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FEATURE

SOME SEE PROGRESS IN WOMEN'S SPORTS, OTHERS SEE THE STRUGGLE. PITT'S FEMALE ATHLETES SEE IT AS A JOB TO DO, AND THEY DO IT WELL.

CLEARING THE HURDLES
WRITTEN BY MARK COLLINS
HAMMOND, WISCONSIN, IS ABOUT an hour east of St. Paul, Minnesota, just north of, well, it's not just north of anywhere. It's not really close to anything. It's somewhere between Lake Michigan and Lake Woebegon.

Pitt junior Sarah Mikla is from this quiet Wisconsin town, but the chances that you've heard of Mikla are about as good as the odds of you knowing the whereabouts of Hammond. But the people in Hammond know her--the first athlete from her high school to cop a scholarship to the big leagues: a Division I university. A half dozen colleges tried to woo this three-sport athlete, who finally chose Pitt's volleyball program.

Like other student athletes, Sarah Mikla learned discipline early. Mikla played scholastic volleyball at a club in St. Paul. That meant driving for an hour after her 6 p.m. basketball practice. (Her mother would drive so Sarah could eat and do homework in the car.) Her family sent videotapes and letters of introduction to various schools, and soon those schools came knocking.

The attention, however, was disconcerting. "It was a little embarrassing," Mikla says of the recruiting. "I didn't want to be seen as different. I used to work really hard so I could be a student like everyone else. I remember once there was a national tournament in Las Vegas, and we took a red-eye flight home. But I went to school the next day, even though I hadn't slept, because I wanted to be in class, just like everyone else."

Mikla's story is a fitting metaphor for the current state of women's collegiate sports. Thanks to more and better competition, the teeth of federal law, and the persistence of the students themselves, women's sports are now on the map. But the size of their space on the map is, like Hammond, Wisconsin, a matter of scale and perspective. Those who see the glass half full point to the recent television exposure (the NCAA women's basketball finals on national TV), the more and varied scholarships, the growing number of teams. Critics, on the other hand, point to the torturously slow process toward equity, the continuing double standard, and the small crowds at women's matches.

The women's varsity sports at Pitt--cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field, volleyball, tennis, basketball, gymnastics, swimming and diving--have brought uncommon success to the University: two dozen Big East championships in less than two decades.

Just in the past year, If student athletes qualified for the NCAAs in their respective sports, in addition to five All-American selections, and more than a dozen Big East Academic All-Stars--not to mention a third-place finish for the Lady Panthers in the National Women's Invitational Basketball Tournament While some schools dominate in a single sport, few universities can boast such a tradition of winning in so many different arenas.

But success--however eagerly it's sought--isn't the final goal for these athletes. Instead, they're simply anxious to play, and just as anxious to be treated like everyone else.

Larger social issues of rights and equality can overshadow simpler, deeper stories: stories of long hours and endless practices and the sheer joy of playing, mixed with the reality of work. discipline, and--to overwork an overworked sports cliche--learning the lessons of life.

LIKE MIKLA, LAKEYA SMITH remembers the excitement of her senior year at William Penn High School in Philadelphia. The girls' mile-relay team was voted best in the country by Track and Field News. Smith had been the state's 600-meter champion in her junior year.

Several schools came knocking on her door before she chose Pitt. "I came here thinking, 'I've already been a champion. I know what it takes,"' she remembers.

Then reality hit. "I had a terrible freshman year," she says, closing her eyes at the memory. "I thought about not coming back. I wasn't sure if they would have me back." Some of Smith's problems had to do with track. Most, however, weren't athletic or physical. "It was a difficult transition," she says now. "The academic work, the level of competition, the discipline.... All of it, all at once." To survive past her freshman year, Smith, a communication disorders major, had to re-think her priorities. College life (including athletics) "is a job now," she says. "It's a job that's a lot of fun, but it's a job. l wake up and I go to work each day."

Over and over again, coaches and players tell the same story of the college athlete's life: a frentic mixture of regimen and fun, of juggling classes and practices and studying and sleep and social life-all pretty much in that order. One might earn a scholarship to get into college, but the real earning takes place every day, just like a real job. And, to butcher yet another cliche, there's no such thing as a free ride.

The scholarship forward is sitting in the stands now after a grueling practice: a drill called the 2-1-2 formation-a spirited defense meant to pressure the opponent at every juncture, but requiring constant movement. "And I appreciate what they're saying, but 'free'? I'm up here three hours a day working my butt off, and that's after classes. It's not 'free."'

Melissa Thompson, Lakeya Smith, and Sarah Mikla all share similar schedules: up early, classes until two, practice from two-thirty to six. Some practices are followed by weight training, then it's a shower and home for a few hours of studying.

The trick, says Lakeya Smith, is to keep moving. "Never sit down when you get back from practice," she says. " Go straight to the library or wherever, but don't sit down, 'cause you'll never get up."

Smith's dedication is typical of a runner coached by Pitt's Steve Lewis. The two tiers of trophies atop the file cabinets in Lewis' office attest to his 28 years of success, coaching both men's and women's track.

But he seems guided less by success than by a philosophic, longer view of sport.

"What can I tell a recruit?" Lewis asks, rhetorically. "Can I say, 'If you work hard at track, you'll be drafted in the third round'? There is no draft." Instead, a track scholarship offers only an opportunity to learn and to run-in that order. "If you want to come to school at Pitt and run track, that's great," says Lewis. "If you just want to run track, then maybe you'd be better off somewhere else." ("One thing I learned here," Lakeya Smith says. "I am replaceable. If I don't do well in class, someone else will take my place on the track team, no problem. It's just like life.")

As coach of both men and women, Lewis can see the implications of unequal treatment. "I see it all the time: if you treat your male and female sports programs differently, it'll show up on the court or on the field. Our track teams travel on the same bus or the same plane. As soon as I see how our opponents travel, I can tell if we have an advantage. If the male team flies in and the women take the bus, then our women have an edge. And the opposite is true, too: If they treat the women's team better, it's still to our advantage-someone is getting special treatment."

HOW TRACK TEAMS ARRIVE at meets might seem like an odd indicator of legal compliance, but it's all part of a voiceferous debate. Before 1972, the concept of equity in sports was just that-a concept. In fact, all of women's collegiate sports was pretty much just a concept. Although many schools fielded successful women's programs, few put in any real money. "There were no scholarships for women when I started college," says Debra Yohman, Pitt's women's gymnastics coach and graduate of Clarion University, "and we were national champions my junior year. By the time I was a senior, there were two scholarships."

The difference was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. (Some of those opposed to Title IX often characterize the law as a product of 1960s liberalism--an ironic criticism, since the bill was signed by Richard Nixon.)

The legislation wasn't just about athletics: The idea was to correct gender inequities across the curriculum. But sports is where "Title IX" became a loaded phrase, praised by some and vilified by others.

In a nutshell, the law requires colleges and universities to "provide equal athletic opportunities to members of both sexes." Sounds simple, right?

But "opportunities" is a slippery word, as is "equal." For instance, what makes facilities "equal," when all sports outside of football and men's basketball are trying to make a name for themselves?

"When I swam here, the men's team had two small locker rooms for themselves," says Pitt women's swimming coach Marian Cassidy Keen (Education '88). "I didn't know that until I started coaching here." Now, thanks to upgrades, both the women and the men have their own locker rooms.

Should marketing be equal? Pitt football, like nearly every Division I school, enjoys radio and TV advertising. By contrast, says gymnastics coach Debra Yohman, "Our players do a lot of their own marketing. They go around the dorms, stuffing our schedule underneath students' doors." As a result, the gymnastics team has developed a following.

But comparing gymnastics to football may be unfair, considering that each has a different fan base (and the football team is trying to fill cavernous Pitt Stadium). It presents a problem for someone like Larry Eldridge, assistant Director of public relations, who heads Pitt's sports marketing efforts. For instance, the University's publicity staff has more than doubled the number of pages in the women's basketball media guide in just a few years- but it's still fewer pages then the men's version. "One can view the expanded women's basketball guides as progress, or one can focus on what still needs to be done," Eldridge says.

"One of the first things I did when I came here was take the cap off women's scholarships in basketball and volleyball," says Pitt athletic director Oval Jaynes. "Capping" scholarships meant limiting the number of non-Pennsylvania athletes who are given pricier out-of-state scholarships. "Now if you want to bring the best people in to Pittsburgh, you can," he says.

Yet each step of progress comes at a price. For instance, to make up for the imbalance caused by the large number of football scholarships, the NCAA allows some sports-women's track, for instance, and women's swimming-to have more scholarship money than the men's teams.

"I can imagine a men's track coach being pretty angry about that," Steve Lewis says, smiling at the irony: The same rule changes that benefited his women's team cost his men's team.

But he adds, "You also can't forget how long women athletes were discriminated against, and discriminated against in every way."

"It's tough on universities, no question," says Johnette Howard (Arts and Sciences '82) senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who's been writing about sports--men's, women's, and otherwise--for 15 years.

Noting that some universities have eliminated a men's sport to even the scholarships, Howard says, "No one wants to cut out a men's sport for the sake of equity. But that can't be the only way. There have to be more creative solutions than that."

It will be years before the dust settles from Title IX. But Howard already sees positive change. "The present college generation is the first to grow up knowing nothing but Title IX," she says. "They don't know what it was like before. I call it 'the Little League story.'

"Every female over 35 who played sports as a kid has the same story: One day you're playing in the sandlot with some boys in the neighborhood, but the next day he's playing in a little league game and you sit on the sidelines. And he's wearing a nice uniform and new spikes--you don't have any of that. And he hits a home run, and you're thinking, 'I struck him out yesterday.' It's great to see the SUCCESS of women's sports, hut it's also a little bittersweet. I mean, all of those lost opportunities over the years...."

But success, says Howard, isn't always measure in opportunities or marketing. Twenty years of Title IX has also changed the face of womens competition forever. "The level of play now is alarming," she says. "I saw three women on the University of North Carolina team dunk a basketball. Unbelievable."

THE PROGRESS ALSO surprises Debra Yohman. "When I was at Clarion, very few people could do a double backflip. Now that's considered a routine skill, something most gymnasts should know."

The difference in the skill level-as Johnette Howard would quickly point out-begins when these female athletes are little girls. New and competitive gymnastics programs, girls' basketball leagues, swimming clubs, tennis clinics, and volleyball camps now serve as a pipeline for women's collegiate sports. When Pitt gymnast Deena Daller says she's a "late-comer" to the sport, she means she started in fourth grade. "Most of the other girls started when they were five or six," she says.

On this particular Wednesday morning Daller is rehearsing a forward somersault dismount from the high bar into the foam practice pit at Trees Hall. The dismount isn't all that difficult for Daller--"I used to do it all the time when I was younger"-but it's a similar move to one she used last year when she blew out her knee in practice. Now Coach Yohman watches as Daller practices again and again. The better the dismount, the quicker Daller springs out of the foam pit to try again. Finally she nails one. "You're there," Yohman says slmply.

Although rehabilitation has made Daller physically ready, it will take weeks of practice to reclaim her mental edge. "It was hard to watch the team from the sidelines last year," she says. "I mean, I could cheer them on, but it's not the same as participating. It was as if I was letting them down. Gymnastics is an individual sport, so a lot of what you do, you do yourself. But you always know you're part of a team."

I can't tell you how much of this game is mental," says Melissa Thompson of Pitt's women's hasketball team. "I know it's a lot. At the college level, everyone has the physical skills; it's what's going on inside your head that makes a difference." She recalls a recent game where her counterpart was "trash talking" a verbal assault (also a part of the men's game) aimed at getting your opponent off her game.

"She spent the whole game trying to get inside my head," says Thompson, smiling. "I spent the whole game playing basketball." Thompson had 13 points and five rebounds that night on the way to a 59-54 Lady Panther victory.

Across the street from Thompson's practice, in the clear blue water of Trees Pool is freshman Leslie Becki. She's been in the pool for an hour, about halfway through her morning workout. Beneath the blue and gold banners marking Pitt's many Big East championships, Becki swims without kicking, working to strengthen her arm stroke. (Round yellow paddles strapped to each hand are another stroke-enhancing trick.) But, in another sense, Becki hasn 't been out of the pool since second grade, when she began practicing every day after school. Twice-a-day workouts began when she was 12.

"It's odd for me to not be in the water," she says. "I've thought about what I'll be doing after college, and I can't imagine my life without swimming."

Unlike many men's sports, female athletes are often, well, forced to retire when their collegiate careers are over. (In the a forementioned Pitt Media Guide to men's basketball, all but one Pitt player expressed an interest in continuing to play or to coach when his collegiate career was over.)

Because of the limited athletic opportunities availalable after college-and because carccrs in sports like gymnastics and swimming are so brief -college competition is usually the final chance to play.

"It's difficult for some girls to give it up," says Debra Yohman. "Athletics has been such a part of their lives."

"I miss playing-there's no question about it," says Pam Miklasevich Sumner (Arts and Sciences '83, Public Health '87), a power forward for the Lady Panthers in the early '80s. (As a sign of the changing times, Sumner says she was "fortunate" to land a full scholarship at a Division I school, since so few were available-and this despite an outstanding high school basketball career.) Although the Florida resident has season tickets to the Orlando Magic, she says, "There's nothing that compares to playing. I remember my first college game. I was so nervous. But the first time I got the ball I scored, and everything seemed okay after that."

What Sumner has retained from her playing days is a sense of pride, teamwork, and discipline. Sure, it may sound like another roster of sports cliches, except that Sumner, a network information consultant in Orlando, has seen them in action. "I've been in a lot of business situations which reouired people working together, required some kind of coordinated effort," she says. "I know how it's done from playing basketball; I already know how it works."

That's the trouble with cliches: So often they can be true. The first sports cliche may date back to the Duke of Wellington in the last century: "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton."

You hear similar hackneyed sentiments from TV color commentators, so often that you forget that there really is a connection between competition and life. A remark like Wellington's can put a school like Eton on the map-just as Sarah Mikla made Hammond, Wisconsin, known to eager college recruiters .

Whatever we think of sport, it still has the ability to bring a team together, just as it can bring a small town together, or an entire school together. And just as we've found in the rest of society-in everything from holding down jobs and buying cars to more mundane chores like housekeeping- men and women act in remarkably similar ways. There may be slight variations in size and scale, but the folks in Hammond don't seem to mind such differences.

It took 20 years, but today's female athletes are beginning to benefit from the progress-all thanks to a far-flung posse of forerunners (and not just stars like Wilma Rudolph, but people like Richard Nixon and ten thousand unpaid chauffeurs like Sarah Mikla's mom). Many male athletes enjoy the spotlight of publicity, yet there's also the attendant glare. Female athletes, on the other hand, know a different kind of competition, and a different kind of satisfaction. While few will enjoy professional athletic careers (there is no Title IX in the real world), all will know a life built around two-a-day practices and late-night studying, forged in the common experience of long bus trips and frantic drills, edging toward a richness that's yet to be unfurled in the rafters above the gym or pool or field of their lives.


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