With an arm like a rocket and a will to use it, Barbara Butler found a place to compete in track and field and throw the discus.
Born and raised in Portales, N.M., Butler traveled by bus to Albuquerque to work out and compete with Albuquerque Olympette Club while in high school. The club had no practice facility so the women trained in a different city park every week. Butler’s high school coach helped here find odd jobs like painting houses, mowing lawns and taking in ironing to earn money to buy the bus tickets. Butler’s effort paid off in 1968 when she set a national high school discus record.
In 1969, Butler entered UNM and joined the women’s volleyball and basketball teams where she went on to play varsity for four years. She participated in track and field and hardly noticed she was a one-person team since UNM did not officially fund women’s athletics at that time.
Throwing a discus in a public park was a little too dangerous. Her solution was to wait until the men’s team finished practicing and climb over the fence to practice. Most days she was caught by the security guard and could only negotiate 15 minutes on the field.
Despite her rather unusual attempt to practice, Butler became UNM’s first female track and field national champion in the discus as a freshman. She placed second at the AAU Championships the following year. In 1971 Butler was national champion again and went on to qualify for the 1972 Olympics. She placed eighth in the trials.
In the early 1970s not only did women lack training facilities, they also did not have access to the athletic trainers. As a result, women’s coaches acted as trainers and therapists taping, icing and heating up injuries. Butler assumed this combination of coach and physical therapy was common.
Butler graduated from UNM in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. She became head track and field coach at West Mesa and Cibola High Schools and at UNM until 1978.
Butler joined the Army Reserves in 1979 and returned to UNM to earn another degree in physical therapy. Upon graduation she joined the Navy full-time, working in hospitals around the country and in Japan.
Butler has broken down barriers to women by creating an experimental program in physical therapy to treat soldiers injured on the USS Constellation in 2001. The program was successful and now all aircraft carriers have physical therapy clinics. Butler was deployed in Operation Southern Watch and while on the Constellation, the attacks of Sept. 11 occurred.
While in the Navy, Butler coached at the Naval Academy, traveled to Viet Nam to train doctors in rehabilitating burn victims, earned a master’s degree in orthopedic physical therapy and planned to complete a doctoral degree in physical therapy. At the time of her induction, Butler was one of only 300 board certified manual therapists in the country.