Walkers follow in Paula Hodgdon’s footsteps to raise money for women’s athletics

The Paula D. Hodgdon TrailblazHer Walk began and ended its 1.5-mile route near the entrance to the USM softball field.
Walkers completed a 1.5-mile circuit around campus and downtown Gorham.

A new fundraising event follows the example of its namesake by going the extra mile for women’s athletics at the University of Southern Maine.

The skies over Gorham were gray and misty for the start of the Paula D. Hodgdon TrailblazHer Walk on the morning of Saturday, April 20. The chatter from the eager crowd was sunny even if the weather wasn’t. A few walkers wore ponchos, but the drizzle was light enough that most went uncovered.

Hodgdon coached her teams through far worse conditions. Her toughness extended beyond the playing field as a crusader for equal treatment of women athletes. USM hired her to teach Physical Education in 1967. Seeing few athletic opportunities for women, she filled the void by creating varsity teams in field hockey, volleyball, and basketball.

The offerings available to women continued to grow under Hodgdon’s leadership. But field hockey was special to her. She coached the team for all 31 years of her career at USM until her retirement in 1997. Even then, she remained a fixture on the sidelines as a fan.

Organizers of the walk borrowed Hodgdon’s name to signal that it shares her commitment to elevate women’s athletics. The money it generates will go toward equipment and support services for teams at USM. Revenue streams include a registration fee for walkers, business sponsorships, and direct donations.

Paula Hodgdon poses for photos with a couple of admirers at the finish line of the Paula D. Hodgdon TrailblazHer Walk.
At 95 years old, Paula Hodgdon braved the rain to cheer on walkers.

At 95 years old, Hodgdon doesn’t attend many games anymore, but a little rain didn’t stop her from greeting walkers on Saturday. People all around her wore sweatshirts emblazoned with her name. Hodgdon smiled to see them but tried to redirect the focus away from herself and back to the student-athletes who pour their hearts into every game.

“They’re doing it,” Hodgdon said. “I just happened to be the one that started it, so I don’t take that kind of credit.”

Plenty of credit still came her way from her many admirers, and Bonny Brown-Denico was chief among them. Their relationship spans decades. Brown-Denico was a player on the 1987 field hockey team that Hodgdon led to the final four of the NCAA Division III championship tournament.

After graduating, Brown-Denico joined Hodgdon’s coaching staff. She spent seven years learning all she could as an assistant. And when Hodgdon stepped down, USM made Brown-Denico the new head coach. They are the only two people ever to hold the position.

Brown-Denico never strayed far from Hodgdon’s side during the goings-on surrounding the walk. When Hodgdon needed a chair or a moment indoors to warm up, Brown-Denico was quick to provide it. Their bond made Brown-Denico the ideal person to introduce Hodgdon during the pre-walk announcements.

“Paula is a huge inspiration to me, from the way she treats people, to how respected she is by everyone,” Brown-Denico said. “She was always a workhorse, involved in committees, giving back by volunteering, and just knows how to get things done. She has always been a great role model, mentor, and has become a dear friend.”

Members of the women's lacrosse team cross the finish line at the inaugural Paula D. Hodgdon TrailblazHer Walk.
Student-athletes accounted for a large percentage of walkers.

When the speeches ended, the walk began. Walkers stepped across the starting line near the entrance to the University’s softball field. The route formed a circle extending for a mile and a half around campus and downtown Gorham, finally ending at the place where it started.

Student-athletes accounted for a high percentage of walkers. They represented a cross-section of USM’s 22 teams, including both the men’s and women’s programs. Sage Drinkwater was part of an especially large contingent of field hockey players.

Drinkwater is a junior majoring in Linguistics. She’s co-captain of the field hockey team and plays forward. Her output on offense was vital to the team’s successful 2023 season, which culminated with the Little East Conference championship. She and her teammates scored another victory at the walk by collecting more donations than any other team.

“It was important for my teammates and I to be at the walk to represent our team and to celebrate Coach Hodgdon and all of her amazing accomplishments,” Drinkwater said. “It was great that she was there, and we could show our appreciation for all of her contributions to women’s athletics at USM.”

The job of making the walk an event worthy of Hodgdon’s name fell to students in the Sport and Esports Management program. They handled the planning, promotion, and staffing.

Madison Wood runs through a list of announcements leading up to the start of the Paula D. Hodgdon TrailblazHer Walk.
Madison Wood welcomed walkers and supplied them with essential information.

Madison Wood is a senior and shouldered multiple responsibilities. She solicited sponsorships in the weeks leading up to the walk. On the day of the event, she commanded the crowd’s attention by making announcements over the loudspeaker. Her work gave her new appreciation for all that Hodgdon accomplished.

“I think it’s incredible what she’s done for women’s athletics,” Wood said. “And especially being one of two females in the class (BUS 316 – Sport Event and Facility Management), it’s really great to have an event like this that’s surrounded by women and celebrating women’s athletics and making them heard.”

Organizers plan to make the walk an annual tradition. Their inaugural effort brought in a total of more than $6,400. The money was raised by students, for students. Hodgdon commended their hard work as someone who knows what it takes to reach a lofty goal.

“It’s wonderful to see them and to meet them,” Hodgdon said. “They’re very active and love the sports that are here. I really appreciate that.”