Sports

The Odyssey of Stuart Levitt

Glacier High School’s irrepressible 77-year-old master of the javelin has coached with legends, trained champions, biked across the country and hitchhiked home from his last college meet — and that’s not the half of it

Arron Deck, the head coach of the Glacier High School track and field programs, had known Stu Levitt for less than 10 minutes when a mental image of the now 77-year-old popped into his head.

“I was thinking here is a guy that I see (in the 1960s) in cutoffs, flip flops, sunglasses and a javelin, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and competing in random track meets,” Deck said.

His intuition wasn’t that far from the truth.

It was 1963, and Stu Levitt from tiny Haverford College in Philadelphia had just competed against the best college athletes from the biggest schools in the United States at what was then known as the NCAA University Division championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, finishing seventh in the javelin. It was a remarkable performance and it came only days after he had won the NCAA College Division (small school) national title in Chicago. Levitt rolled into Albuquerque in the middle of the night after 44 hours on a bus from the Windy City, sans javelin and with a small duffel bag slung over his shoulder, as a young man who had only picked up his chosen implement for the first time four years earlier, and who learned the craft by reading books and throwing a broomstick against a wall. He weight-trained by doing bicep curls and shoulder presses with a 30-pound pipe he kept stashed under his bed.

Levitt left the stadium in Albuquerque around midnight, found a comfortable place along hallowed Route 66, and stuck out his thumb looking for a ride. Administrators at Haverford, with little prior experience sending national champion athletes around the country, had given Levitt only $120 for the journey, which started the day of his graduation and was supposed to get him to Chicago, then Albuquerque, then back home to suburban Cleveland. Standing on Route 66, Levitt only had $55 left, less than what he needed to buy a plane ticket back home.

So he hitchhiked, eventually landing a ride with a track coach from Oklahoma who had been at the same NCAA event, and they drove together through the night, calling airports from various stops along the way to see if they could swing a $55 ticket from somewhere, which they eventually did in either Tulsa or Oklahoma City.

And if you think that’s a good story, Stu’s just getting started.

Stu Levitt instructs senior Evan Todd at Glacier High School on April 10, 2019. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon.

Listen to Levitt spin yarn after yarn for long enough — a former athlete of his called him “the best storyteller of all time” — and a funny thing happens. The septuagenarian has a Forrest Gump-ian way of popping up at a lot of interesting times and in a lot of interesting places in the world of sports.

He attended college in the same town (Philadelphia) and around the same time as his athletic idol, LaSalle’s Al Cantello, a 1960 Olympian in the javelin who went on to coach track and cross country for 55 years at the Naval Academy. When Levitt graduated from Haverford, he went to work at Brooklyn College, where he coached the track and field team and taught sports psychology, exercise science and kinesiology classes in the same department as some of the most powerful and influential people in sports, like Donna Lopiano and Linda Carpenter, at a time when those two women and others helped pass the landmark equal-rights in sports legislation known as Title IX in 1972. And when Levitt started coaching high school athletes, in Bernardsville, New Jersey, one of his fellow assistants at Bernards High School was a young Bernardsville native named Mark Wetmore. The two became fast friends as young men, years before Wetmore would become one of the most revered distance running coaches in the world at the University of Colorado.

Levitt’s first brush with fame, however, came without anyone by his side. He was a non-athlete in high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio before his brother-in-law steered him to Haverford, a school with a smaller enrollment than his high school where sports were more accessible. Levitt took a crack at competing in college and landed on the school’s basketball and track teams. He was a top-five scorer on Haverford’s hoops team as a senior, but the sport he excelled in most was the javelin, despite never receiving a moment of formal coaching.

Stuart Levitt poses for a yearbook photo at Haverford College. Photo courtesy Haverford College

April 5, 1960, Levitt says, was the first time he competed in the event, about a week after he held a javelin for the first time. The javelin is, even today, only sanctioned in 17 states for high school athletes and Ohio is not one of those states, so Levitt’s first introduction to the sport came when he chucked bamboo poles around at a summer camp one year. Just three years after his first competition, in 1963, Levitt won the prestigious Penn Relays, took home a conference title and won that small-college championship in Chicago. His school record throw of 238 feet, 11 1/2 inches broke the previous Haverford mark by 43 feet, and Levitt kept throwing competitively for a decade after graduation, in Europe and around the United States, while he took post-graduate courses at Columbia University. He was enshrined in Haverford’s athletic hall of fame in 2018.

“For me, it was like a dream,” Levitt said of his javelin career. “I was competing at very high levels and I never expected it, so I just took advantage of it.”

Levitt’s life has been consumed by athletics. He taught for decades at Brooklyn College before he and his wife of nearly 50 years, Nina, moved to the Flathead Valley in 1997, 10 years after the pair rode their bikes from coast-to-coast and fell in love with Montana along the way. Even today he is backcountry skier, trainer at The Summit Medical Fitness Center in Kalispell, and a professor of health sciences at Flathead Valley Community College, although his days of endurance racing and other formal competitions are behind him.

He is a month away from his 78th birthday, but Levitt has the endless energy and irrepressible spirit of a man 50 years younger, and his passion for coaching has not waned one bit. Levitt joined the Glacier coaching staff about a decade ago, when Deck was elevated to head coach, and he’s hard to miss at Wolfpack meets or practice, where he pairs his professorial wisdom with fiery competitiveness and fanatical enthusiasm.

“I think that everyone’s first impression of Stu is ‘is he off his meds or something?’” Todd Ogden, one of Levitt’s most accomplished pupils and a four-time state javelin champion at Glacier, said. “But that’s just Stu, and he didn’t change one bit.”

Levitt’s fervor is part of what makes him stand out on Glacier’s large coaching staff, but when the teenagers who first come across him get over the initial shock of a 77-year-man buzzing around cracking jokes and telling hard-to-believe stories from the past, they learn two more things: Levitt is as knowledgeable about the javelin as anyone in the country, and the man loves to win.

“I came into high school and I was like this guy seems to have no idea what he’s talking about,” Evan Todd, a Glacier senior and the 2018 Class AA state javelin champion, said.  “And then you actually get to know him and you realize that he eats, breathes and poops javelin. He’s constantly talking, thinking about ways he can improve his athletes.”

Senior Evan Todd stretches as other javelin throwers warm up at Glacier High School on April 10, 2019. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon.

Levitt swears he has mellowed some from his earlier days in coaching — “I was a little bit of a wild man,” he says — but he is still an intense competitor who does not mince words. He is honest and direct with his athletes, especially when they commit the mortal sin of throwing scared. Levitt wants his hurlers “on the edge” of wildness, and even with an immense knowledge of body mechanics he concerns himself more with the mental side of sports, allowing his athletes to dictate their own practice schedules and imploring them to let completely loose when they step into a throw.

“We go for it, we don’t fool around,” Levitt says. “I love mistakes. I don’t give a damn if you go over the line, I would rather see a great throw that you fouled on … That fear of failure is so dominant sometimes with kids; if you’re not afraid to make mistakes that’s all good, because you might find out something — that it’s not the end of the world anyway.”

His mantra with Todd is to call his star athlete “the boss,” and the confidence his coaching helped instill was part of what gave Todd the poise to win the 2018 state title on his final throw.

“You’ve got the javelin in your hand and the other teams are scared,” Levitt says to Todd. “They don’t know what you’re going to do. You’re the boss. You don’t have to have any doubt.”

In his time at Glacier, Levitt has mentored three state champions in the javelin including both the boys (Ogden) and girls (Keyawna Larson) Class AA state record-holders. Larson won three straight state titles from 2013-15 and now competes at North Dakota State University, Ogden is one of just two Montanans ever to win four straight javelin titles (2011-14), and Todd will throw at the University of Montana next year after attempting to repeat as a state champ this spring. Another Levitt pupil, Taylor Hulslander, set the U.S. Air Force Academy school record in the javelin in 2017, and a number of other Glacier javelin throwers have notched all-state performances over the years.

The 77-year-old has no plans of stopping there either. Senior Katie Dixon is one of the state’s top-ranked girls this season, and he has his eyes on Kenzie Williams, a sophomore, who could be the Wolfpack’s next state champ.

“(I want to coach) as long as I enjoy it,” Levitt said. “I mean, who knows, a couple more (years). We’ll see who comes around.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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