inducted into Rochester’s Athletics’ Hall of Fame?

It was humbling. Initially, I thought others were more deserving, but a former teammate reminded me that I represented a group of women who may not have the opportunity to be individually inducted into the Hall of Fame. I came to realize that this honor wasn’t just about me; it was about the early days of the sport and  the women who sacrificed to build a women’s cross country and track & field program.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Barbados, which was part of the British educational system. Students earned points for academics, community service, and athletics. That’s when I discovered I had some talent in running and netball. After emigrating to the US at 13, I attended an all-girls high school in Brooklyn, where I didn’t play sports—I did take up dancing though, which I still love.

Why Rochester?

I came to Rochester to be a teacher. I was on track to be one and then, immediately following my senior year, I received a call for the athletic director at RIT who was looking for a part-time coach for their women’s program. I took the job as an opportunity to give back to students what I had gained from the sport.

Did you know you were making history at Rochester?

Absolutely not. Back in the late 1970s, making history was far from my mind. Without a women’s varsity team, I was, along with my teammates, simply track & field athlete who entered several events. It wasn’t until senior year, qualifying for nationals, that I realized the significance of what I was doing.

What might surprise people to know about you?

I never really liked running, but I really loved competing. Ask any of my former coaches, training was never my forte. I did what was necessary to do well in an event.

What are some memories of your time at Rochester?

The lifelong friends that allowed me grow. On the track, I remember deliberately keeping one shoe slightly untied during our daily mile warm-up so I had to strategically stop to re-tie them. Coach would shout, “Can’t you keep your shoes tied?” There was also the perpetual struggle of being fashionably late to practice due to General Hospital ending at the same time that practice started. I remember the bubble chairs in Wilson Commons, too, which, by the way, aren’t there anymore. We spent a lot of time in those chairs solving the world’s problems.

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in sports today?

In D1 collegiate sports, we’re at a turning point, grappling with questions about our identity, educational value, and the purpose of athletics. The recent spotlight on NIL—Name, Image, and Likeness—in televised congressional hearings caught my attention. This NCAA rule allows students to earn from their personal brand. Despite its complexity, one thing became clear to me: high school and collegiate sports mattered to every senator who spoke during those hearings. As someone deeply involved in NCAA and Division 1 governance issues, I know that these are conversations that will determine the future of sports.

What are you most proud of?

I take pride in two things. Firstly, the Hall of Fame ceremony, where my great nephews witnessed a different side of me and had the chance to glimpse the value of life’s work. Secondly, when former students bring their own children back to campus, it tells me that they had an experience that was so positive it’s worth sharing with their children.

What makes today’s generation of students and athletes stand out?

Their grit and determination to make a difference. This generation wants to be part of the decision-making process. Even if they don’t have all the info, they want to have a voice if it involves them. They want a say in the process.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading Legacy by James Kerr, which delves into the story of New Zealand’s All Blacks, the world’s most successful rugby team. I work long and late office hours, so my reading time is limited, but Kerr’s book always accompanies me in my bag. For a more leisurely escape, I turn to Walter Mosley, an American novelist who writes a lot of crime fiction revolving around a Black private investigator—I love his work.

A younger Jackie Blackett ’81 running on a track.

Jackie Blackett ’81

Major: Psychology

College highlights: 11 indoor and 9 outdoor school records, four All-East awards at the 1981 Eastern Indoor Track & Field Championships

Job title: Deputy Athletics Director, Physical Education & Recreation/Senior Woman Administrator at Columbia University

Hometown: New York, NY

Explore Jackie Blackett’s college running career and her coaching accomplishments at Rochester.

Support Women in Sports

For more than 50 years, the University of Rochester has provided distinctive opportunities for women to excel competitively and be strong leaders and teammates. Our new Women in Sports—WinS—initiative honors this and celebrates Rochester’s educationally purposeful athletics programs. Please join us. With your engagement and support, we can reach our goals and create a sustainable future for our programs. Contact Terry Gurnett, associate director of Athletics, or Victoria Bothner, associate director of Advancement, to learn how you can get involved.

—Kristine Kappel Thompson, Winter 2024