Title IX: Donna Mueller and Lori Anderson are trailblazers of women's running in Minnesota
A pair of girls from Southeast Minnesota ran at the forefront of women's athletics in the groundbreaking years after the passage of Title IX.
ROCHESTER — Donna Mueller’s love affair with running began as an eighth grader in 1973.
Her school, St. Pius School in Rochester, had recently put together a girls track program. In her preteens, Mueller was at the right age to benefit from the passage of Title IX as part of the federal education bill, the Education Amendments, of 1972.
With an older brother who was already a cross country and track runner, Mueller decided to try out the sport.
The longest the girls were allowed to run was about half a mile. Mueller liked it – she had fun.
Then, she began high school. It was 1974, and Rochester Lourdes High School still had few sports for girls.
“There really wasn’t much to choose from,” Mueller said. She remembered the tennis team, and basketball in the winter, and track. That was it. Mueller stuck with track, and that was good enough for her. She enjoyed it.
But as Mueller headed into her sophomore year of high school, Steve, her brother, told her to see if she could start a girls cross country team. So, she and her cousin, Mary Jo Weis, went to Myron Glass, the boys coach, who said he’d take the girls on, if they got a team together.
The first girls cross country team Lourdes ran out totaled seven girls, with “probably three sprinters on the team,” Mueller said. That team did well, reaching the state meet in 1975. Mueller took fourth overall and the team finished third.
She ran in the state cross country meet the following two seasons. After wrapping up high school, Mueller headed to Mankato, Minn., to run at Mankato State University. (The school is now Minnesota State University, Mankato.)
Mueller’s mother, Helen Gathje, told her daughter she wished she had grown up with sports.
“She said, ‘I would have loved to have run,’” Mueller said.
The knock on the door that changed everything
Listen to Dorothy McIntyre, former teacher and associate director of the MSHSL, describe her role in bringing organized girls sports to Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s.
Not a sports law by nature
Sports for girls before 1972 were a rarity, if they did exist. Title IX, a federal civil rights law which was signed by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, was the ninth section of the Education Amendments.
The law itself was 37 words long: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” it read.
The law is not and was never intended to be a sports law, said Nicole LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. Instead, it simply aimed to protect female students from discrimination.
“Most people are most familiar with Title IX because of sports, because back in 1972, lots of boys got to play sports in the schools, and the girls did not,” she said. “What Title IX did for girls in sport participation was really provide the same opportunities for the girls that they did for the boys.”
‘What a great opportunity that was’
Lori Anderson knows that first hand. As a seventh-grader in Lanesboro, in 1974, members of the Girls Athletic Association met at the community center to play basketball against each other. The association started track that spring, which Anderson fell in love with. She started out as a sprinter, before trying other events, like the 400-meter and 2-mile runs.
Anderson went to the state meet for the first time as a seventh-grader, before different divisions and classes existed. She recalled being intimidated as a young runner surrounded by older and taller girls.
“It was pouring down rain and I was in lane one,” Anderson remembered. “I took off my sweats way too soon, and, of course, my spikes were too long, so somebody offered to let me wear their shoes. I was just a disaster out there.”
Regardless of how the race went for her, it was one of those opportunities that she might’ve taken for granted, considering the athletes before her that didn’t get chances to run competitively, as she and Mueller did.
Looking back at that time of her life, Anderson realizes now that Title IX absolutely impacted her, and other girls, but “we didn’t really realize how much of an impact it was.”
“We just thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to be able to compete in sports other than going down to the community center,’” she said. “Now, you look back and you say, ‘Well, what a great opportunity that was.’ I would never have had the opportunities, all those things would not have taken place if they hadn’t had Title IX.”
One of those opportunities was to run at Mankato State – with Mueller as her teammate. The two combined for 11 All-America nods and seven still-standing school records.
Another opportunity for Anderson, a few years after her collegiate career came to an end, was running for the U.S. Army. Anderson said she wanted to go back to graduate school but couldn’t afford it at the time.
After enlisting in the Army and going to boot camp, she ran the physical fitness test as a requirement to graduate boot camp – and ran it fast. The drill sergeant told Anderson to ask to join the All Army running team after getting to her first duty station.
“I remember walking into this office of all guys, and I said, ‘I just would like to apply for the Army track team,’” she said. “They’re laughing at me – it’s really kind of embarrassing. They go, ‘Well, it’s not just that easy, you’re going to have to prove yourself first that you can run. We have a really good girl here.’”
She proved them wrong. In her last two years, Anderson ran full-time as part of the Army’s World Class program. The objective of the program is to qualify for the Olympic trials.
And she did.
Olympic dreams and almost realities
In 1988, Anderson ran the 3,000 meters at the trials in Indianapolis in hopes of qualifying for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
“I had the race of my lifetime at the nationals that year to qualify for the trial. And then I didn't have a great race in the prelims, probably one of my worst races, and they said I just missed it,” Anderson said. “My coach checked three times. I checked. The next day, I had breakfast with my parents in my flip flops, and they're calling my name for lane one for the finals. My coach looks over at me like, 'What just happened?' Somebody must have backed out and they didn't tell us or whatever. So I didn't get to run it. But I would have had another opportunity.”
Mueller had her own Olympic trials experience, though her run was part of an exhibition race to more or less prove that women could run long distances.
In 1980, she was invited to run the 5,000-meter exhibition race in Eugene, Oregon. The top 12 1,000-meter runners in the country were invited to “show that, hey, we can run and we can compete at this distance,” Mueller said.
“That’s when I realized that things weren’t really equal yet,” she said. “You’re doing this exhibition race, and I’m thinking this is just weird. Of course I can run 5,000 meters. I’ve been doing 10-mile runs and keeping up with the guys.”
Sixteen years after Mueller ran, the women’s 5,000-meter run became an Olympic event.
Both Mueller and Anderson are pioneers in the world of cross country and track in Minnesota. Mueller paved the way for generations of female runners at Lourdes High School. Anderson took Lanesboro to the state meet multiple years in a row, then returned to the small southeastern Minnesota town to coach that same team after touring the world on the Army’s World Class team.
Both are members of Minnesota State’s Hall of Fame, and both still hold school records for multiple events.
Sports have changed, more change is needed
It’s not lost on either how significant it was to be part of these pioneers, these trailblazers, of women’s sports.
“Even the women before that were able to show that women can play sports and can be competitive,” Mueller said. “I was very fortunate to be there at the beginning or toward the beginning and be able to follow in their footsteps.
“I feel like I was part of something special,” she said.
Sports have gone through significant changes over the last 50 years – from the level of girls’ participation to the rules surrounding the games. Despite the changes, inequities remain between men’s and women’s sports, and those differences are making headlines at a more frequent pace.
“I’m paying attention to that, because I do think there's still so many inequities with women's sports,” Anderson said.
The Post Bulletin is running a three-part series on Title IX at 50. In part two, we’ll dive into the growth of women’s sports and the reckoning that teams, leagues, ownership groups and sports organizations have had recently.