Title IX special: First Illini tell us their stories

Title IX special: First Illini tell us their stories

We asked some of the Illini’s first women’s varsity athletes to reflect on their experiences and on the doors that Title IX opened:



Track & field


"Fortunately, for me, my athletic experience at the University of Illinois was very positive. Although the women's teams were not as generously funded as the men's teams, Dr. Karol Kahrs, the assistant athletic director, was an advocate for equality in women's sports. I admired Dr. Kahrs and am pleased to say that she later became a good friend.

I attended the university on a dance scholarship. Participating in sports at the university was not on the radar. However, I excelled in competitive sports in junior and senior high school and immediately signed on when I heard the university was forming a women's track team. Through self-determination, great leadership and a few championships (AAU), I was awarded an athletic scholarship. I believe I was the first woman to receive an athletic scholarship in track and field.

We competed and succeeded because of the commitment of our coaches Jessica Dragicevich and Bonnie Everhart, and Kahrs.

One vivid memory is being asked to fill in for one of my teammates and run the 880-yard race. Are you kidding? I am a sprinter. But like anything else, I had to take one for the team. Yes, I finished the race. How respectable? I was too delirious to even care.

Also at that time, participating in the national events was unheard of. I remember qualifying for the Olympic Training Camp in Eugene, Ore. Unfortunately, the university was unwilling to pay for me to participate. However, it did not tarnish the positive experiences I had during my time at the university.

The women participating in sports today are able to excel because they have the financial support needed to be competitive. Title IX changed the direction of women's sports.

Thank goodness. The caliber of women competing today is amazing!"




"As a member of the 1974-78 Illinois swimming and diving team, I was privileged to be part of many firsts. I entered my freshman year just as the UI had begun to embrace the mandates of Title IX.

I was among the first female "official" individual Big Ten champions and All-Americans from the UI and was among the first group of women to be awarded an athletic scholarship, applicable for the 1975-76 season (at that time it was for tuition only).

I still possess a very formal invitation to the First Annual Awards Banquet for women athletes, held in May 1975, with toastmaster Ray Eliot. In 1978, I graduated with the first class of four-year letter winners in women's athletics.

The historical significance of all these firsts has taken on more meaning for me as time has passed. In 1974, at 18, I just walked into an initial informational meeting for interested swimmers and signed up for the team. I had little concept of what would unfold in my next four years as an Illinois athlete.

As a freshman, we practiced in a small pool in Freer Gym and had a competitive schedule that began in December and included only six dual meets, just one of which was against a Big Ten opponent. That first year, we competed in a Big Ten Championship at Indiana University, a Midwest Regional meet in Michigan, and four of us qualified for the AIAW National Intercollegiate Meet and were flown to Arizona State to compete.

By my senior year, we were practicing at IMPE, where the men practiced, we had added weight training and early-morning practice to our scheduled workouts, and competition began in early November, with the majority of our meets against Big Ten opponents.

Swimmers were no longer just signing up for the team but were being recruited.

I was the lone UI qualifier for nationals my junior year and swam in the lane next to a former Olympian (Kim Peyton), one of 15 competing in that meet at Brown University. Women's collegiate swimming had reached legitimacy in short order.

Some of my fondest memories of college swimming occurred on the away trips as we entertained ourselves with silliness and singing in our travel vans. My coach for my last three years, Ann Pollack, and her husband Keith, drove our vans and put up with our antics. Keith volunteered as our driver, statistician and photographer.

I wouldn't say we felt too many hardships during those early years, although Ann and Keith may have a different perspective. Swimming requires very little equipment and so, given access to a pool, a suit and goggles, we had almost everything we needed. We always stayed in adequate hotels and were well fed (which was very important to us).

By my senior year, we had equal access to everything the men had with the exception of full scholarship availability. Life for the female athlete was changing rapidly and dramatically.

As I look back, I grow increasingly grateful to the original champions of Title IX and for the opportunity I was afforded to compete for the UI. My father, Richard Paterson, who passed away in December, was a huge supporter of Illinois swimming and a proponent of female athletics in general. He was especially proud of my achievements while representing the UI. When I won an event at the Big Ten meet for the first time as a freshman, he told me I didn't realize what I had just accomplished. He understood the rich athletic tradition of this university and the Big Ten Conference.

These traditions, which I may have failed to grasp at age 18, I now fully appreciate. I have two daughters who were also Division I athletes (volleyball and track), and I have once again witnessed how participation in athletics positively impacts the lives of females. Neither of my girls can even imagine a time when females were not allowed access to competitive sports. Thank goodness — and Title IX — for that."




"I can't necessarily speak for my teammates, but I think we all generally believed we were involved in our sport at a time that was at the forefront of a new era for female athletes.

I have never been comfortable being referred to as a pioneer for female athletes because I believe I was the first generation that got to experience the benefits of the generation before me — who were the real pioneers. When I transitioned from athlete to sports reporting, I had the great privilege of rubbing shoulders and/or working with many of those pioneers. Listening to folks like Donna de Varona, Billie Jean King, Wyomia Tyus and Muriel Grossfeld tell their stories of being a female athlete in the '50s and '60s made me realize that even though my scholarship packages were not full (compared to men with equal or less competitive success out of high school), I at least had the opportunity to compete for my university in a way that they only dreamed of doing.

I also was fortunate to be in a sport that was probably more advanced when it came to opportunities, administration and participation of women than many of the other sports that didn't have the same infrastructure (and pre-college developmental programs) that gymnastics had at that time. That's not to say there wasn't great room for more development, but I did feel like I had opportunities to grow competitively and professionally based on my education and my merit, which was and continues to be what Title IX was intended to provide.

In that sense, I am one of the first benefactors of the law for which I remain sincerely grateful.

I experienced some of the "growing pains" of a young program. In 1977, I was the first female to receive the UI Female Athlete of the Year award. I was asked for my ring size so they could order the award that is given to the Athlete of the Year recipients. When it arrived, I realized they weren't prepared for a woman to receive the award because it was designed for a much larger hand and the artwork was clearly in the shape of a football.

I've never been able to wear the ring, but I am still proud of what it represents and extremely proud to have earned it at the University of Illinois."



Basketball, volleyball


"Playing basketball for four years (and volleyball for two years) as a Fighting Illini is truly one of my greatest life joys and accomplishments. Seeing how far women's sports have progressed since my college days is a welcome change for the good.

My first year at Illinois, women's sports had a total budget of about $4,500 to run nine sports teams (dropped down to five teams). We were under the umbrella of the Women's Intercollegiate Sports Association. My second year, the budget for all women's sports jumped to $14,000.

In 1977, we had the first women's Big Ten basketball tournament. With the advent of Title IX, equal funding for women's and men's sports changed the course of women's sports forever.

What has changed? Tremendously improved game and practice facilities and equipment. We played our games at Huff Gym and moved to the Assembly Hall before I graduated. We never had a permanent locker at the Hall. We were usually the "late shift," practicing after the men's team practiced.

The scholarship opportunities for female athletes today are inspiring. Until 1973, the AIAW (women's equivalent of the NCAA) prohibited athletic scholarships for female athletes. The vastly improved level of scheduling and competition is fantastic for the continued growth of women's sports.

Improved travel arrangements are a welcome change. We drove university vans, with all-night driving, and stayed at "no-name" hotels.

The growing attendance and fan base for women's sports today is exciting. National TV coverage and sports commentary is way exciting. Prior to 1973, it was prohibited to charge any type of admission to women's sports events. Compare that to today's NCAA tournaments and the fabulous women's Final Four event. We did have a good local sports reporter, Susan Sternberg, who loved covering our team through the years.

What hasn't changed? Hopefully, the sense of pride and accomplishment of individual talent working together as a team toward achieving goals. Hopefully, the athletes of today experience the lifetime friendships we created through our bond of sports. When you spend so much time together and shared experiences, you get to really know one another. To this day, my teammates Becky Beach and Susan Bonner are still my best friends.

The love of the game of basketball hopefully stays the same forever. The pride of being forever Illini."




"The atmosphere for collegiate women's sports in the fall of 1973 could be compared to high school sports for females today — only with a lower budget. There were no scholarships, uniforms, recruiting visits or equipment. Like high school, new freshmen pursuing my sport, tennis, were told, "Come on out and try out!"

I certainly am glad I did, for the next four years brought dramatic changes to the program. By senior year, we played in the Big Ten tournament, had uniform warmups (not tennis uniforms, though), had a small travel budget, earned varsity letters, and scholarships were awarded. Throughout my career, our team had a blast nonetheless, and we felt nothing but pride in each other and the Illini. We enjoyed success, camaraderie and the benefits of competition like tennis teams of any era.

Title IX jump-started the program so quickly that by the time my younger sister, Maureen, arrived on campus in 1980, full-ride scholarships (including books!) were available. I was proud to see the team of this next era wearing the Orange and Blue, using the latest equipment provided by the university and going on trips to warmer climates to play strong schedules over spring break. It truly was amazing how quickly the program evolved.

Now, 40 years later, my daughter, Kelly, was among those interviewed by ESPN about Title IX legislation. They wanted to understand her perspective as a Division I athlete (she runs track and cross-country at Notre Dame). Right off the bat, they asked how she felt discriminated against. Kelly, puzzled by the question, said she enjoys all the benefits of the men's team. Title IX clearly has afforded her and other women equal opportunities in sports and any other aspect of university life.

I am so thrilled and grateful that this legislation accomplished this for my daughter and future generations of girls.

We've come a long way, baby, in only 40 years!"




"From the moment I understood what college was, I was determined to attend the University of Illinois and play softball.

It was disheartening to hear my beloved Illini didn't have a Division I softball team. How could a Big Ten university not have a long-standing softball program in 1997? And no offense to my fellow athletes, but how could they add soccer before softball? It seemed hard to imagine such a prestigious institution would not have an opportunity for women to play America's favorite pastime.

Nevertheless, I came to Champaign for the world-class education and found a club softball team to pacify my hopes of playing softball after high school. After playing two years of club ball and competitive fastpitch in the summer, I heard the news I had been waiting for: Illini softball was headed to Champaign-Urbana.

I am privileged to be a member of the inaugural softball team at the UI, 1999-2000.

Our first team was a mixture of recruited walk-ons. None of us planned to play in college and were elated at the opportunity that stood before us. Tryouts were held, a team selected and practices conducted at the campus recreation complex fields because Eichelberger Field was not yet built.

This mix of strangers soon became a united team of friends, with memories that will last a lifetime. We played a short fall season against local community colleges but completed the bulk of our Division I qualifying games over the spring semester, particularly in South Carolina over spring break.

A season of road games, mostly by bus, with no home-field advantage was a challenge but one we took on with great dedication and enthusiasm. We finished the season with a .500 record.

With Lila Jeanne "Shorty" Eichelberger's generous support, we broke out shovels in April to provide a new home for Illini softball. Our favorite team saying as we watched the field being built at practice, "We love the bulldozers!"

Besides not having a field, there was no clubhouse, no locker room and no parking (I think Campus Parking made a fortune on us that year through parking tickets!).

As a catcher, my mornings began before 6 at the indoor practice facility, which was at the time a bubble over the football field. As a new women's sport we didn't exactly get first pick of the practice times. Pitching practice was followed by class, then we carpooled to practice. After multi-station practices spread across four fields, we loaded equipment back into our cars because there was little storage available.

We completed our strength and conditioning work at the stadium weightroom when the football team was finished with the space. At the end of the day we dropped our practice gear off at Huff Hall before heading to the Irwin Academic Center for study hours.

Coach Terri Sullivan and assistant Donna DiBiase were insistent on our excellence on the field and in the classroom. We knew our experience was laying the foundation for the new program. It was important work. We finished the 2000 season with a great sense of pride and a roster of new friends. No other group of women can say they played on the first UI softball team.

A lot of things have changed since my father taught me how to catch and hit a ball in our backyard. My hometown of Marion now has a junior high softball team, statistics are kept more equally for female athletes to provide for college scouts, and the UI has a successful Big Ten softball team.

The inaugural team has gone separate ways — on to successful careers and beautiful families — but will forever be Fighting Illini. Many of us are still friends and share our lives over distance and through social media. I know regardless of the circumstance, I can count on my teammates to be there if I need them.

Athletics is one of many arenas where young women can develop physical, mental and emotional intelligences important for their success outside of the game. By providing women with an opportunity to grow and advance in sports, we are encouraging the creation and pursuit of personal goals, providing skills for life after the diamond and creating tomorrow's leaders."




"I joined the Illini women's golf team in 1974. There had already been a season or two of women's golf when I got to Illinois. I joined a team that had at least four returning players, Gail Hannam, Linda Gwillim, Rhonda Leach and Janice Kimpel.

I knew the golf coach, Betsy Kimpel, and her daughter, Janice Kimpel, from previous tournament experience. I had been playing golf competitively for five years, and the Kimpels were mainstays of the regional tournament scene.

Coach Kimpel, an avid golfer at Urbana Country Club, had given up her amateur status when her alma mater asked her to coach. There just didn't seem to be anyone else with the heart and the loyalty to take on this job. (I did get the impression she really enjoyed it.)

For the 1975-76 season, local talent Becky Beach and Ann Evans joined the team.

Title IX ensured that we had an opportunity to play. And by letting us play, we had the opportunity to work in golf. Beach, Evans and I worked in some aspect of golf. I ended up as a member of the PGA, working at private and public courses. Beach, also a PGA member, played professionally and works at a private course in the area (Lincolnshire Fields), and Evans was a manufacturers sales representative, selling FootJoy shoes to golf course pro shops.

The world of players was fairly small in the mid-1970s. We would play a tournament almost every weekend. If it was an away event, we would leave Thursday for a Friday-Saturday event with 18 holes each day and return to campus late Saturday.

We only practiced during the golf season. There were no spring break or winter break trips. There was no conditioning program and no indoor practice facilities. I remember being really excited to get a team jacket. My first letter award was a charm for a bracelet — and the men got a letter jacket. But by my fourth letter, I got the same letter as any four-year athlete: a blanket.

We saw a lot of the same people at every tournament because there was such a small number of schools that fielded teams. The feel at the tournaments was very collegial. Anyone who played well was congratulated. Even if they weren't your teammates, you were happy to have low numbers. It seemed to legitimize the sport and the idea of having teams.

One of my favorite memories from this time captures this feeling of camaraderie. We were playing the Orange Course at Savoy on a typically windy day. As I was hitting my second shot to the ninth green (my 18th hole), I knew I had to start the ball well right of the pin and let the wind blow it back. I selected my club and looked at my target well to the right of the pin. Standing at the back of the green — exactly in line with where I needed to start the ball — stood the Purdue coach. I think he had been watching approach shots to that green all afternoon while ushering players to the scoring table. I rechecked that he was indeed my target and let it fly directly at him. The wind did its job, and the ball ended up right at the pin about 6 feet away.

After I holed out, I asked him if he had stood in that place on purpose, and he just smiled. That was the kind of camaraderie there was in the beginning. My guess is this wouldn't happen today."




"Many young women today take for granted the opportunity to play any sport they choose, whether it's competing at the high school or college level. Because I was born in 1975, I was a member of the first generation to benefit from Title IX.

I was a "tomboy" who liked to ride motorcycles, get dirty and try every sport available. I began playing soccer at the age of 4, and it quickly became my sport of choice. In junior high, in 1986, I wanted to play on the school soccer team. At that time, there was no girls' soccer team. Several of my girlfriends and I were told we could not play on the boys' soccer team. With the help of our parents, we were successful in our quest to try out. To my surprise, and the surprise of quite a few of the boys who didn't make it and their parents, I made the team. This was my first experience at fighting back for women's rights in sports.

While in high school, my team won the state championship, and I had some decisions to make regarding where to go to college. Even in 1993, there were a lot of Division I colleges that did not have a women's varsity soccer team, including the University of Illinois. Nevertheless, I chose the UI for its academic reputation and because it had a strong club soccer team.

During my four years there, we competed in the Club Nationals and watched many other Division I schools add women's soccer as a varsity sport. Because we were a club team, we had to buy our own uniforms, and practice and play on non-competitive fields, and at times that did not conflict with intramural teams' practices and games.

During our trips to Austin, Texas, and Phoenix for club team national championships, we had to pay for our own flights, food and accommodations. During one of our tournaments in Austin, a teammate and I went up for a header and collided. Had I been on a Division I team, I probably would have been examined by an athletic trainer and taken to the hospital by ambulance. Instead, my parents drove me to the hospital, where nine staples were needed to close the gash in my head.

During the spring of 1997, the UI finally announced it was forming a women's Division I soccer program. I was fortunate enough to come back in the fall, play on that inaugural team and become one of the first captains 25 years after Title IX was implemented.

To this day, I have maintained some of the friendships I made while playing collegiate soccer. I can only hope that this path that so many of us helped blaze will benefit my 17-month-old daughter as she grows and chooses the sport(s) she wants to participate in."


Track & field/cross-country


"My high school had no track or cross-country teams for girls, but during my senior year, one of my social studies teachers, who was also the boys' cross-country coach, told me I was "built like a distance runner" and invited me to come to his practices. I did and was quickly addicted to running.

I started at the UI in the fall of 1975. My dorm roommate was a swimmer throughout high school (for the YMCA team) and went to an organizational meeting for women's athletics shortly after the semester began. She knew I had dabbled in running and came back with information about the startup of a women's cross-country team, coach's name, first practice time and place. She encouraged me to go and give it a try. I did.

We were a motley crew that showed up for the first practice. Some of us had competed in our high schools, some had competed in AAU sports, and some (like me) had never competed and showed up in our Keds. That fall we just trained, in anticipation of the track season. The first UI women's cross-country team was formed in the fall of 1976. We ran a 3-mile course. Many schools had a hard time getting enough women to agree to run such a long distance! Women previously were discouraged from running long distances due to possible medical harm (which was proven to be unfounded). Long-distance running shoes were not even produced in women's sizes yet!

We were part of the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women). There was no such thing as recruiting women from high schools — everyone was a walk-on. After a year of competing, women could be offered a tuition and fees scholarship. That all changed while I ran for the UI. My fellow athletes and I were some of the first women offered full-ride scholarships.

Those early years of Title IX were exciting ones. In addition to being among the first women to be offered scholarships, we were also the first to gain access to state-of-the-art sports technology such as Nautilus Weight Training (this weightroom was under the stands in the football stadium and previously off limits to women), underwater weighing (to determine percentage of body fat — much more accurate that the old skin caliper method), the latest technology in sports injury medicine — the ultrasound machine (located in the men's locker room) and being filmed as we ran so our movements could be broken down frame by frame to be analyzed. The science of sport and human movement was coming into its own.

As a team, we lacked a lot of things. We had two part-time grad student coaches who were grossly underpaid. We bought our own running shoes. We drove long distances in university vans to compete. We struggled to find places to eat on the road that were within our budget. We slept four to a hotel room when we stayed away from the UI overnight.

But, I, for one, was oblivious to these "hardships." We had unbelievable team spirit and camaraderie. It didn't matter who was on scholarship and who wasn't. It didn't matter if an athlete came from a small downstate farm town, the inner city of Chicago or an affluent north-side suburb. It didn't matter if you were a Big Ten champion or never earned a single point for the team. We were all friends and teammates and cheered each other on at meets and practices to the last-place woman. We may not have had many things Big Ten athletes have now, but we had each other.

Some of my best memories include running in the first women's 10,000 (6.2 miles) national championship race (1977) in Los Angeles. This was my first national meet, my first time in California, my first airplane flight, plus, I had the wonderful opportunity to see Miki Gorman, a Boston Marathon champion and a legend in women's running.

There was a time when the head men's and women's coaches were being interviewed by the media (Gary Wieneke and Jessica Dragicevic). They were asked to comment on the value of track and field in a young person's life. Coach Wieneke said, "It allows my athletes to fully express their masculinity." Coach Dragicevic replied, "What else can I say? It allows my athlete to fully express their femininity."

That sums up our philosophy and attitude about ourselves, our teammates and our athletic abilities and opportunities. Or as the current bumper sticker says, "I run like a girl. Try to keep up."




"I came to the University of Illinois in the fall of 1973 with the desire to play college volleyball. At that time, women's sports were a part of the Women's Intercollegiate Sports Association. The UI had a very small budget — the lowest of all Big Ten and Illinois state universities. As a result, it was a bit of a glorified high school experience for me.

We came to campus at the same time all the students came, rather than early for double practice sessions. Then we had tryouts for varsity and junior varsity teams. We played for a coach (Dr. Karol Kahrs) who had teaching and advising responsibilities as her priorities, and she received only a small stipend for coaching.

We practiced and played at Freer Gym, which is a small facility with large, low windows on two sides of the court, making it an interesting place to play. However, we eventually moved practices and matches to Kenney Gym.

There was no recruiting, no scholarship offers, not many fans, and several other things that are now an expected part of a college program.

We knew there were problems in funding and deciding how women's sports were to be funded. Although I don't remember all the details, we did not think the athletic director was interested in having women's sports be a part of the Athletic Association. So when Title IX was being implemented and women's sports did become a part of the Athletic Association, athletic director Cecil Coleman came to a practice to welcome us, but we were not convinced he really was glad this was all happening.

It was exciting to think we were going to get some of the benefits other athletes were receiving. I was a recipient of a tuition and fee waiver, and though tuition then was a fraction of what it is now, I was thrilled. On the other hand, I struggled with the fact that the implementation of Title IX meant that some existing men's sports were cut. Of course, I did not have a grasp on the magnitude of all the financial issues, but it seemed cruel to come to a university to play a sport and have that sport cut.

Some of the things I remember about playing during that era are that we traveled in university vans with the coaches as drivers. We rarely stayed overnight and would drive for hours and then play a match. I remember flying once (later in my career) in what must have been a six-seater plane. That was a very big deal.

When traveling, we had about a dollar to spend for breakfast, about $2 for lunch and about $5 for dinner. I don't remember the exact amounts, or if we paid our own way my freshman year, but I remember not spending anything on breakfast or lunch and saving it all for dinner.

I was grateful to have the opportunity to play and for the assistance I received. It was a time of change and growth, though not without growing pains. I played because I enjoyed the game and am glad that more young athletes have more opportunities than I had."




"In the 1960s and 1970s, our high school in suburban Chicago did not have any competitive athletic programs for women, so my sister, neighborhood girls and I became members at the local American Sokol Organization. Through this organization we learned the finer points of competitive women's gymnastics in a gym that wasn't even regulation basketball-court size.

When I chose to go to the University of Illinois in 1972, I was not even aware there was a gymnastics program. I made my way to Kenney Gym — affectionately later known as "Old Men's Gym."

To me, it looked like a palace. All that equipment and a running track, too. Coach Kim Musgrave (from Temple University) was in her first year as a collegiate coach and worked cooperatively with men's coach Yoshi Hayasaki. We had a great assistant coach/local gymnastics judge in Bev Stephens. I remember many a late night of travel in the van with Bev as our driver.

If memory serves me right, we only had 12 to 15 women on the team, and depending on travel (and who the meet was against), that determined the roster for competition. Because our numbers were small, we worked out at about the same time as the men's team, generally after classes about 4:30 to 6 p.m. We forged a "family bond" as we did our best to represent the UI.

I am not sure if any of the women's team members competing during this time had any comprehension of what Title IX was — or would become. Those of us who had this incredible opportunity were thankful and did our best.

I believe we now know and understand that we were taking the baby steps necessary to build the foundation for an extraordinarily successful gymnastics program and legacy.

Wow, were we lucky!"

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Other