When I was in eighth grade, I ran hurdles on my middle school’s boys track team. At that age, in those days, in that small town, technique counted for a lot, and because my older brother had been a high school hurdler, he had shown me the proper way to run hurdles, which gave me, literally, a leg up.
I was pretty good. I regularly placed or won in meets against my all-male competition. In the single invitational girls meet my coach could find for me to attend, I did really well, winning several events. For as many years as I remembered to check or someone happened to tell me, I held the boys’ low hurdles record at my old middle school.
And then came ninth grade.
I attended the first day of high school boys’ track practice, where I quickly realized that my lack of testosterone was going to be a distinct disadvantage. At 5’1″, I had reached my mature height the year before. The high school guys, who were unfailingly nice to me, took about seven fewer steps between hurdles.
The coach told me I was welcome to practice with the team, but that I would never, ever, be offered the chance to compete.
He did, however, offer me the great opportunity to administrate several of the track events. That’s right. I ran – meaning administrated, not ran in – the pole vault, long jump, and triple jump at home track meets, calling the competitors and recording scores.
My high school athletic career was over before it began. There was no girls’ track team.
Title ix was passed 40 years ago today, when I was 12, but Virginia was not in compliance even by the time I was 15, and I did not benefit from its intent.
Title ix says, ““No person in the United State shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.’’
I was fortunate to be able to turn to a socially acceptable outdoor and athletic pursuit for girls at the time — horse back riding. Having ridden since I was seven, I turned the full attention of my physical self to riding and training horses, something I did with intensity for many years, including even double majoring in equestrian studies in college (along with English/journalism). I enjoyed competing in horse trials; I gave lessons and trained horses at the southern Virginia farm my husband and I owned after college — at the same time I was working first in radio news and then teaching writing, journalism, and communication at Averett University.
You’ll never out-muscle a horse (though there are times you want him convinced you can), and most of getting him to do what you want in the ways you want him to involves finesse, technique, getting inside his head, and the experience of knowing what works–very precisely.
But there’s still a fine sense of being able to feel the power, to train to test yourself, to use a well-developed and strong physical self – arms and legs and back and core and hands – to extract what you want from the horse and yourself. Interestingly, to work well, all this strength has to be fluid and relaxed. The mind-body coordination it takes is exquisite – and don’t forget that with horses, you are coordinating two bodies and two minds, and 50 percent of them aren’t your own. And yeah, requiring a horse to jump a bunch of crazy fences galloping between 400 and 500 meters per minute will definitely get your heart rate up. You’d better be working out.
So I was fortunate. I still had the opportunity to feel those things, even without a track team.
As a mother of three sons, I recognize the potential downsides of Title ix, that in some instances more opportunities for female athletes can mean fewer opportunities for male athletes.
I also am under no illusion about women’s competitiveness with men. I experienced it first hand. I love men’s upper body strength and the rest of their power, and I know what to do to improve mine. But it’s a different game, and call me old or call me post-feminist, but that’s okay with me.
As long as the girls have a chance to play and develop and compete and use their strength and speed and skill, they are going to use the opportunity to develop their best selves. That’s going to carry over into their studies, their careers, and a potential lifetime of fitness.
Most girls won’t grow up to be college or professional athletes, but for that matter, most boys won’t either. Even given a girls team to participate with in high school, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the talent or focus (I loved too many things!) to be a standout athlete by today’s standards. But all kids who have the inner drive to compete should have the chance to try out for a spot to compete when they’re high school age.
Happy Birthday Title IX. I’m glad you have made a difference for American girls.
This post is in honor of Alyssa Drohan, a young soccer player I occasionally coached in rec soccer for Lake Gaston Soccer Association, who made it to the All-District first team for soccer as a freshman in high school this spring. Alyssa always loves playing with the boys, like I did, but I hope she will have more opportunities than I did in high school sports, if that’s what she chooses to focus on, thanks to Title ix. Alyssa, make the most of it!