May 31, 2017
By Bill Koch
CINCINNATI - For most Americans, the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before a sports event is part of a familiar routine that they’ve grown up with. But, for Susan Seaton, the University of Cincinnati’s director of track and field and cross country, it took some getting used to.
Seaton, who led the UC women’s track and field team to its second straight American Athletic Conference championship last month, grew up in Germany, where the national anthem was played or performed only for special events.
“We don’t do it before every sporting event,” Seaton said. “So, when I first came over here, I was like, ‘OK, here we are playing this anthem. Let’s figure out what you do during that time.’ At some point, I decided to use that time just to reflect on freedom and also to reflect on how far I have come and how many opportunities I have been given because of all the things that have happened. So, every time the anthem is played, I always think about that. Every single time.”
Seaton, 46, has learned to take nothing for granted. She grew up in Saalfeld – about 183 miles south of Berlin – in what was then Communist East Germany, where travel was restricted and dreams limited. The Berlin Wall separated East Berlin from West Berlin, whose citizens lived in a free and open society, the kind that Seaton thought she would never experience.
“In East Germany, you had to work as a school kid,” Seaton said. “They made us do mandatory work. You had to go so many times where we had to pick potatoes after the machines went through. We had to pick potatoes off the fields and they paid us, but it wasn’t like you had a choice. They’d take us to places where you could see the fences up with guard towers and dogs and soldiers like a mile away on a field.”
On Nov. 9, 1989, that all changed. That was the day the East German Communist Party announced that East German citizens could cross the border to the west whenever they pleased. The wall began to come down.
At the time, Seaton was 19, a freshman at Leipzig University, about 100 miles southwest of Berlin.
“It was mind-blowing,” Seaton said. “For us to have that big change, to go from you can’t really travel - because we weren’t allowed to travel outside of the Eastern Bloc countries - and then suddenly everything changed and I’m a freshman in college. One day we have Marxism and Leninism as mandatory (courses) at school and the next day we decided not to go anymore. We just stopped showing up for that class and there was nothing the teachers could do about it.”
Construction on the wall began on Aug. 13, 1961, as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union heated up. The official purpose of the wall, according to History.com, “was to keep Western ‘fascists’ from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state, but it primarily served the objective of stemming mass defections from East to West.”
The 12-foot high concrete wall extended 100 miles and included electrified fences and guard posts. On June 12, 1987, in one of the most famous speeches of his presidency, outside the Brandenburg Gate, an 18th century German landmark that had become a symbol of Berlin’s division, Ronald Reagan forcefully urged Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Seaton was a promising athlete as a youngster. She specialized in the javelin, but also competed in the discus, shot put and several other events. At 14, she earned a spot in a government-sponsored Olympic training center and academy, but, several years later, her athletic career was cut short by a series of knee injuries.
“I competed in Berlin a number of times,” Seaton said. “The wall was everywhere. The Brandenburg Gate was such a famous site. You couldn’t get really close, but you could certainly see it and you could see the other side.
“In November of ’89, when all this was going down, at one point or another, everyone went to Berlin, so I think we got there a couple days after the wall first opened and made a little trip to West Berlin to check things out with some of my friends. Everybody went to one of those checkpoints that you always thought you would never walk through.
“I took my family to Berlin two summers ago to show my son. He’s 11. I showed him the remnants of the wall and Checkpoint Charlie and all that kind of stuff. It’s really still such a weird feeling for us old East Germans to stand on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate and be like, ‘man, I used to stand on the other side so many times looking over thinking that’s something I’ll never see’.”
The new reality required a period of adjustment for everyone but was more difficult for her parents’ generation to come to grips with.
“As 18- and 19-year-olds, we were just excited, like 'man, this is so awesome, finally',” Seaton said, “because I think at that point, everybody felt like it was kind of an archaic way to live. Nobody really bought into the whole propaganda from the East or the West. People just wanted to live their lives and be free and make their own choices, especially the young generation.
“We embraced this. I think for older people, who had spent their whole life since the war growing up in this system, it was hard because they were scared. You know, what’s the change going to bring? I only know one way of life and now it’s all changing. Our parents, they embraced it eventually, but it took them a little longer to adjust to it.
“The young people, we were the ones telling our parents what to do. I remember my dad struggling with going to the grocery store and suddenly you have all new products. There are a few East German products, but everything else is commercialized. You have no idea how this product tastes because you’ve never had it before, so my dad struggled quite a bit with figuring it out. You’re 49 years old and now, all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘OK, now I have to re-figure out what I like and what I don’t like’.”
Several years later, Seaton was in the U.S. completing the internships she needed to finish her Master’s degree in Exercise Science. That’s where she met her husband, Robert. She received her degree in 1994. Two weeks later, she headed back to America to look for a job as she began her coaching career. She landed at Northern Arizona University as an assistant coach. She also coached as an assistant at Wisconsin before she was hired at UC as an assistant coach in 2004. She’s currently working to gain dual citizenship in the U.S. and Germany.
“I always tell people, don’t take anything for granted,” Seaton said. “Don’t feel like the rest of your life is set in stone because my experience was that anything and everything can change. Sometimes it still helps me to keep an open mind and say, ‘Hey, many different things can happen. You have to adapt and respond.’”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January, 2015.