Kathy Knabb

Submitted photo

Kathy Knabb was an 11-time WPIAL champion in track and cross country while at Peters Township High School.

She is one of the most prolific distance runners in WPIAL history – in both cross country and track and field.

Kathy Knabb won every significant distance race one can run in track in her time at Peters Township High School.

Though PIAA gold eluded her, more because of the legendary competition she faced throughout her career than any other reason, Knabb went on to North Carolina State University and built a legacy in cross country with the Wolfpack.

In high school, Knabb was superior – one of the greatest long-distance runners in WPIAL history. That is not debatable.

She won 11 WPIAL gold medals in track and field and cross country. And two indoor state championships.

To wit:

  • Knabb won the most difficult trifecta of the 800-meter, 1,600-meter and 3,200-meter runs three times – 1989, 1990 and 1991.
  • In 1989, she also captured WPIAL gold, part of the Indians’ championship 3,200-meter relay team.
  • As a senior, she won state indoor championships in the 1,000-meter and 2,000-meter runs.
  • In addition to her WPIAL cross country title in 1991, Knabb placed third in the PIAA in Class AA. As a junior, she was PIAA runnerup in Class AAA.
  • She participated in the Foot Locker Nationals and became an All-American.

Knabb came to Peters Township via Idaho, where she grew up and went to school until middle school when the family moved.

Before she became a distance runner, she played soccer.

“It was a love,” Knabb said. “I played midfield.”

Knabb finally became involved in running. Before her eighth grade year, she won a national championship in the 3,000-meter run in Utah.

She joined the Pacer Track Club, based in Pittsburgh, and participated in soccer games in Hershey.

“I really liked it,” she said. “I still liked soccer. I had a big decision to make.”

Knabb said it was a difficult decision.

“I loved to run,” she explained. “I really enjoyed it. It just took off and opened me up to having many friendships that became lifelong.”

One particular friendship developed with Amy Rudolph, who won six PIAA championship gold medals from 1989-1991 while at Kane High School.

Rudolph, considered one of the great U.S. long-distance runners of the last 25 years, is currently the associate head women’s cross country/track and field coach at Iowa State University. She is a two-time U.S. Olympian in the 5,000 meters, a seven-time World Championship team member and three-time USA national champion. She was a finalist in the 5,000 meters (finishing 10th) at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and set an American record in 1996, running the 5k in 14:56.04.

Rudolph was a two-time (1997 and 2002) U.S. indoor champion in the 3,000 meters.

“We met at the Pittsburgh Airport,” Knabb said. “We just clicked.

“I think at states we’d make our opponents nervous because we’d give each other looks and would kid around at the starting line. She was a super runner.”

Rudolph cherishes the friendship developed with Knabb and the competitive experiences they shared.

“I’m not sure of the exact race, but Kathy and I started talking after several races of competing against each other and we really connected over our love of running and our personalities really complemented each other,” Rudolph said.

“We started looking for each other at meets and would cool down together after races. Our parents also connected, and we would keep in touch through telephone calls (this was before cell phones and Internet). I spent some time at Kathy’s home during one of our summer vacations. She showed me all of her favorite spots to train and we became even closer friends.

“We were both fortunate to be invited to the Olympic Training Center to train with other nationally ranked ladies for a training camp. It was really nice having someone I knew with me. Kathy and I headed to different states for our college careers, but we would occasionally see each other at meets and would keep in touch through letters.”

At North Carolina State, Knabb was named All-Atlantic Coast Conference twice. She was part of three Wolfpack championship cross country teams and was named All-District as a freshman and sophomore.

Rudolph went on to Providence College.

Their paths crossed at times while they were collegiate athletes.

“Kathy was definitely a force to be reckoned with,” Rudolph said. “If Kathy was in the race, you knew you were going to have to race hard to beat her. She was constantly raising her game and getting better. Her determination, along with her talent, made her someone you always knew was going to make the race honest. She was fierce and never gave up. We both had big goals and we had so much fun chasing them.”

“I knew Kathy would do really well at N.C. State. She had great coaches, a talented team and an amazing program. We both faced some injuries during our college careers, but we made the most of our time in college. Kathy had big goals and worked extremely hard.”

“When you raced Kathy, you needed to bring your A game,” Rudolph continued. “She was never going into a race not to win it. You always knew she was prepared; she was always working to get better and she truly loved the sport.”

While they don’t see or hear from each other as much as in the past, the admiration remains, and the friendship has endured.

“I have always respected Kathy and what she has accomplished in her athletic career, but Kathy is so much more than just an athlete,” Rudolph said. “She is a loyal friend who gives unselfishly to those around her.

“I was honored to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, and we have kept in touch throughout the years. She has always been a huge supporter of mine and I have loved watching her be the most amazing mother and wife. We don’t get to talk as much as we would both like, but when we do, we just pick up right where we left off. Kathy is as loyal as they come and has one of the biggest hearts. I am lucky to count her as a friend.”

Family business

Knabb followed in the footsteps of her grandfather, Alfred Knabb, who won the open steeplechase in the 1934 Penn Relays. He had a distinguished career at Oley Valley High School as a cross country and track and field coach and as the athletic director.

Her father, John, an engineer, attended West Point and was involved with the Army track and field team and then coached the plebes.

Kathy Knabb’s sister, Sarah, played soccer and was a jumper in track and field. Her brother, J.J., played football at Peters Township and Ohio University and is currently the head football coach at Bentworth High School.

Kathy Knabb is married to Tom Hay, who owns five PIAA gold medals in swimming, five WPIAL titles and was a four-time All-American at the University of Michigan where he was part of five Big 10 championship teams. He participated in the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials.

The couple, who resident in McMurray, have two children, Shaun and Abby, who also are outstanding athletes.

Abby Hay recently completed her freshman year at Louisville. She was a champion swimmer while attending Hawken School, a private school near Cleveland. She won a state gold medal there and was part of four champion relay teams. Abby Hay qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials this year in two events.

Shaun was part of two PIAA championship cross country teams at Winchester Thurston. He recently graduated from Ohio State.

“Abby followed Tom; Shaun followed my path,” Kathy Knabb said.

Knabb and her daughter lived in an apartment in Ohio for two years while she completed school.

“Our families always supported our siblings and followed each other,” Kathy Knabb said. “No kid can rise to the highest level without support financially, emotionally, nutritionally and training-wise.

Knabb’s mom and dad certainly were great supporters of her.

“When she was young, Kathy had a big decision to make,” said John Knabb. “She never had the build of a typical female soccer player. She could really run, though.”

Said Bunny Knabb: “Kathy just liked to run. In Idaho, she would run around the block. She always loved to run her whole life. She became an excellent runner in high school. She and Amy became great friends, but they are competitors. Kathy wanted to win a state championship. But for runners, times and how they perform also matters.”

One of Kathy Knabb’s best memories came in 1994 at the Penn Relays at legendary Franklin Field. Until this year, when it was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Penn Relays were hosted annually since April 1895 by the University of Pennsylvania. It was the 60th anniversary of her grandfather, who ran in college for what is now known as West Chester University, winning the Open Steeplechase.

“It’s an unbelievable place to run,” Kathy Knabb said. “The whole stadium is full, and it feels like people are right on top of you. When you are running, it feels like you are so close to the fans. It’s special. There’s just certain places that are special and that is one of them.”

Kathy Knabb placed third in the 3,000 meters in 1991 as a high school senior and participated in the 5,000 meters there in 1994.

What was even more ironic to her that day was that Carlos Gibbs, a friend and distance runner from Waynesburg Central High School, where he won PIAA gold, won the open steeplechase. Gibbs, representing Auburn University, was presented his gold medal by Alfred Knabb, who was called out of the stands because of his victory 60 years earlier.

“It’s harder now for athletes, the times are better, and competition is deeper,” Kathy Knabb said. “It was a simpler time when I was running. You could compete and make friends.”

In addition to Rudolph, Kathy Knabb also competed against Carole (Zajac) Tynan from Baldwin, who is considered the greatest distance runner in WPIAL history. She won WPIAL and state titles the 1,600 and 3,200 meters and won PIAA and WPIAL championships as a junior and senior. She went on to star at Villanova.

Kathy Knabb admits that being able to compete against such great competition was rewarding and also can take a toll.

“I knew I was getting married right out of college,” she said. “It’s a long haul and it’s more intense as you go. There is a lot of time expended. I kept running until about four years ago. Knee pain ended it. It was nothing in particular, just life.”

That life has produced a lot of good, according to Rudolph.

“Along with Tom, Kathy has raised two beautiful children who are as kind and giving as both of them are,” Rudolph said. “She loves her family and friends deeply and is always giving back in some way or another. She is a true friend in every sense of the word.”

John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.

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