Game on – Isthmus | Madison, Wis.


A new book about a pioneer of women’s sports at the University of Wisconsin offers an important and little-known story from the school’s athletics department that adds crucial context for anyone whose idea of ​​Badgers sports history is limited to Alan “The Horse” Ameche and “Badger” Bob Johnson.

A first chapter of The Right Thing to Do: Kit Saunders-Nordeen and the Rise of Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics in Wisconsin and Beyondby Madison journalist and author Doug Moe (published by Milwaukee’s Henschel Haus Publishing last month), details how female athletes had to sneak onto the UW campus if they wanted to play sports.

It’s not just that female athletes at UW in the 1960s and 1970s had inferior facilities and smaller budgets than their male counterparts. They were not allowed to participate in contests in which the score was kept.

A group of women who organized a weekly basketball game in the mid-1960s at Lathrop Hall, home of the Women’s Physical Education Department, grew tired of playing against each other and decided to write a letter to a trainer in northern Illinois. University, asking her if she would like to bring her team to Madison. His answer: “I play”.

A faculty member unlocked Lathrop for the contest, unbeknownst to Lolas Halverson, chair of the women’s physical education department. The northern Illinois athletes wore uniforms, while the Wisconsin team wore “navy blue shorts and white blouses with pinned numbers.” Nonetheless, the Wisconsin team won “pretty solidly” and news of the accomplishment spread around campus.

“[Halverson] found out we had done that. We were all called into his office and read the riot act. I think she probably wanted to kick us out of college,” Nancy Page explains in the book. Page would go on to become a Hall of Fame field hockey, softball and tennis coach at UW-Stevens Point.

Halverson followed the example of Blanche Trilling, director of the department from 1912 to 1946, who favored participation in competition as far as women and sport were concerned, a perspective which involved women in “play days”, a frustrating situation for athletes who wanted to Play to Win.

“Trilling wanted a girl in every sport and a sport for every girl,” Moe explains. “But elite competition, she thought, would be detrimental.”

It is in this context that Saunders-Nordeen, a native of New Jersey, studied physical education as a graduate student at UW in the mid-1960s. She also spent her time pushing to form teams, not sanctioned by the university , in 11 sports that competed against other schools. As the Vietnam War pushed students to become more politically active, Saunders-Nordeen and his contemporaries were quietly – and perhaps unwittingly – building their own revolution.

Saunders-Nordeen played field hockey in Madison with women like Page, who made careers in track and field, and Becky Sisley, who later developed the women’s track and field program at the University of Oregon.

Moe’s book details Saunders-Nordeen’s rise at UW from women’s club sports coordinator to women’s athletic director in 1974, even as she was completing her doctoral dissertation. Again and again, she refused to accept the status quo. In public, she was diplomatic and cheerful – a recurring theme in her letters and interviews is how much fun she had – but she managed to get along with the men who ran the school and the athletic department.

Meanwhile, Title IX passed Congress and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972. The measure changed everything for women’s athletics, even though it took several years to implement. Moe’s book chronicles the slow passage of federal legislation nationwide as Saunders-Nordeen worked simultaneously to simply gain access to locker rooms and laundry services for female athletes in Madison.

“I remember after [Title IX passed] try to explain it to the sports commission. I had really learned about it and what it meant – what we were going to have to do. People had refused to act because they didn’t have enough information,” Saunders-Nordeen says in an interview quoted in the book. “The women who had become familiar with it tried to tell them [various administrators] What it was. And they said, ‘It’s not possible.’ »

And because it was driven by competition, Saunders-Nordeen did more than just create opportunities, it built successful programs throughout the 1980s. The Badgers won, particularly in cross country and track and field, but also in soccer and volleyball. And she built a culture of respect for female athletes that didn’t exist in other programs that struggled to embrace Title IX reforms.

Marija Pientka, an All-American tennis player for the Badgers in the early 1990s who considers herself a “Title IX baby,” was drawn to the environment created by Saunders-Nordeen’s work without knowing it directly at the ‘era.

“When I went on a recruiting trip, I could just see and feel there was a different vibe here for women’s athletics,” says Pientka, now UW’s senior associate athletic director with a resume that qualifies her. to be AD Director. “I think it’s a testament to all the hard work Kit has put in.”

Saunders-Nordeen died on January 1, 2021, at the age of 80.

Moe says the book has been warmly received, with some readers pledging to give it not just to their daughters, but also to their sons and brothers. With his 2005 book, Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Teamthis book fills critical gaps in the history of sport at UW.

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