May 2022 ~
When you’re the first, you’ll always be the first.
And that’s one of the first things Patrice Woods (Benson, 1992) thinks about when she reflects on her PIL Hall of Fame career and her days on the track in a Benson uniform.
Woods was a starring member of the 1991 Benson girls team that gave the school its first state championship in a girls sport.
“I’m extremely proud of that, partly because we made history,” she says. “And if there was a theme for my high school years, it was making history.”
She made plenty of that. She was the first female student body president at Benson and the first African-American Rose Festival princess from the school.
Woods was a 5-4 ½ bundle of energy in spikes who found her forte in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles.
“I loved it,” she says.
She finished second in that event as Benson claimed the ‘91 Class 4A (highest level) title, and she returned to Hayward Field as a senior in ‘92 and placed first.
“That was the highlight of a lifetime for an 18-year-old,” she says.
Woods also ran on the state champion 4×400 relay teams of 1991 and 1992.
That 1991 girls track and field state title was the first of seven state championships (and five runner-up finishes) through 2005 for the Leon McKenzie-coached Tech girls track team.
“My freshman year we started to make noise as a team, and people started to take notice,” Woods recalls. “My sophomore year we realized there were some awesome freshmen coming in and we were getting really strong. Junior year, we won state, and senior year we were second. And then Benson track really started to take off.”
Woods won three PIL crowns in the 300 hurdles.
What made that race so good for, and to, her?
“I think it goes back to how my brain functions,” she says. “It’s what my brain needs.
“I was always intrigued by patterns, and counting steps was natural for me. A lot of hurdlers don’t count their steps, but I’d always be doing it. You have to be aware of your step patterns, because if you need to make adjustments, you’ll be able to.”
She ran in other events for Benson, of course – mostly the 4×100 relay and 100 hurdles and occasionally the 4×400.
But, given the talent at the school in the early ‘90s, “I wasn’t the fastest girl – there were at least five or six girls faster. But I could run fast longer than a lot of people.”
Woods also competed in cross country at Benson, starting her sophomore year. She played girls basketball as a freshman, but then gravitated to indoor track over the winter.
“Basketball was not my sport,” she says. “I had a propensity for track, and I’d be training and running in meets.”
The Tech girls track team was memorable for more than the victories.
“We were all friends,” she says. “We didn’t hang out always, but I don’t remember any conflicts between team members. Everyone was so encouraging to one another, and our coaches were amazing, and they knew how to train us and help us improve.”
Woods went on to run track at the University of Washington.
On a recruiting trip, “I fell in love with Seattle, and I wanted a change of scenery,” she says. But she might have gone to Oregon instead – her father was a UO alum – except that the UW coach came to her house before her senior year state meet and the Ducks coach didn’t.
Being a college athlete was just a natural progression for her.
“I didn’t know how to do anything except put forth my best effort, so taking that to college made things seamless,” she says. “I enjoyed the training, the challenge, the weight lifting. I enjoyed it all and had a great experience.”
She got better every year, earning All-American honors in the 400 hurdles, competing in the 1996 Olympic Trials and running in two U.S. nationals.
She earned a degree at Washington in sociology in 1996 and picked up “a few other degrees” after that. She coached track one year at Washington State, got married and had two daughters. She coached high school cross country and track in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where her then-husband was serving. She moved to the Seattle area and taught high school math.
After 23 years away from the Rose City, she came back to Portland in 2015 for a job, and she’s had two daughters in recent years run track successfully for Benson – Jelisa Turner as a PIL champion sprinter and Brianna Turner as a state runner-up in the 300 hurdles. “Brianna ran faster than I did,” Patrice says.
Along the way, Woods got the credentials she needed to work in school administration, and the past three years she has worked for Portland Public Schools and is director of kindergarten-fifth grade mathematics and science.
“I love it. It’s definitely my passion,” she says. “In 10th grade, I knew I wanted to be a math teacher, I just didn’t follow through with it.”
She got to pre-calculus at Benson, but struggled “for the first time” and didn’t take math her senior year.
Patrice had spent most of her elementary years at Boise and Sabin schools. For high school, she chose Benson, and “track had nothing to do with it. I didn’t know I was going to run in high school and had no idea who Leon McKenzie was. My dad graduated from Benson, and I had a brother going there. My dad would not allow me to go to certain other high schools.”
Being Benson’s Rose Festival princess was interesting in lots of ways – including that the queen’s coronation was on the same weekend as the state track meet in Eugene. Whoever was crowned queen was expected to be at festival events in Portland the same day Woods was planning to win her state hurdles title. She didn’t tell the Rose Festival people or judges, though they probably surmised her thoughts.
“In my mind, track was going to be my priority. It was a no-brainer. I was going to Eugene,” she says.
After the coronation, she changed clothes, jumped in the car and drove south to the Benson team hotel.
“It was all surreal and high-intensity. I had prelims the next day, and people were recognizing me from being on TV the night before,” she says.
After the state meet, she went straight to the dressing room and back to Portland to ride on a float in a parade.
These days, she still races – on the road – picking and choosing when, where and how far. She’s done a couple of half-marathons and plans to do another one in October.
“I enjoy running,” she says. “I enjoy the serenity, being outside. I take it all in. I run in the mornings – three to four miles before work. I think it helps my singing voice. I always could hold notes longer and louder because of my lung capacity.
“Once you start running, you’ve got to keep running. I run on the treadmill a lot. I like to be healthy, and I don’t like to have to buy a new wardrobe every few years.”
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~ Profile written by Steve Brandon (Cleveland, 1972)