Letter-perfect day of validation for former UW athletes
Nearly 200 ex-UW women athletes take delivery on letters denied to them years ago...
Special to The Seattle Times
The stories have been around for decades.
Sewing their own uniforms, selling nuts to raise travel expenses, battling men's coaches for court and field time, crashing at someone's home on the way to an event and sleeping 20 people on the floor to cut costs.
The recognition arrived Saturday night in the form of one of sports' most cherished totems — the varsity letter.
Nearly 200 women were each awarded a "W" at Edmundson Pavilion in a ceremony to honor female athletes who competed in University of Washington athletics before the 1975-76 academic year. After 1975-76, the school expanded its sports awards program (letters, sweaters, rings and blankets) to include women.
Among the honorees were at least three women in their 90s, including 90-year-old Sigrid Bergerson Sowell, a 1939 graduate and three-time national individual champion on a UW rifle team that won two national titles. It was a different era then, Sowell says.
"We had to wear skirts while we were shooting," she recalled.
The event, attended by an audience of more than 600, featured speaker Donna Lopiano, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation. Also attending were UW president Mark Emmert and athletic director Todd Turner.
The ceremony, which opened with a spotlighted parade of honorees (Marie Larsen, Class of '51, and Helen Bucher, Class of '53, both entered carrying field hockey sticks), comes 35 years after Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act (1972) became a federal law, barring schools that receive federal funding to discriminate according to gender.
"I was pre-Title IX, just like the honorees," said Tuite, recognized at a similar event hosted by her alma mater, Central Michigan. She and former UW tennis player Mary Schutten helped organize Saturday's ceremony.
"I wanted them to have the memory of receiving their varsity letter," Tuite said. "I hope it's a night they will never forget."
Mission accomplished, says Shaughn Gorman, a 1965 grad who participated in tennis, field hockey and basketball.
"I'm not going to put it in a box somewhere," said Gorman, 64, whose two daughters played college volleyball and are now high-school coaches. "I'm going to be proud of it and pass it on to my grandkids. Four of them are little girls, and they're all playing sports right now. It's wonderful to see."
Chris Burkhart, a 1971 UW graduate who played for the tennis, track, field hockey, swimming and basketball teams, got her letter, too.
The 6-foot-3 Burkhart, now a teaching pro at Whispering Firs Golf Course at McChord Air Force Base, played two seasons of basketball at UW, when six players per team were on the court.
"People weren't sure how running and competitive athletics might impact a woman's ability to bear children," Burkhart said. "There was a little different philosophy towards women's sports then compared to now."
Burkhart was invited to try out for the U.S. national team before the 1970 Pan-American Games. Her lone professional option in basketball after graduation: join a barnstorming troupe called the All-American Redheads of Texas.
"I would have had to move to Texas and dye my hair red," Burkhart said. "I gracefully declined."
Instead she served four years as UW women's basketball coach, including the team's 11-11 inaugural intercollegiate season (1974-75). Annual salary: $3,500.
"I had a few verbal run-ins with [former men's coach] Marv Harshman," said Burkhart. "He didn't like giving up space for us to practice. He would have his players come out and shoot to keep my players off the court. But that's just how things were."
Inequities rankled Irene Arden, a 1976 grad and an All-American swimmer who won two gold medals for the United States (100-meter butterfly, 400 medley relay) at the 1973 World University Games in Moscow. In her senior year, she was one of the first women at UW to receive an athletic scholarship.
"It was a total surprise," Arden said. "I felt validated. Someone thought that a woman athlete was worth a scholarship."
Arden, today a Seattle-area psychologist, recalls wearing sweatsuits cast off by the men's team and riding in vans to a meet at Oregon in the same year the men's team flew to a meet in Texas. With no budget for accommodations en route to Oregon, Arden arranged for the team to sleep on the floor at her parents' house in Vancouver.
After speaking out about inequities in sports at an on-campus gathering, she was booted from the women's team by Earl Ellis, the men's team coach. She was not invited back until her parents demanded a conference with university president John Hogness.
"It was a painful experience," said Arden, 53. "We were not even allowed to speak out publicly or we would face serious retribution. That's how different things were in 1974."
Trish Bostrom, a 1972 grad and an elite tennis player who later played eight times at Wimbledon, famously brought legal action against UW in 1971, trying to join the men's team until the men's and women's programs were treated equitably.
She did not succeed, but her efforts helped bring awareness to the issue. Ultimately, she says, everyone benefited.
"It's very good for the university to host this event; say, 'Yes, we stand up and recognize these athletes,' " said Bostrom, now a lawyer. " 'Yes, we have a rich heritage and great tradition of women's athletics. Yes, they're part of the family.' "
Shelley Morrison, a 1971 grad and another skilled tennis player, moved into broadcasting and in 1974 became the first female sportscaster on network radio. Saturday's ceremony ranked high on her list of major events she has experienced.
"I didn't realize how much I would care about actually getting a varsity letter," she said. "For years I didn't think about it much. But I have a son, and he has my husband's college blanket. And it's like, I played varsity sports, too, but I had nothing to pass on. This is going to make it real.
"There was very little documentation of women's sports years ago. Even trying to find photos of us or evidence of our matches is so limited. So in some ways it's just a validation that we weren't just telling stories. It was very real."
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.