Women who competed in thirteen sports at the UO between the time of the Second World War and the early days of the Reagan administration gathered in Matthew Knight Arena for an event thanking them for their pioneering spirit, their sacrifices, and their "love of the games" they played without the acknowledgments that women receive today. Attended by more than 600, the Women in Athletics Celebration honored 250 former Oregon women athletes and coaches whose efforts took place before the UO granted letters in women's sports. Alexandra Notman, MA '11, wrote the following story, "Letters from the Past," about three of the honored athletes—all current UO student affairs staff members. It appeared, along with the photo by Isaac Viel '10, in the newsletter of the Division of Student Affairs.
“The UO had an excellent women’s athletics program but no one knew about it,” says Peg Rees ’77, MS ’91, leaning back in a desk chair at her Esslinger Hall office. The former UO athlete, who played basketball, volleyball, and softball in the 1970s, has a framed felt yellow “O” proudly hanging in the middle of one wall—the letter she was awarded retroactively at the special ceremony at the Matthew Knight Arena on May 7. “Looking back, we had one of the best programs in the U.S. But that’s hindsight.”
Rees was one of several hundred former female UO athletes from the forties to the eighties who were honored that night with the letters they never received when they were students. Before the 1980s, female athletes at the UO were not granted letters, nor did they receive much financial support.
The delayed recognition of female athletes was largely because the U.S. Congress did not pass Title IX until 1972, perhaps the most revolutionary legislation ever passed for collegiate athletes. Title IX stated that equal opportunities must exist for both genders in athletics at any educational institution that receives federal funding. Even with Title IX, the University of Oregon did not start awarding female athletes letters until the 1980s.
Wendy Polhemus, “An Amazing Night”
“There was a lot of pride,” says EMU interim director Wendy Polhemus ’81, MBA ’94, about the letter ceremony. “These women accomplished things without support.”
Polhemus came to the UO from California in 1973 in search of sports. Her father taught her how to hit a baseball when she was six, and from then on, Polhemus was hooked. By the time she was in high school, she was playing softball, volleyball, and basketball. At the UO, she played on the same teams as Peg Rees under less than ideal conditions. “Basketball had no full-time coaches. GTFs were coaches,” Polhemus says, laughing. “We were no good.”
Her volleyball coach Karla Rice was a mentor for Polhemus. In fact, when Polhemus had to write a paper about the three most important mentors in her life, she chose Rice. “She was a great coach,” she says. “Approachable and fair.”
Polhemus was happy to receive her letter alongside her fellow athletes. “It was an amazing night,” she says. “The athletic department did a great job.” She does hope that the women who could not make the ceremony will still be acknowledged. “Those people deserve their letters no matter where they are. Or a nice letter of recognition,” she says.
Wendy Polhemus played basketball, volleyball, and softball her freshman and sophomore years before joining the military. She will retire this December after serving for more than thirty years and earning the rank of colonel.
Sue Wieseke, The Love of the Game
Sue Wieseke ’83, an accountant in the Department of Physical Education and Recreation, came to the UO in 1977 as a physical education major and as an athlete. “It was definitely a novelty still for women in athletics,” she says. Like Polhemus, Wieseke played softball, volleyball, and basketball in high school. She was also a competitive swimmer. In the late seventies, Wieseke appreciated the passion in women’s sports. “Women’s athletics was filled by women who loved to play,” she says. “There were no perks. We just purely loved playing.”
Several of the eleven women’s teams at the time had to share uniforms. “We were pretty rag-tag looking,” says Wieseke. She cannot believe the vast transformation of UO athletics since she was a student. “It’s both cool to see and stunning,” she says. Wieseke was also happy to receive her letter that May evening. “It was well done,” she says. “I thought they did a good job recognizing women.”
Peg Rees, Defining an Era
Peg Rees, now the associate director of physical education at the UO and former volleyball coach, has loved sports since she was a young child in Los Angeles. “Whenever I had an opportunity, I’d try it,” she says, whether it was softball, basketball, tennis, swimming, or baseball. “I can remember I loved playing. I loved the anticipation.”
In 1967, Rees came to Oregon from California. In high school, she played many sports but retrospectively, Rees recognizes the lack of support for female athletes at the time. “I’m sad about it. Even though I was named an outstanding athlete at my [high] school, no coach or teacher encouraged me to continue.”
Before attending the UO, Rees was unaware that there was a women’s athletics department. During the first week of classes in 1973, Rees found out about UO women’s athletics by accident. While strolling by Gerlinger Hall on a September day, a woman approached Rees and asked her if she played volleyball. She said yes. “She told me where to show up at 5:00 p.m. to join the teams, and I showed up,” says Rees.
She also remembers female athletes paying for their own uniforms, paying for their own meals, and at times sleeping on her parents’ floor while the teams were traveling. “We can all tell crazy stories of how much we did with how little we had.”
The May letter ceremony had been in planning for eight years, says Rees. Tracking down all the female athletes itself took three to four years but it was well worth it. Rees had not seen some of her teammates for more than thirty years. “We knew each other the moment we saw each other,” she says. Her favorite moment of the night was the video presentation when a handful of women were called on stage at the Matthew Knight Arena to represent a decade of UO sports history. Rees represented the seventies. “It was special to me to stand up and represent these women athletes of the seventies,” she says. “We are really proud of what we did with the few resources we had. It defines the whole era.”
—By Alexandra Notman, MA '11