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Woster: Racing to equality in sports

I remember at the 1968 Tyndall meet hearing talk about how girls weren’t strong enough to run more than half a mile. Well, it didn’t take too long to show what a load of nonsense that kind of talk was.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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When I entered high school in the fall of 1958, boys could compete in three sports. Girls could be cheerleaders.

As a 14-year-old freshman in Chamberlain, I never once thought about the unfairness of a school athletic program that had offerings for male students but none for females. I guess girls had physical education, PE, just like boys, but I don’t even know that for sure.

What I know is that boys, at least where I grew up, could play football in the fall, basketball in the winter and track and field in the spring. During my years in high school, cross country became a thing, although for as long as I was around, we didn’t have a coach or schedule of meets. We’d run around town on our own, and eventually we’d go to Brookings and run a state meet. Some years after I graduated (1962), cross country in Chamberlain became a real sport with a coach, a team and a schedule of meets leading up to the state run.

When I was in school, girls didn’t play basketball, not anywhere I saw. Too bad, too, because way back in second grade, a girl named Barbara could outplay any boy in our class in the gym during lunch hour. She was way ahead of her time, and there wasn’t a way for her to develop her talent except during lunch break at school and maybe out on the driveway at home in the evenings.

I recall my mom once telling me she played some basketball in school. She went to Reliance sometime in the 1930s. She never said if they played other schools. She really didn’t give any details, except to say she didn’t think she was very good. The game she described had six players on the floor for each team. A defender couldn’t cross mid-court to play offense and an offensive player couldn’t fall back on defense past the center stripe. She didn’t make it sound like much fun. Maybe that’s why it seemed to have disappeared around here by the time I reached high school.

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I went away to college, still not thinking it strange and unfair that organized sports were exclusively for males. I did a quick online search the other day and learned that women’s basketball began at my school, South Dakota State, in 1966. I graduated that year. I returned for a year of graduate studies. I was around campus during the pioneering days of women’s basketball, but I never knew a thing about it. I was a drifter during my college years, sure, but you’d think I’d have at least read a sports story somewhere that mentioned the women’s team.

Out of college, I got my first real newspaper job with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. After a few months as a photographer, I switched to the sports desk and began catching up on the world of South Dakota high school athletics. On assignment to cover the Tyndall Relay in 1968, I found myself watching both boys and girls. It was kind of fun, having both girls and boys competing. Some girls, like some boys, were skilled. Others, girls and boys, weren’t so skilled. All tried.

I just found an online newspaper clip that says 417 girls from 31 schools competed in a state track meet in Tyndall in 1964. Well, I’ll be. The sport wasn’t officially sanctioned until 1969, but the girls were ready years before that. I remember at the 1968 Tyndall meet hearing talk about how girls weren’t strong enough to run more than half a mile. Well, it didn’t take too long to show what a load of nonsense that kind of talk was. Who comes up with stuff like that, anyway?

Just last weekend I watched a big cross country meet in Sioux Falls. Girls and boys ran 5,000 meters. Girls and boys surged to the front of their races. Girls and boys struggled through the final stages of their races. Girls and boys were strong and weak, determined and defeated.

These days, South Dakota offers several athletic opportunities for girls, as it does for boys. I wish it had been that way when I was in school.

More from columnist Terry Woster...
Sometimes when my newspaper and the governor’s office were at odds over our coverage, I’d be unable to get formal interviews.

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Opinion by Terry Woster
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