Game Changers: Women Athletes
Women have been taking part in athletics at U-M for more than a hundred years (see the slideshow above), but the first female varsity athletes at the University of Michigan had the patience and focus necessary to triumph over their opposition. A good thing, too, because in many cases they faced their biggest challenge before they even suited up.
As three-time All-American track-and-field athlete Melanie Weaver Barnett (UM ’83) recalls, “Qualifying for nationals didn’t necessarily mean you could go or would be able to compete.” Such decisions, she continues, were at the discretion of Athletic Director Don Canham. Experienced in securing resources for his athletes, women’s track coach Red Simmons strategically bided his time until the morning Canham walked into the office in an obvious good mood. Simmons immediately asked for—and received—the funds to send his runners to compete at the legendary Hayward Field at University of Oregon.
Above, the 1981 U-M women’s track team, which included Melanie Weaver Barnett (back row, sixth from left). The team was coached by Red Simmons, the first varsity women’s track and field coach, who also started the Michigammes in 1960 that gave female U-M runners their first chance to compete.
Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library (BL WTR1981)
Given the long history of athletic excellence by women at U-M, it’s hard to imagine that scene from 1980, which took place after Title IX became law in 1972. Title IX prohibited sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding, and it’s widely credited with changing the athletic landscape in universities everywhere. But, as sometimes happens when the law leads the charge, change is sometimes slow to be implemented. At U-M, the burden of making this change often remained with the pioneering female athletes who trained and struggled—and ultimately prevailed.
On Your Mark
Getting ready to travel to the Dogwood Relays in Knoxville, Tennessee, for one of the biggest relay meets in the track year, the women’s track team assembled at Ferry Field and got ready to hit the road. “There was a beautiful, luxury bus with plush seats, a bathroom, and big TVs,” remembers Barnett. “That was for the guys’ team.
“For us,” she continues, “there were three rickety vans, which we had to drive! Our coach, of course, drove one, but we women had to drive the other two. We stayed in cheaper hotels, and, especially in the first couple of years, we slept two to a bed.
“We didn't really dwell on those inequities, though,” she adds. “We couldn't help but be aware of them, but we moved on because we loved our sport, we loved to compete, and we loved being a team.”
It was a situation replicated in women’s athletics across the university. In fact, when Sara Flom Goldstein (’80), U-M’s gymnastics team’s first official four-letter recipient, was looking at colleges in high school in the mid-1970s, Michigan didn’t even have a gymnastics team. When she was a senior in high school, U-M transitioned its club team into a competitive varsity team. Her brother, already a U-M student, encouraged her to apply.
“We didn’t really think about being the first,” says Goldstein. “We thought a lot about how much more we could do if we had better equipment and a full-time coach.”
Back in the ’70s, the gymnastics team practiced in the Coliseum Building. Because the building was also used for other activities, the gymnastics equipment was set up and broken down for each practice. “We had one set of bars,” Goldstein recalls, “and one high and one low balance beam, a vaulting horse, and a row of mats for tumbling. We didn’t have pits for landing, so we learned most of our skills on the trampoline while wearing a belt that was suspended from the ceiling.”
bove, Sara Flom Goldberg in a floor exercise competition. At the beginning of her U-M gymnastics career, she did most of her tumbling training with the men's gymnastics team.
Photo courtesy of Sara Flom Goldberg
Getting There First
While there was certainly hardship and inequity that came with being the first, the role also brought measures of pleasure and pride. “I really didn’t realize I was considered a trailblazer,” says Leslie Spicer Williams (’90), who, her senior year, was honorable mention all-conference as a member of the first U-M women’s basketball team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. “I didn’t know the impact of the trail I was blazing, yet the feeling has been everlasting. We were determined to put Michigan on the map.”
There are a few particular memories Williams savors. “When we played our first game on national television against Ohio State, our families had watch parties,” she remembers. “And I will never forget the regents singing ‘Hail to the Victors’ as we were pulling away to travel to our NCAA first-round game against Oklahoma State.”
Being at the vanguard also created an important bond between the women. “I remember sitting in the stands with three other teammates at the end of a meet,” remembers Barnett, “and taking a bite from an apple, and passing it along until it was gone. We did it without even thinking about it, but I realized that day how special a group we were and how special this time was.
“I also remember being aware that there was a group of women just before us who fought for women’s athletics at Michigan,” Barnett continues. “They were really the pioneers. The structures and culture were so biased against women’s teams. We were among the earliest Michigan women who got to take advantage of their hard work. And I’m so grateful for it. Running for Michigan was one of the most positive, fulfilling experiences of my life. It shaped who I became in so many ways.”
As part of the Sport and the University Theme Semester, the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center, in partnership with the College of LSA, brought some of these early female athletes together to celebrate the ways their persistence changed the game at Michigan. Starting with the six varsity women’s established sports in 1974, Michigan women have won national championships, conference championships, competed in the Olympics, and been selected for the Academic All-America team.
“I am amazed at how far women’s athletics have come,” concludes Goldstein. “The first time I saw the Donald R. Shepherd Women’s Gymnastics Training Center, it was closed. Peeking through the window, I literally had tears of joy in my eyes. The program had to start somewhere, and I feel very fortunate—and old—that I was there when it all started.”