By the time Paula Girven graduated from Gar-Field High School in 1976, she was not only one of the best track athletes in Virginia high school history, one who still holds the girls state track record in the high jump. She was also Prince William County’s first Olympian.
In June of 1976 at the United States Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore, the 18-year-old Girven upset the hometown favorite Jodi Huntley to win the high jump with a personal best 6-1 ¾ that earned her an automatic berth to the Montreal Summer Games. Girven went on to place 18th at the Olympics.
“When the American flag would go up when someone won a medal, I felt so proud to be an American,” Girven said in a 1992 Potomac News interview. “Even though it wasn’t me, I could still feel it.”
Girven, who passed away Oct. 17 in Asheville, N.C, from cancer at the age of 62, established Gar-Field’s girls track program as a perennial state power and as a pipeline to the Olympics.
Two other Gar-Field graduates (Benita Fitzgerald Mosley and Sheena Tosta) followed in Girven’s footsteps to reach their sports’ pinnacle. Fitzgerald Mosley, who graduated from Gar-Field in 1979, won the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Tosta, who graduated from Gar-Field in 2000, won a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
All three are members of the Virginia High School League Hall of Fame and Gar-Field’s Athletics Hall of Fame.
Fitzgerald Mosley was unaware Girven had passed away until informed of the news Nov. 5. Word began spreading locally earlier in the week of Girven's death through social media after people discovered a post on everloved.com, a funeral website.
“She was my idol,” said Fitzgerald Mosley. “She was the inspiration for me shooting for the Olympics.”
Jasmin Morrell, one of Girven’s two daughters, said on everloved.com her mom was “diagnosed with advanced cancer” in July, 2019. “After 15 months of struggle, she passed peacefully in her sleep, near family,” Morrell wrote.
Morrell, who lives in Asheville, said they were holding a small family service first, but would announce a larger online service once details are finalized.
As successful as Girven was in track, Jasmin said in her post that she always thought of Girven as a mother first.
“I got to experience the woman who wrapped me in warm blankets fresh from the dryer,” Morrell wrote. “She baked me banana bread when I was sick. She made exercise and movement a joy in our household, while simultaneously never pushing me to follow in her footsteps. She loved Chanel No. 5, and pink roses, and pearls. Christmas decorations and fat-cheeked babies. Organization and order, but also spontaneity. Sign-language. Hospitality. Giving to those in need. Being a world-class personal trainer to those seeking more strength, flexibility, and power in their lives.”
Girven burst on to the state track scene as a sophomore in 1974 when she jumped a then-state record of 5-feet-7 to begin a run of three straight state championships in that event.
Girven also led Gar-Field to its first state championship in any sport in 1974. The Indians captured the next two state outdoor track girls titles as well. Fitzgerald Mosley was a freshman on the 1976 team.
Fitzgerald Mosley recalls Gar-Field track coach Ann Lockett telling her she could someday become an Olympian as well. Fitzgerald Mosley didn’t believe Lockett at first. But after training with Girven, Fitzgerald Mosley saw the Olympics as a realistic possibility.
“There’s no me without her,” Fitzgerald Mosley said.
Girven still holds the girls state meet record for all classifications in the high jump (6-1/8 according to the VHSL record book), which she set in 1976. What makes her mark even more impressive is that no female has topped six feet in winning a state title since then.
Girven, Tosta and Broadway's Keena Schuler are tied for the most career individual state titles in Virginia girls outdoor track with nine.
Girven went on to compete at the University of Maryland, where she set school records in the high jump (6’2) and the 55-meter hurdles (7.97) and won the NCAA High Jump Championship for indoor and outdoor track. She was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 1999.
She, along with Fitzgerald Mosley, also qualified for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. But the two never got the chance to compete after the United States boycotted the Games in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Girven continue to compete through 1981, but she then retired, deciding the fallout in Moscow was too tough to forget. She stayed active, eventually becoming a personal trainer in Tampa, FL from 2015-2019.
“I was so focused on that I felt like I had gotten nothing out of it,” Girven said in the 1992 Potomac News interview. “It made me look and reassess what I should do in life. If you’re set on one thing, you give it a try and it is taken away, you look at other options. That’s what I did.”