"Eins … zwei … drei … You can do it!"
Virtually every student taught by Gudrun Callahan, Physical Education Teacher & Coach, has these words etched in his or her brain. While learning to count to ten in German may seem superfluous to physical education, the cadence and precision of it is actually quite helpful. It triggers concentration and can help recall a physical memory, maybe of dribbling a basketball or stretching before practice or even just being counted for a “battleship” team. Either way, the idea of learning something very basic and translating it into a lifelong activity with diligence, confidence, and sportsmanship is the very essence of what Mrs. Callahan taught to generations of Saints. She did it with such a high standard of excellence that it catapulted her into the SSSAS Hall of Fame one year after her retirement.
In her P.E. classes, Mrs. Callahan focused on basic movements such as balance, rhythm, throwing, catching, running, and jumping. She taught these skills in many different ways – in games, with music, as obstacle courses, and even in everyday life. (Pedometers were a huge hit as students tracked their movement outside of class and could not wait to report back to her!) One of the first to implement this “movement” methodology in 1971, she was always on the cutting edge of curricula and technology. In addition, she incorporated the use of video in order to give students immediate instructional feedback. What Mrs. Callahan would introduce first to her students often became the standard for P.E. programs across the country.
With the passage of Title IX in 1972, women’s sports began to really take off and, as SSSAS Head Field Hockey Coach, P.E. Teacher, and colleague Marsha Way explained, “That year, Gudrun gave a speech to the Fathers’ Association regarding Title IX and sports at our school, once again helping to chart a path for girls sports at St. Agnes and laying the foundation for the strong program that exists today. She offered everything from team sports, to dance, gymnastics, yoga, and in the early years, she devised a system where the girls could sign up for what they wanted to take, to create more interest. She would even do gymnastic exhibitions with the girls, as well as rhythmic gymnastic performances, to help people in the area become aware of the Olympic sport.”
Mrs. Callahan was also very involved in getting the girls lacrosse program started in the mid-1970s. Ms. Way recalls, “Kathy Jenkins had the idea. Gudrun formulated the plan. They decided to offer lacrosse as an option for one of the two-week, mini-unit courses that all the girls did. Gudrun then talked the Fathers’ Association into buying lacrosse sticks for the school, and one might say a dynasty was born.”
She was also charting paths for women outside of school. She taught classes at the YWCA in Washington, D.C., where she was one of the first to teach a “Mother & Child” exercise class and “slimnastics,” which eventually became aerobics. She also worked on the Alexandria Soccer Association, which opened up the playing opportunities for girls.
Even students who did not consider themselves “athletes” loved Mrs. Callahan, as she would nurture their strengths and encourage them through their weaknesses. She would tell them that they can do practically anything if they put the effort into it.
Susan Blanton Smith ’80 recalls, “Gudrun literally took an unskilled lump of a girl and directed me toward success in athletics. She saw potential no one else even tried to see.” Admiration for her became a Smith family affair when Susan’s son, Nick ’10, who was taught by Mrs. Callahan for seven years, called her “the greatest teacher my family and I ever had” in his senior yearbook dedication.
Her philosophy of expecting the best of her students, combined with her system of teaching a variety of lifelong skills and activities, came essentially from what she experienced in Germany. Yet Mrs. Callahan credits her students with much of her success as a teacher and coach. “I just loved them all, and I loved watching them grow,” she says. She is also quick to honor St. Agnes Head of School Roberta McBride for supporting her in her early years when she had small children. “My children were welcomed after school at practices and games – where there were lots of willing baby sitters to look after them – so that the girls would learn that women could have a career and a family,” Mrs. Callahan said. “This was very unusual at that time, but she knew it was an important life lesson to teach and model for the girls. I am forever grateful for that.”
When it comes to school records or league awards, in a sense, Mrs. Callahan holds a part of all of those records won by those she taught. As Margaret Anne Raines ’96 said, “Let us not forget that those who were there from the beginning were shaped from our beginning with Mrs. Callahan. Let it not go unrealized that our passion and competitive drive were fostered there and were infectious to those who came in Middle or Upper School. The die was cast, and in so many ways, it was she who determined the color of so many parachutes.”