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Title IX: What my project taught me about gratitude

One of the main reasons I pursued a project on the 50th anniversary of Title IX was my understanding of the significance of women who paved the way for athletics today.

alex girls track.jpg
Meghan Orgeman (center), the head girls track coach at Alexandria Area High School, stands with Kasey Soderholm (left), Aleah Miller, Jaelyn Miller and Emma Ecker at the MSHSL state track and field meet Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Abby Sharpe / Post Bulletin
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ST. MICHAEL, Minn. — The blue and white tent full of women in the same blue shirts sat near the finish line at the state track and field meet in St. Michael, Minn. The blue shirts identified the women as trailblazers. They were the pioneers of track and field in Minnesota, and participated in the first ever state track meet in 1972.

I was there to talk with them, to hear their stories and experiences.

There was Connie Sugden, the head coach of the White Bear Lake High School track and field team, with members of the team that co-won the 1972 girls state track and field meet – the first state competition for female athletes in Minnesota.

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There was Sue Alstrom, the International Falls shot put and discus champion who was awarded the first medal of the state meet, making her the first girl in Minnesota to be awarded a medal in athletics.

There was also a group of girl track athletes from Alexandria Area High School. On the surface, it might seem like they were only there because their track coach, Meghan Orgeman, was an organizer for the event. But that’s not the case.

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The girls were there because they felt the importance of the chance to talk to the women who paved the way for them to compete in the same meet, 50 years later.

“It's emotional seeing how far we’ve come. Seeing us being able to come here and do this – we wouldn’t be in this spot without them,” Alexandria senior Emma Ecker said. “And it's just so crazy, because that's what it means to be a trailblazer – facing those fears and those challenges and barriers and achieving greatness. That's exactly what they've done for us so that we can be here today.”

“One word that just comes to mind is grateful. And I think there are so many, so many things that we have to be grateful for at a meet like this,” senior Aleah Miller said. “But all of them being here is just such an amazing reminder of how far we've come. And like the fact that we couldn't have done this, you know, 60 years ago. For them to, like Emma said, break those barriers and pave the way for the rest of the girls for generations to come is insane to me. And I feel like I owe them so much.”

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A few of the photographs and newspaper clippings under the tent at state track and field Saturday, June 11, 2022.
Abby Sharpe / Post Bulletin

Ecker and Miller, along with Kasey Soderholm and Jaelyn Miller, were visibly emotional talking about the anniversary of Title IX and the trailblazers they met. To add to the emotions, Ecker, Giselle Jahner, Soderholm and Jaelyn Miller won the state title in the 4x800m relay, and Aleah Miller won the 1600m race earlier in the day.

That’s where the gratitude came in: Because of conversations about trailblazers and Title IX throughout this season, led by Orgeman, the girls were incredibly aware that the state meet would not happen every year if not for the women who led the fight to create girls’ sports in Minnesota.

Our conversation ended and I walked back to the tent with Orgeman. I thought about gratitude with each step I took.

In my short time as a reporter, there have been a handful of interviews that I leave with goosebumps on my arms. Though it was a warm, humid day, I got goosebumps multiple times while listening to the Alexandria girls talk. I thought, ‘They get it.

Since I began pursuing this Title IX project in March, I’ve thought about how recent the federal civil rights legislation is. This has been my benchmark the entire time: My mom was born in 1972. That’s only 50 years ago.

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For my family, 50 years is two generations – my mom, and my sisters and me. Sports were a big part of all of our lives, though some of us were better athletes than others (meaning, my mom and sisters were better than me).

I think about the other women in my family. My great-grandma, Betty, for example, never came close to organized school athletics, turning 18 in 1940. However, she did take advantage of the way women did participate in sports at that time: informal athletic leagues. Betty was a bowler who broke many local records and won lots of trophies during her 50-plus year career that were displayed on a side table in her living room.

That love of bowling trickled down to my paternal grandma, Cheryl, who joined a recreational league in the 1980s when my dad was a kid. That was her athletics experience, aside from the year of badminton she played her final year of high school in 1964.

My maternal grandma, who graduated high school in 1957, didn’t play sports. But it was a big part of her daughter’s lives.

I won’t break down the athletic experiences of all the women in my family, but the point is that school athletics weren’t a big part of most of their lives until the mid-1960s and after, when civil rights and feminism were at the forefront of people’s minds and the subject of federal legislation.

This is exactly why I’ve paid so much attention to women’s sports, especially since college. I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around the idea that women weren’t always afforded the sports opportunities that exist now.

Are things perfect now? No, and I wrote about only a handful of issues in part three of my series. But strides are being made to give women’s sports the platform they need, and deserve.

That's why I'm grateful to have had the chance to work on this project. It opened my eyes — again — to the past, present and future of women's sports. I'm grateful to the pioneers, like Donna Mueller and Lori Anderson, who shared their stories with me; I'm grateful to those like Kendall Hanley, who perfectly illustrated how much change has happened the last few decades; and I'm grateful to Meghan Orgeman and her Alexandria girls track team, who represent many young, passionate, strong women in the next generations that will change the world.

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And, maybe most importantly to me, I'm grateful to have experienced the conversations that led me to greater understanding and appreciation for all that I have, and all that the women before me weren't yet allowed to experience.

There is a lot to look forward to, especially with the younger generations. Orgeman summed it up best at the state track and field meet.

“When I look at my athletes' faces now, I’m not worried because your generation’s hearts are on fire,” she said. “You will keep moving us forward. What you guys are going to do for women’s rights ... I have so much reason to hope for the future.”

Abby Sharpe joined the Post Bulletin in February 2022 after graduating from Arizona State University with a sports journalism degree. While at ASU, she created short- and long-form stories for audio and digital. Readers can reach Abby at 507-285-7723 or asharpe@postbulletin.com.
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