Remembering a lovably eccentric member of the Penn track community.
A track and field coach who organized bodybuilding competitions on the side? The founder of the women’s hammer throw in America? A Philadelphian who at times lived in Canada, Australia, Hawaii, Russia, and Germany? The personal trainer to Madonna? The second biggest baby ever born in Italy at the time of his birth?
When Tony Tenisci trotted out his favorite stories, laughs Kelsey Hay C’16—one of the many track and field athletes he coached over a decorated 30-year career at Penn—sometimes they may have seemed too outlandish to believe. “But ultimately, there was probably a lot of truth to it,” Hay says. “He was like a modern-day renaissance man. He truly did dabble in everything.”
“Hearing his stories, it sounded like he definitely lived the exact life that he wanted to live,” adds Hay’s classmate and Olympian Sam Mattis W’16. “And at the same time, it seemed like he had too many stories for how many years he was alive.”
On October 28, Tenisci’s adventures came to an end. After a yearlong battle with cancer, he died at 74.
An All-American hammer thrower for Washington State in the early 1970s and a former Canadian national record holder in the hammer throw, Tenisci first began coaching Penn track and field throwers in 1986. He retired from the University 30 years later, serving the final few years as the head coach of the entire women’s team.
“More than anyone I know, he just valued relationships and friendships,” says Steve Dolan, director of Penn track and field. “In every interaction, he was the guy that brought the positivity and energy to that interaction.”
Although Tenisci remained close to Penn track after retiring, Mattis and Hay were part of the last class of athletes that he mentored in an official capacity. Shortly after Tenisci’s death, the two of them, along with other throwers from that era, joined together on a Zoom call to share stories of their indefatigable coach whom Mattis calls a “super unique guy” and “one of the most energetic people I ever met.”
On top of his energy and eccentricities, “I think he was one of the more open-minded coaches that I’ve ever had,” says Mattis, who won the 2015 NCAA championship in the discus throw under Tenisci’s guidance. “He wouldn’t be afraid to ask other coaches what they thought. And it was such a fun practice environment. He’d always have something funny to say, or sometimes bring candy or a random Penn shirt from the ’80s or ’90s.”
Hay, a three-time Ivy League champion in the javelin who went to the US Olympic Trials in 2016, enjoyed hearing stories about Tenisci during the Zoom memorial and reminiscing about how their “larger than life” coach loved to ride around campus on his bicycle. “You would never know when he would pop up,” says Hay, who always thought of Tenisci as more than a coach. “He was our biggest supporter, our confidant, even our therapist at times,” she says. “But what it came down to is he was our friend, even after we graduated from the program.”
Hay was among the former Penn athletes who received mass WhatsApp texts from Tenisci, who loved to travel around the world, always flashing a peace sign in photos wherever he was. Another was Renata Coleman W’98 WG’05, who also previously coached at Penn and currently serves on the Penn track and field alumni board.
Spending so much time with Tenisci, Coleman heard a lot of what she calls Tonyisms—sayings that often veered between affectionate and bizarre. She recalls him telling athletes, when counseling them on their diets: “You’ve got to be really careful because otherwise the chickens will come to roost on your head.” And about his brief coaching stint at Cornell: “When I get to the pearly gates, I’m demanding they send me back because they owe me two years for the time I spent in the cold in Ithaca.” (“After he passed,” Coleman laughs, “I was half expecting to see him.”) And the most popular Tonyism of all: “It’s all about the love, baby.”
“He was a very dynamic individual,” Coleman says. “I’ve not met someone with that level of passion and energy—and vulnerability as well. He wasn’t afraid to get emotional or cry. As tough as he was, he was not afraid to show that side. And I think that’s what helped him be successful as a women’s coach for that long.”
At no point was Tenisci more in his element than at the Mr. and Ms. Penn bodybuilding competition. Known as a specialist of weight training and conditioning, Tenisci began the campus-wide event in the mid-1990s as a fundraiser for the Penn track team. But “he really turned it into a premier show,” says Coleman, who won two of the early competitions and later became involved in the world of bodybuilding. Tenisci provided a diet and training plan for the competitors and helped choreograph their routines and poses, while getting sponsors, emceeing the event, and organizing other logistics. “That’s not something I think I would have done on any other track team, or at any school,” says Mattis, who also won it one year. “But it was a ton of fun.”
“Probably my favorite thing ever was Mr. and Mrs. Penn,” says Joe Klim, assistant director of Penn track and field who became one of Tenisci’s best friends. “It was really about people having a positive experience and feeling good about themselves.”
Klim also enjoyed watching Tenisci “in his glory” during the track program’s trips to England, where Tenisci formed close relationships with colleagues from Oxford, Cambridge, and Birmingham. And when the English came across the pond to Philly for return trips in what’s become a regular transatlantic competition involving Penn, Cornell, and the British universities, “you better be on your game of drinking and eating and being merry,” Klim says, “with Tony being the ringleader of the whole thing.”
That didn’t come as a surprise to Klim, who was mildly amazed that Tenisci was “just constantly traveling”—and even more amazed by the stories he heard from those travels. Over the years, Klim claims, Tenisci described meeting the Queen of England, being in a Donna Summer music video, dancing to disco at Studio 54, and at one point serving as a personal trainer to Madonna. “Tony wasn’t a braggart or anything like that,” Klim says. “Something would come up, we’d be playing disco music or something like that, and we would just get to talking and you’d be like WHAT?”
Despite all the different places he visited, “he lived and breathed Penn track,” Klim says. Philadelphia and Penn, Coleman adds, were “like his heart and soul.” The former Penn sprinter recalls that many times when the team bus returned to Philly from a road trip, Tenisci would light up, and say, “Look at that skyline, baby. These other places can’t compare. Now this is a city!”
Plans are in the works to honor Tenisci at the city and campus he called home. It will likely be a “multifaceted” tribute during the 2024 Penn Relays, Dolan says, that will include honoring him at Franklin Field and at the Mondschein Throwing Complex. Mattis is planning to attend the late-April meet to pay tribute to his former coach—a couple of months before he hopes to qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
Mattis, who recently won the discus at the 2023 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships [“Sports,” Sep|Oct 2023], had hoped Tenisci could have joined him at his Olympic debut in 2021, but the pandemic intervened. This time around, “he was really looking forward to coming to Paris,” laments Mattis, “but I’m sure in his own way he’ll be there.”
“The last speech he gave to me at Penn,” Mattis adds, “he was like, ‘We’re gonna go all the way to the Olympics! It doesn’t matter how we get there, but we’re going there.’ And it ended up happening.”—DZ