ON THE PLAQUE: She was a four-time Heptagonal Games champion in the triple jump, winning twice indoors and twice outdoors, and graduated with the program records in the indoor (40 feet 11.75 inches) and outdoor (41 feet 1.5 inches) triple jump. She was invited to the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials but declined in order to pursue her professional nursing career. Later became a world-class triple jumper at the Masters level, winning several world and national championships in her specialty.
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 17, 2017
Ruthlyn Greenfield-Webster Nu’92 was playing in an adult volleyball league in New York City about 10 years ago when someone casually brought up Masters Track and told her she could probably be a top competitor in her age group.
All she could do was laugh.
“I looked at him like he was crazy,” Greenfield-Webster said. “I said, ‘I’m 35 years old. Run track now? Are you kidding?’”
Greenfield-Webster figured her life on the track had ended when, after a decorated career at Penn that included four individual Heptagonal championships and the program’s triple jump record at the time, she turned down an invitation to the compete at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials so she could pursue her nursing career.
Since then, she’s kept quite busy as a full-time nurse at NYU Langone Medical Center while raising two daughters. But on a whim, she decided to give the Masters thing a shot, buying a pair of new spikes, practicing by doing a few hops and steps in her backyard—“It was the most hilarious thing,” she said—and going to a nearby track in Westchester County to run and jump at a local meet. Soon after, she made the interesting discovery that, without any kind of formal training for 14 years, her triple jump distance was actually further than the national champion in her age group (35-39).
“The light bulb went off,” she said. “I was like, ‘I still got it!’ And that’s the story from there.”
The story from there is actually quite remarkable, as Greenfield-Webster found a second life on the track and is once again setting records and winning championships as a USA Track & Field Masters star.
And considering that she’s still doing running and jumping today, entering the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame for her track accomplishments more than two decades ago makes the honor, in many ways, even more meaningful.
“Let me tell you, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t dream of this,” Greenfield-Webster said. “I guess in a way it’s the pinnacle of everything I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Although her new athletic career may have come as a surprise initially, it does make sense when you consider how special being on a track has always been for her—especially Franklin Field, a place that always gave her a great “sense of pride.” She began coming to the historic stadium as a high schooler from Mount Vernon, N.Y., and only missed three Penn Relays since—two when she was pregnant and another when she had to go to a nursing conference. And she recently began competing at the Penn Relays again in the Masters Women 40 and older 4x400 relay—which, she likes to say, was “the only thing I looked forward to when I turned 40.”
“I actually tell people, ‘Get off my lawn,’” she laughed. “I’m very possessive about Franklin Field. When you spend so much time there, four year of my life running around that track—and the pit! I don’t care what anyone else tells you, that’s my pit!”
You could say her love of Franklin Field was one reason why she felt her graduation from Penn would mark the perfect end point to her track and field career. Getting invited to the U.S. Olympic Trials was an honor, of course, but she was battling hamstring injuries at the time and didn’t feel like she’d be at her best even though she was ranked 20th in the nation in triple jump in 1992. Besides, she “never had Olympic aspirations”—for her, competing at Franklin Field was the pinnacle.
“I got to the point where I said, ‘As wonderful as this opportunity is, I think I want this to be the end for me,’” she said. “I said, ‘You know what, I think I’m ready to move on from track.’ Little did I know that 14 years later I’d be doing it again.”
The one thing that never left her was her competitiveness or her work ethic, which was one reason why she continued to go the gym all the time and play volleyball and other sports after college. And that was also why she was able to immediately become a top Masters competitor, which led her to Italy, Finland, France and Brazil, among other countries.
Even better, while in Brazil for the 2013 Masters Track and Field World Championships, she captured the gold medal in the women’s triple jump for her age group (40-44)—something she desperately coveted after winning silvers and bronzes at previous events. And she managed to accomplish the feat despite competing with a meniscus tear in her right knee, prompting many tears when the medal was draped around her neck.
“I almost decided I wasn’t going to go,” she said. “But something inside of me said, ‘this is my time.’ I could feel it in my bones. Any time any doubt creeped in, I would say, ‘it’s not gonna happen, I’m gonna win this.’ And I did.”
Tony Tenisci, the longtime Penn track coach who retired last year after 30 years, was just starting out at Penn when he first met Greenfield-Webster and was immediately struck by her “great spirit” and positivity on top of her natural ability. And he was blown away by how hard she worked to balance her nursing responsibilities with her commitment to the track team. Sometimes, Tenisci remembers, she would travel to New York City for a week for an internship before meeting the Quakers for a meet. Other times, she would work with her nursing professors to adjust her academic schedule.
So the fact that she’s now an accomplished nurse, a mother and, you know, a world champion? Tenisci isn’t surprised.
“Just to give you perspective, her performances today at 45 years old are still recruitable performances for D-1 college athletics,” Tenisci said. “Isn’t that something?”
“All of whatever she missed in Olympic trials, she got all of that back again. Because she stayed and invested in it, she’s a world champion. Now that’s pretty darn good. It’s funny how life sort of works itself out.”
Tenisci also marvels at how his former pupil still finds time to still come to as many Penn meets as she can while serving as a “mentor” to Quakers who came after her. That has always been important to Greenfield-Webster, who is also involved in the alumni interview program and says she just “loves, loves, loves” her alma mater.
For her part, Greenfield-Webster admits that doing everything she does can be a challenge—but a good one.
“You know what the greatest part of my life is?” she said. “Do I get tired? Sure I do. But my tired isn’t one of, ‘Oh my god, I hate my life.’ My tired is because I’m doing everything that I want to do. And I’m living every day to its fullest potential.
“Training is hard work. Work is hard work. Being a mom is hard work. But I enjoy every bit of it.”
And how much longer will the new member of the Penn Hall of Fame class continue to run and jump?
“As long as my body physically allows me to,” she said. “Really, I’m a baby. I’m 45. People are competing until they’re 80, 90, 100…”
Guess it’s hard to put a limit on someone who’s never had one.