Run Like a Girl: Reflections on Gym Class, Title IX, & the US Women’s Soccer World Cup Victory (video)

Soccer 1970s

The recent World Cup victory by the US women’s national soccer team collided in my brain today with my upcoming 50th high school reunion to conjure up a mixed bag of memories from gym class and women’s sports before Title IX made sex discrimination in educational programs illegal.

Throughout my school years, I was told that I was “not athletic”. When I couldn’t do things– like swim across the pool in swim class– the reason given was that I was “not athletic. You see, my Mom was telling me what she was told when she was a girl.  Mom didn’t know how to ride a bike or swim, and she offered these examples as evidence that she was “not athletic.” In reality, there were access and affordability issues, since Mom was a child of the Great Depression.

Gym Class Cemented My Loathing for Sports

Fast forward from the Great Depression to my childhood in the 1960s, Mom made sure we had bikes and learned to swim, but there were other physical education doors that were open to my brother and not to me. Discriminatory funding practices across physical education and sports offerings created an unlevel playing field for students from kindergarten through the university. Growing up, I was taught not to want activities like sports teams, weightlifting, or a variety of sports instruction in gym class because I was “not athletic.”

It’s true that I had no stamina for long stretches of swimming or running without catching my breath. I almost drowned during swimming lessons, I passed out on a summer cross-country bike ride with the church group, and I collapsed during field hockey in high school gym class. I remember lying on the grassy hockey field with all of my classmates, looking down at me, and the gym teacher yelling, “GET UP!”, as if I was some sort of slacker.

Yes, all of that sounds pretty unathletic, but I had undiagnosed asthma until I was an adult. How many years did my family and I make unwitting excuses for my lack of adequate lung power? “Oh, I can’t run. I’m not athletic.” “I’m afraid to swim off the boat. I’m not athletic.” The negative self-talk that I was taught stopped me from questioning my lack of stamina. I was a basically healthy young woman, who collapsed multiple times during intense exercise– including during gym class. Why didn’t anyone take me to the doctor? Why didn’t the gym teacher send me to the school nurse? The assumption — by everyone– that I was just “not athletic.” Why was it so easy for everyone to accept frailty– even without a diagnosis? Because it fit the desired female stereotype. I was a young, small-framed woman. I was expected to suck as sports, but their assumption that I was just  “not athletic” could have killed me.

Inequality in Public School Sports

Besides my inherited negativity toward sports and my understandable loathing for gym class, there were physical education opportunities that were not available to me as a girl. I did enjoy volleyball, tennis, soccer, badminton, and cycling. The boys at our school had varsity and junior varsity football, basketball, baseball and track. In high school, varsity tennis and golf teams were available to them. Girls had intramural sports teams in volleyball and basketball, in which girls teams from our school played other girls teams from our school. There was also a Girls’ Athletic League (GALs) Club for girls who were athletic (so, not me), but that was it. No competitive teams for girls. No specialized sports facilities for girls. Fewer sports offered overall for girls. Only two sports offered as intramural for girls.

My friend Kathy was the only one in our group who was even sort of interested in sports beyond swimming and cycling. She was majorette– which I consider to be much more athletic and demanding than marching in the band, as I did. Kathy used her innate sweetness to talk the rest of us into forming intramural volleyball and basketball teams each year– Fullmer’s Fuzzies, with her in the lead. We were middlin’ at best in basketball and a smidge better at volleyball, but we had fun. We even made uniforms for ourselves. These teams ran for one quarter of the school year and disbanded each year. There were no incentives or facilities for us to practice together throughout the year to improve our skills, no basketball or volleyball camps for girls, and no cross training or weightlifting to build strength (as the boys had).

We didn’t even have real classes or intramural sports in tennis or golf, two varsity sports the boys had. Technically, we had golf class in gym, but it was laughable. We stood in a line in the high school gym in our stupid gym suits and hit golf balls toward a canvass curtain. We never tried hitting a ball into a hole because we never set foot a golf course. I would much rather have had more volleyball, gymnastics or modern dance during the snowy months, than pretend golf indoors. Golf was the kind of low-intensity sport that someone with undiagnosed asthma might have been good at– given the chance. My Dad played golf with his buddies. He and I even watched male golfers play tournaments in Florida and other warm places on TV when there was snow on the ground, but he never offered to take me golfing.

I did enjoy playing tennis in my spare time. Since we lived close to the high school, there were tennis courts within easy walking distance of parents’ house. My friend Carol and I played off and on during junior high and high school, but we were duffers. Neither of us had ever had any formal instruction. Maybe Carol had had a lesson or two or some pointers from her Dad but not me. For the most part, we were just trying to get the ball over net. Unfortunately, we had distractions. Upperclassmen, who were on the high school tennis team and lived near the courts, often laughed at us and critiqued our amateur skills while we were playing. At the time, it didn’t dawn on me how blatantly unfair it was that boys who enjoyed tennis– those jeering jerks– got free instruction, equipment and facilities provided by the school, but because we were girls who wanted to play tennis, we got nothing. We ran around the court chasing balls, while being laughed at.

Title IX

As a young adult, my exercise revolved yoga, dancing and commuter and recreational cycling. I was a junior in journalism at Ohio State University when Title IX passed. Title IX prohibits discrimination in education on account of sex. I remember the buzz around the Ohio State Lantern news room about what Title IX would do to men’s sports at Ohio State, which a football powerhouse under the infamous Coach Woody Hayes. I remember thinking that it was interesting that women’s sports would finally get parity with men’s sports– at least with the educational system. Everything was so lopsided that I couldn’t envision how it would unfold.

Title IX gave the GALs of future generations– the girls who liked sports, who were good at sports, and who were devoted enough to practice– the chance to shine. It also gave girls like me — who were “not athletic” — the chance to learn a wider variety of sports and exercise offerings.

Title IX gave us Venus and Serena Williams, Brandi Chastain, Megan Rapinoe, and the women’s soccer team. Since 1972, it has given millions of little girls permission to run, jump, swim, dive, dance, cycle, skate… and be athletic.

Will Rapinoe and the women’s soccer team help us achieve equal pay for equal work in the US? I hope so.

Postlude: Proving Mom Wrong

The feature photo at the top of this article shows me on the left with two other members of the mixed league soccer team that I belonged to in the late 1970s. Adult mixed league soccer is made up of teams of men and women. There was a requirement for how many of each sex has to be on a team. Also, there had to be at least three women on the field at all times or the team without enough women had to forfeit. On the day this photo was taken, we were the only three women to show up for the game. The men pleaded with us to “just do it” for the team and to power through the whole game in the sticky summer heat of Columbus, Ohio. When this photo was taken, we were hot and tired but proud of ourselves that we made it through the whole game and that the team won.

With my asthma and allergies under control and with lots of encouragement from my good friend Michael, I was on a championship mixed league soccer team in my late 20s. Today, with lots of encouragement from my husband Jim, I regularly swim 20 laps a day.

Listen up, kids, don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t do something. Try it.

Cross-posted from Blog For Arizona.