Fifty years ago today, Congress passed Title IX, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. That law was not enforced, however, until the 1975/1976 school year. That spring, I joined my high school’s first girls’ track team. I ran the 100-yard dash and the 220, anchored the 440 relay, and ran the second 110 in the 880 medley relay (which consisted of a 220, two 110s, and a 440). Although our coach, social studies and history teacher Wilson Kratz, had no experience with track, he generously volunteered to step up and do his best so our school could have a girls’ team.
I was ecstatic—I had loved sprinting ever since elementary school field days. But there had been no girls’ track team when I stared junior high or even high school. Thanks to Title IX, I’d be able to compete in track for two years before graduation. That first year we were a ragtag bunch, but we learned a lot about physical and mental discipline and we pushed ourselves past what we thought were our limits. It was an empowering experience during a time when empowering experiences for girls weren’t very common. The next year, my senior year, we worked even harder.
Going into our last meet of that season, which was away, our record was tied. When we arrived, we discovered the host school hadn’t bothered to chalk the cinder track (most tracks were made with cinders back then) because it was only a girls’ meet. The official drew the lines for the handoff zones of our medley relay with his toe in the cinders. My zone looked short. Way too short. As a 17-year-old girl, though, I felt too intimidated to question the official.
The race began, and just as Janet, the girl handing off to me, slapped the baton into my palm, the line the official had drawn appeared in front of me. When I tried to stop, Janet slammed into me. As I threw out my hands to break my fall, she screamed, “Don’t drop the baton!” I didn’t, but my left knee hit the track hard, grinding into the cinders. The runner from the other team easily passed me, but I leapt up and ran as fast as I could and managed to hand off to our teammate Paula, who anchored the race with a full lap.
Paula was able to pass the other team’s runner, and we won with our best time ever—a time that qualified us for the district competition in that event. We were elated! Those points should have pushed us over the top to ultimately win the meet, and then we’d have our winning season after all. But our joy was short-lived. The official disqualified me. He claimed my hands went outside my lane (the same lane that wasn’t chalked because it was just a girls’ meet) when I fell, even though I clearly hadn’t interfered with the other runner. We had to forfeit the race, and because of that we lost the meet and ended up with a losing season. Just as disappointing, our medley relay team would not then be eligible for districts.
The coach of the home team walked over, took one look at my knee, and insisted on leaving the meet to drive me to the emergency room. Pumped full of endorphins, I hadn’t felt any pain and didn’t want to go. I was eager to run the 220, my last and best race. I’d already qualified for districts in that event earlier in the season. I figured I could just wash off all the blood in the bathroom and I would be good to go.
Coach Kratz looked at the gaping hole in my knee and agreed that I needed to go to the ER. The doctor gave me a shot of Novocain and took a scrub brush to the cinders. He put in two layers of stitches to close what he could of the wound, and then he sent me home on crutches.
I still carry some of those cinders today in the scar pictured here. For some time after that meet, I was bitterly disappointed and even angry at the careless official as well as the school that didn’t bother to chalk their track. But looking back over these past five decades, I can definitely say that my gratitude now is far greater than my anger was then. The experience of working hard to push past what I thought were my limits has stayed with me and served me well in other areas of my life.
In these past five decades, the significant progress women have made in sports has been incredibly inspiring to watch. Before Title IX was passed, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports, but today that number exceeds 3.4 million. We’ve gone from a time when schools didn’t even offer girls’ track teams to a time when the U.S. track and field athlete with the most Olympic medals ever is a woman (Allyson Felix). And it’s not just about sports. In her Washington Post column on the Title IX anniversary published yesterday, Sally Jenkins noted that before Title IX, women earned only 10 percent of all doctorates—and now they earn 54 percent.
So yes, Title IX scarred me for life—but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.