Montana created its flagship high school sport — track and field — in 1904. But for the first half century, it was exclusively for boys.
And then Neil Eliason arrived in Kalispell in the 1960s and formed a powerhouse track club for girls that earned national respect and accolades and largely paved the way for other upstart teams.
The energetic grade school teacher started with more than 40 girls who would become the first Timberettes. With the help of assistant coach Neil Hart, Eliason raised money throughout the community for jerseys and track shoes. While the well-established boys team trained at Rawson Field, which is now Legends Stadium, the junior high and high school girls practiced at the Peterson Elementary School field.
“There wasn’t anything for girls to do. They didn’t have any real sports,” Eliason recalled recently.
The Montana AAU track and field meet had allowed girls competition since 1957, but only a handful of schools had loosely organized any semblance of a squad.
Eliason took over as AAU chairman of women’s track and field in Montana in 1961 and began advocating for the sport’s expansion.
As it turned out, actions spoke louder than words.
The vaunted Kalispell girls blazed past opponents that first season, winning all four meets they competed in, including the Montana Junior Olympics and AAU State Championships, which were held in Kalispell and featured 13 other teams that had banded together, including squads from Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
In only a matter of years, the Timberettes established a renowned dynasty. They rewrote the AAU record books as Eliason called around to schools across the West looking for new competition.
“We were looking all over for competition,” he said.
The Timberettes took on teams in Canada and across the nation that included college athletes, and the Kalispell girls, with standouts like Nancy Putman and Mary Lalum, still thrived. They won the AAU national championship in Missouri and other elite meets in Phoenix and beyond.
“We could compete,” he said. “We blew a lot of people’s minds.”
By 1967, the Timberettes program had nearly 500 participants. It became a model organization that inspired similar track clubs across Montana while also making inroads for other female sports, including swimming and basketball.
In 1969, the Montana High School Association added girls track and field competition to the list of sanctioned sports.
And not surprisingly, the Flathead Timberettes captured the first three state championships in the largest of two divisions, Class A.
The Timberettes didn’t lose a single meet for seven seasons from 1965 until the state meet in 1972, when Billings West edged Flathead 49-44 to snap the streak of three.
Eliason, or Mr. E as he became known, handed the torch off for the girls high school program in 1969 and took the Timberettes model to Flathead Valley Community College. Success followed. Once again, he started with a small group — four girls, who competed as the Mountainettes — and in a matter of years the community college squad was nationally ranked among two-year and four-year universities. In 1971, FVCC placed fourth at the national intercollegiate meet, behind three large four-year schools. The Mountainettes 440 relay team won the national championship in a record time of 49.0. The team placed third the following year, ahead of Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and other elite universities.
“If you could figure out a way to put a book cover on him, you could have the front of him on the front and the back side of him on the back. Everything you wanted to know about track and field would be in that book,” said Joe McKay, a former longtime girls track coach at Flathead High School after Eliason.
After building a powerhouse at FVCC, Eliason went to Montana State University in 1977 to coach the college team in Bozeman. He later became the assistant athletic director and remained there until 1985. In 1983, he was inducted into the Montana Coaches Assocation Hall of Fame. After retiring at MSU, he returned to the Flathead Valley and helped at Bigfork, where his former athlete, Sue Loeffler, is the longtime coach. He officially retired from coaching in 2006.
Now 83, Eliason still enjoys watching track and field competition, except now it’s from the stands. When he watches this weekend’s state championship meet, he will see Loeffler and her talented teams compete for a championship. He will also see another generation of athletes who are enjoying the spirit of competition he helped establish.