Shawn Vestal: Title IX helped keep St. George’s girls on track
In the spring of 1971, a handful of junior high and high school students at St. George’s prep school started competing on the school’s first girls track team.
Coached by a young math teacher, Ray Peterson, the team had virtually no equipment. No track, no field. No uniforms. No weights. Three hurdles.
But there was something else out of the ordinary about that team and the teams at St. George’s that followed in the early 1970s. They were exceptionally talented. A school history of the team reads like a highlight reel: The team routinely beat much larger schools in dual meets. Its athletes routinely set records – school records, city records, regional records. Julie Hansen was the top discus and juvenile thrower in the state. April Harper was a top-tier high jumper. Both competed nationally in the Junior Olympics. And there were plenty of other standouts, as well.
To give the girls more opportunities to compete close to home – as opposed to traveling long distances for small-school meets – Peterson wrangled the Dragon Track Club into the City League, made up of Spokane’s big schools. Because St. George’s teams were made up of eight or 10 girls, tops, they could not compete for the team titles at meets. But the girls frequently won individual events, and they won almost all their head-to-head dual meets.
The story of the Striders, as they called themselves, corresponds with the cultural changes of the times. Equal rights for women was a growing political movement; and parents of girls were pressing for equal opportunities for their children. Schools in Spokane began forming intramural track teams for girls in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and more formal varsity teams soon followed.
Title IX, the landmark legislation requiring equal opportunity for girls in schools that receive federal funding, was passed in 1972. The law has been the target of various legal challenges – everyone from the NCAA to associations of wrestling coaches has opposed it. In particular, colleges have spent a lot of time and effort trying to exclude football from the Title IX requirements, because it skews the formula so dramatically. Sometimes, schools with expensive football programs have “balanced” opportunities for women by removing low-cost opportunities for men, such as wrestling – and then blaming Title IX.
The law’s broad intent remains popular with large majorities of Americans surveyed. And while it has made an enormous difference in opportunities for girls and women, its goals remain unfulfilled, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Boys and men have more opportunities to play sports, receive more scholarship money and are better supported with facilities and equipment, the foundation says.
Still, the cultural distance between 1972 and 2012 – in terms of the attitudes and expectations and opportunities for girls – is vast.
“I have older sisters,” said Julie Hansen – a chiropractor and track coach living in Lynden who now goes by her married name of Julie Hansen South. “And they didn’t have the same opportunity.”
Hansen was the first member of the team to qualify for the state meet, as a freshman in the discus. By 1973, the team had matching uniforms and spikes, and began competing in dual meets. Each of the eight or nine team members in those years competed in the maximum of four events; from 1973 to 1975, they beat each of the other schools but one, despite the fact the schools were several times larger.
“The big schools didn’t like getting beat by us,” said Marianne Zobrist Iksic, who ran the 440 and relays, according to a history compiled by the school. “Eight of us won a pile of meets because we all placed in our events no matter who we ran against.”
In 1973, every team member qualified for state. Hansen was a standout in the discus and javelin. April Harper was a record-setting high jumper. Each still holds the school record in their sport. Runner Andrea Dewey and sprinter Barbara Lycan held school records for decades.
The performances of those athletes were remarkable at the time, and many of them would be remarkable today. Peterson remembers many of them vividly.
“April Harper, up in Chewelah, jumped 5-7,” he said. “She jumped 5-7!”
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the team had uniforms and a bit more equipment, they still relied on a jury-rigged strategy to get by. They used the track at Whitworth. Peterson built a concrete ring for the discus at St. George’s – he elevated it so it could be used for other events. During the off-season he scouted around for meets all over and hauled the kids there himself.
“I put them in the back of my pickup,” he said. “I got a canopy for the bed of the pickup and got a mat, and I put them in the back of the pickup and away we’d go.”
In 1973, Peterson wanted the girls to be given athletic letters at the school’s annual Letterman’s Awards Banquet. The school’s board of trustees objected.
“I said they’re competing. They’re representing the schools. Give ’em letters,” he said. “We went round and round about that.”
The girls got their letters.
Now, nearly four decades later, they’re being inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. At a ceremony on Dec. 30 at the school, 21 members of the team from 1973 to 1975 will be honored, along with other teams and individuals.
South eventually won two state titles and went on to throw the discus and javelin in college at Seattle Pacific. She then competed on the national team and coached at the University of Washington. She was an alternate for the 1980 Olympic team – the year the U.S. boycotted the games. Following that, she became a chiropractor on the West Side, but track and field always tugged at her attention.
“It is in my blood to be in track,” she said.
For the past 15 years, she’s coached at high schools in the Lynden area. She’s now the throwing coach for Lynden High School – for the girls and the boys.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.