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Tuesday February 10, 2004Norm Carlson Looks Back.. - Women's Athletics (PT I)

Gainesville, FL

(First in A Series)

When you talk about the premier women's athletic programs in the country there is no debate that the Gators are either at the top or very close and competitive. In terms of facilities, athletic and academic support staffs and in all other areas of importance, Director of Athletics Jeremy Foley and his staff treat this program in a first-class manner. That is as is should be for a program of this magnitude.

It has come a long way since Dr. Ruth Alexander led the difficult charge to establish women's athletics in the early l970s.

It has been just over three decades since women's athletics walked on to the intercollegiate scene at the University of Florida . And the coaches and athletes in the five original sports truly did walk-on in every sense of the word.

Dr. Ruth Alexander

In golf, tennis, track, gymnastics, and swimming athletes often purchased their own equipment, practiced at the most inopportune times and paid for their own travel to compete. Fellow students coached two of the five teams. The total budget that first year of l972-73 was $16,000.

The funding came from a reallocation of funds from the student activity fees. It wasn't close to enough but at least it was a start. Recruiting wasn't allowed by the AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women).

"This is fair and adequate treatment of our budget requests," Dr. Alexander said diplomatically.

Dr. Alexander, along with faculty cohorts Mimi Ryan and Paula Welsh of the College of Physical Education, Health and Recreation, started the struggle to elevate women's athletics from intramural sports and club teams to the intercollegiate level at UF. They began with athletic director Ray Graves, and with his support went on to President Stephen C. O'Connell.

Dr. Alexander, who is now a nationally-recognized physical fitness expert, wasn't exactly what you would call a champion of the women's liberation movement in her earlier days as Chairman of the Women's Physical Education Department. However, she was very sympathetic to improving the role for women in modern society, including those who wanted to compete in sports.

"This competition can certainly improve the skill level of women, and most of all, will attract more women to participate in physical activity," she said. "The women of this country are basically inactive and this is extremely bad. I am for anything that will involve women in activity."

Personnel for the new Gator athletic program for women was provided through released faculty time for coaching and administration by the College of Physical Education, Health and Recreation, and part of the announced philosophical mission was to develop a program of competitive athletics for highly skilled women.

The UAA provided medical and training personnel, sports information, insurance, use of facilities and all other services, which were provided to men's teams and coaches. However, those first teams didn't receive much in the way of travel expenses or equipment, and often paid for such items as tennis shoes and shorts.

"Our players and coaches usually washed their own gear," said Dr. Alexander.

Two of the coaches in the inaugural season were students. Catie Ball, who won a gold medal in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, was a senior in education when she was named head swimming coach. Linda Bittner was in graduate school when she took over the fledgling gymnastics team.
Catie Ball Linda Bittner
Sue Whiddon left her position as Director of Athletics at Flagler College to take the challenge of becoming Florida's first head coach in tennis, which has gone on to be one of the nation's very finest programs each year.
Sue Whiddon
Mimi Ryan, who had been coaching the golf team as a club sport for four years, took on the responsibility on the intercollegiate basis. Her team finished seventh in the nation the first season and she later led the Gators to a national championship.
Mimi Ryan

The head track coach was Janice Thompson, a PE faculty member since l966 who had coached the gymnastics and track teams on a club basis. Her first team was undefeated in dual meets.

Janice Thompson

Coach Catie Ball's team shocked the women's swimming establishment in college athletics. She took a squad of eight swimmers to the AIAW national collegiate championships and finished second only to Arizona State, which brought 18 swimmers and three divers.

At the conclusion of that first year, Coach Sue Whiddon probably said it best:

"The highly skilled woman athlete is extremely competitive,"she said. " Women are competitive in general. If they take time to develop their skills it becomes greater."

The Board of Regents took time after the season to salute the athletes and coaches, a positive sign that women's athletics was here to say, but the commendation also showed how far the programs had to go in terms of recognition and exposure.

The salute was a commendation to athletes, coaches and Dr. Ruth Alexander for their contributions to the University of Florida, and to higher education in Florida. It was a nice gesture, but Coach Janice Thompson's last name was spelled Thomas.

(Next-Financial and Staff Growing Pains)

Norm Carlson recently retired from the University Athletic Association after 40 years of service. Carlson serves as historian for Gator athletics and will contribute a regular column to

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