Passion for sports led women’s quest for equality

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The short history of equality for female athletes was showcased recently at Stearns History Museum’s History Maker Gala.

The event honored local women who pioneered equality and athletic opportunity for girls and women.

For today’s female high school and college athletes, it must be hard to imagine a world where their “athletic” opportunities were limited intramural teams, powder-puff football and cheerleading while the boys played other schools in well-equipped gyms and fields.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 established the legal foundation for equal opportunity but brave action on the court and in the courtroom led to the opportunities that girls and women have today.

At the event, Stearns History honored Peggy Brenden with the Zapp Historian Award. Peggy is a retired judge now, but in 1972 she was a classmate of mine at Tech High School and an extremely talented tennis player. She wanted to play and because there was not a girls’ team, she sued to be allowed to compete on the boys’ team.

As a high school journalist, I wrote about her lawsuit brought by the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. She won in court and later, on the courts, Peggy joined the team that won second place in the state tournament.

Another high school sports pioneer, Kelly Skalicky of Albany, introduced the night’s main speaker, Lindsay Whalen. I photographed Skalicky, now CEO of Stearns Bank, dozens of times as she led the Albany Huskies to state basketball tournament appearances in 1978, ’79, ‘80 and ’81. The 1980 team captured the state championship and Skalicky ended her six-year prep career with 2,704 points.

Whalen is known to Minnesota sports fans for her playing days at the University of Minnesota, on the Olympic team and a 14-year professional career with the Minnesota Lynx. She just completed her first year coaching the Gophers women’s basketball team.

In addition to those honored at the event, other local women who led early advances for female athletics joined the audience.

Carol Howe-Veenstra coached volleybwall and served as athletic director at the College of St. Benedict for 30 years. I first met Howe-Veenstra while photographing her successful volleyball teams at Tech in the late 1970s.

As the evening began, my spouse and I found a table in a far corner of the Gorecki Center banquet hall. We did not realize we were sharing a table with two women who also made history.

We joined Carol Agnes and Nancy Bellmont for dinner. Agnes was St. Ben’s first basketball coach when the college’s first team played other colleges in the 1973-74 year. Agnes also coached volleyball and later became the college’s first athletic director. Bellmont played on that first basketball team.

Agnes was an early advocate for equal opportunity. She remembers walking out of a summer-school program at the age of 5 when she learned only boys could participate in the birdhouse building activity. Her passion for equal opportunity was honed in the Girls Scouts and at the College (now University) of St. Catherine.

St. Ben’s hired Agnes to be recreation coordinator and teach physical education. 

When she started the first basketball team, the players had to navigate pillars and dribbled on a tile floor that covered concrete.

Bellmont played on that first team in her senior year. She grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, and her high school did not offer organized girls’ teams. At the time, many small-town Iowa high schools fielded girls’ basketball teams. Bellmont unsuccessfully lobbied her parents to let her live with her cousins in a town with a team.

“I’m still passionate about being active and being in sports,” she said. “Basketball is the best game in town. My heart belongs to basketball.”

This past Christmas, her husband gave her a basketball…the first basketball she’s owned.

“I started to cry,” she said. Now after a hard workout at the YMCA, she rewards herself by shooting baskets.

Our two daughters, who started playing on grade-school teams, then travel and high school varsity teams, enjoyed the opportunities these women fought for.

“I knew I had a passion,” Agnes said. “I never knew I would be a pivotal player. I was like the first stage of a rocket. I liked to get things off the ground.”

Author: Mike Knaak

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