As the NMAA Girls Region 2 Wrestling Championship was coming to an end recently, flashbacks started to reverberate through my brain, including a true story told out of the Northern Plains.
It happened in 1972, shortly before Title IX opened the door for girls and women to compete in high school and college athletics.
A 16-year-old became the first female at her high school to qualify for the state track meet. Administrators were dumbfounded about how to handle it. Did Rudy (not her real name) even want to go? Duh, YES! So, at the last minute they sent Rudy and a female coach on their way in a school car to make the 200-mile trip.
By then, all of the motel rooms were sold out. After they searched for hours, an innkeeper kindly allowed them to stay in a side room in their own accommodations — with one bed for the athlete and coach to share.
Awkward, but at least Rudy got to compete. It was either that or sleeping in the car. Rudy and her then-coach still laugh about their track trip whenever they see each other. This one small story capsulizes to me what females have gone through just to be able to take part in athletics as men have always done.
As I watched these girls battle on the mat in this recently sanctioned New Mexico sport, a sense of wonder came over me. It all seemed so normal. It wasn’t girls wrestling, it was simply wrestling, and they were good.
Not that long ago, prevailing wisdom held that athletic competition wasn’t appropriate for females. No doubt the likes of Althea Gibson, Mia Hamm, Nancy Lieberman, Joan Benoit, Jackie Joyner-Kersey and countless others, were told, “It’s just too strenuous; not lady-like. You will get hurt.” No doubt the responses of those legends are not printable here.
Let’s not forget Valencia County’s very own UFC world champion Holly Holm and Roswell’s Hall of Fame golfer Nancy Lopez, who sued and won the right to play on a boy’s high school team when girls were banned from competition.
I can’t forget a former broadcasting colleague who often claimed on the air, “the greatest compliment you can give to a girls’ basketball player is that they play like a boy.” I still gag when I recall that.
At the Region 2 girls wrestling meet, the thought of my own mother came out of nowhere. Mom mentioned from time to time, rather proudly, that she would shoot baskets in her younger days. Underhanded, granny style. That probably was the only technique acceptable for a young lady of her day.
Then I thought, for the first time, is it possible the decent athletic skill my brother and I inherited came from her and not dad? Possible and probable, considering her brother and, my uncle, had an NFL tryout and competed at the Olympic trials as a sprinter. Imagine what mom could have accomplished if doors were not shut to her?
Also, during that wrestling meet, I remembered Montana’s very first girls state basketball champion was from my school. The boys’ team was runner-up that same year, 1972. Boy, did we feel humiliated to play second fiddle to the girls.
Now, my chest pumps out for what they accomplished. I would like to high five every one of them, 51 years too late.
No doubt walls have been crashed through and glass ceilings shattered since then, but there is much to be done. There are way too few female referees and athletic administrators in high school or college. Same for coaches.
Check out the roster of head coaches at your favorite school. My alma mater, the University of Montana, has two female head coaches out of nine women’s programs. It still not that common for women to be a head coach in the most high-profile sport, basketball. If they are, their leash is often much shorter.
Outside of athletics, many of us have seen the financial hassles for women, too. It’s been a few years, but when my wife, Pat, went car shopping at an Albuquerque dealership, the salesman suggested she should come back with her husband. Her response, “My husband buys what I tell him to buy. I’ll never buy from you, bleep, bleep.” That’s my Patty.
This is an appropriate time to bring all this up because March is Women’s History Month. Later this month, I’ll focus on two New Mexico pioneers in women’s athletics, including one from Valencia County.
Now, after reading this, some might refer to me by a somewhat outdated term — women’s libber. Thank you.
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.