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100 Years of Fortitude

More than a century ago, 70 years before Title IX, Swarthmore women were eager to play sports. In the early 1900s, while male students played football and lacrosse against Penn, Temple and other schools, the women created their own athletics organization, initially named the Girls’ Athletic Club, later the Swarthmore Women’s Athletic Association (SWAA), then the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA). All female students were encouraged to play. 

The Early Years: Tennis, Tetherball, and Tea Parties

In a musty ledger, bound in flaking leather, detailed handwritten records from 1902 to 1931 document the early history of women’s athletics at Swarthmore.

Lang Performing Arts Center now covers the footprint of Women’s Hall Gym, which, replete with a regulation-sized swimming pool (used by the men also), opened in 1893. It was not until 1902, though, that a group of women athletes met and compiled a constitution and bylaws for the SWAA. They elected a president, treasurer, and council, who met monthly. 

Competitions in floor gymnastics, apparatus work, and deportment along with field hockey, basketball, lacrosse and cross-country, tennis, and a new game called tetherball were popular. The women formed teams, elected captains, and served as their own coaches. According to the team rosters, before women’s rights activist Alice Paul, Class of 1905, became a suffragette, she was a member of the basketball team. 

Games were intramural during those early years, and sports provided both social and physical outlets. Tea parties often followed games. 


Not One Sport But Several

The 1940–41 handbook of the WAA lists field hockey, archery, dancing, basketball, swimming, badminton, fencing, tumbling, riding, tennis, softball, and golf. Women could also join an Outing Club or spend weekends at a College-owned cabin. Virginia “Dinny” Rath was head of physical education, and May Parry and Alice Gates assisted her as instructors, which meant they taught every sport offered.

Some coeds pursued multiple sports. Helen Tomlinson Gibson ’41—posthumously inducted in 2013 into the College’s three-year-old Garnet Athletics Hall of Fame—was captain of the field-hockey, tennis, and basketball teams. Gibson was a 1939 and 1940 All-Mid-Atlantic Region athlete, 1940 Second Team All-American, and member of the U.S. women’s hockey team.

“My mother was very serious about sports,” says daughter Barbara Gibson ’71, also a Swarthmore athlete. “She was quite a pioneer among her friends.”

Both Gibson women had to contend with afternoon labs overlapping athletics practice. 

“As long as you kept up your academic work, the professors were accommodating, “ Barbara says. 


Coaches, Captains, Competition, and Grace Kelly’s Sister

Jessica Heimbach Raymond ’56, slender and lively at almost 80, was a high-school athlete seeking an academically challenging college that fielded competitive sports teams. Advised by friends about the academics and by a newspaper about athletics, she chose Swarthmore, and Swarthmore chose her.

Like Gibson, she was versatile. “At Swarthmore, every sport was my main sport,” Raymond says. “I was field-hockey captain as a senior, co-captain of the basketball team, and I played lacrosse. We had wonderful coaches—May Parry for hockey and Irene Moll for basketball.” Raymond played against Temple, Penn, Drexel, West Chester, Ursinus, and Rosemont. “Schools were all on the same level back then. And Lizanne Kelly, actress Grace Kelly’s sister, was on the Penn basketball team when we played them,” she says. 

Other women concentrated on one sport. Shortly after arriving, Diana Judd Stevens ’63 took the obligatory swimming test. 

“Do you want to come out for the swim team?” Rath asked her. Stevens, who had set a 25-yard backstroke record as a child, embarked on her first college swim-team experience. The team didn’t win many meets, but the swimmers enjoyed themselves. 

“I helped Dinny test freshmen,” Stevens says. If she saw somebody who swam reasonably well, she echoed Rath’s invitation to join the team. “That’s pretty much how we got our team,” says Stevens, who was team captain as a senior. “It was good exercise, and I made a lot of friends.” And playing sports upheld a Quaker value—“to achieve fitness of mind and body,” Stevens points out. Both Stevens and Barbara Gibson, almost a decade apart, still recall the “training meals” served the evening before a match. Always the same—“steak, potatoes, and green beans.”


A Pair of Legendary Coaches—One on Land, the Other in Water

Pete Hess was a coach cherished by female athletes at Swarthmore between 1957 and 1990, encouraging them to try out for the lacrosse and field hockey teams. Stevens played lacrosse and managed hockey. Hess passed away in 2012, but her influence on Swarthmore women’s athletics is legendary. “People came from all over the Mid-Atlantic region to Pete’s memorial service,” Stevens says.

Hess was inducted posthumously into the hall of fame in 2012, and a terrace at the front of the new Matchbox is named for her.

Head swim coach Sue Davis is a legend still in the making. Lured from all-female Smith College in 1974, she led the 60-year-old women’s swimming program along with gymnastics, archery, and volleyball. 

“When I came here, women weren’t allowed into the field house,” says Davis. “Hall Gym was their domain.”

Davis was amused and challenged by the swimming pool—just four lanes separated by “bobber” lines rather than the sturdier lane dividers used now. 

“There was a lot of turbulence,” Davis says. “We put tennis balls in the gutters so we didn’t lose the water before the end of the meet. Spectators sitting on the bleachers had to wear raincoats. We actually beat Penn and Temple in that pool.” Davis also argued with the men’s coach over equal practice time for women and men—and won.

In 1981, the 10-lane-by-10-lane Ware Pool, donated by John and Marian Snyder Ware ’38, opened. Due to Davis’ successes with the women, the male swimmers wanted her as their coach, too. Under Davis, the men’s and women’s teams combined have yielded 97 national qualifiers and 48 All-Americans.  


Fighting for Athletic Equality, Playing for Mental Equilibrium    

Karen Borbee, the head women’s lacrosse coach, came to Swarthmore 23 summers ago. Hired to coach soccer and basketball, she inherited Pete Hess’ office in the field house—while Hess was still in it, clearing out 43 years of accumulated history. 

 “It was a wonderful summer of stories and learning about Swarthmore and how sports fit into such an academic institution as this,” says Borbee. “I’d never have understood it so quickly without that time with Pete.”

A decorated former Division I lacrosse player, Borbee adapted to the Division III model. “I just loved it—the balance of academics first and athletics as a complement. Students who pursue athletics learn time-management skills, social skills, and are forced to contend with success and failure—each so necessary to becoming a balanced adult. Up the hill, their brains are developed. Down here, we finish them off.”


Women in Charge of Women

Borbee believes that Swarthmore women were “way ahead of the curve with respect to Title IX,” thanks to Hess, who, Borbee says, ensured that “equity across the board” existed long before 1972, when the legislation that allows women equal opportunity in athletics was introduced. Under the auspices of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), women were in charge of women. “It worked well,” Borbee says, “and Pete kept us with the AIAW for as long as she could.”

In the early 1980s, the NCAA—which governed men’s athletics—took over women’s sports. “Women’s athletics changed drastically after that,” Borbee says. “The model that had worked so well crumbled. The people who fought back at that time were such heroes. Pete was one of them.”

Borbee was another. In 1999, she and two colleagues from other colleges, upset at the dwindling numbers of female coaches and athletes under the new NCAA rules, founded the annual Snell-Shillingford Symposium—named after Jen Shillingford, one of the event’s co-founders and Eleanor Snell, Shillingford’s mentor. Two female athletes from each Centennial Conference school attend a weekend coaching workshop, then return to their schools and speak with other female athletes about coaching as a career path. 

 “The rate of participants who end up in coaching is mind-boggling. Head coaches in our conference came from that program,” Borbee says. 

Harleigh Leach Chwastyk, head women’s volleyball coach since 2002, has been involved with the symposium as a mentor and presenter since 2003 and is its current co-director.

“In the past 12 years, the teams have become much more competitive,” Chwastyk says. “We’re bringing in more serious athletes, who are also phenomenal students. The landscape has changed.” 


A Title IX Baby

Lettering in hockey, basketball, and softball, Annie Fetter ’88 was a serious athlete. 

Describing herself as “definitely a Title IX baby,” Fetter—a fourth-generation Swarthmorean, whose grandmother, Elizabeth “Polly” Pollard Fetter ’25, also lettered in field hockey and basketball—says, “There was never a time when anybody told me there weren’t opportunities for girls. And it doesn’t hurt to come to a school where strong girls have been here the whole time. For me, athletics at Swarthmore was a very nongendered experience.”

Kelly Wilcox ’97, a field-hockey All-American and coach, agrees.

 “I know that women before me fought some really hard battles, which I benefited from,” Wilcox says. “As a coach, I was very appreciative of the equal opportunities for women at Swarthmore. “

Unsure of herself as a young woman, Wilcox says that athletics enriched her life immensely. 

“That was my outlet. A whole new persona emerged on the athletics field, which helped me succeed as a student,” she says.

Later, when she joined the dean’s office as assistant director of student life, someone asked her how she could handle so many varied personalities in meetings. “Coaching,” she answered. “I have to coordinate 22 women toward a common purpose. It’s a skill you learn in bringing a team together.”

Swarthmore’s women’s program now offers 12 varsity and several club sports—the result of the long legacy inscribed so tellingly in fading ink on the yellowing pages of the record book. 

“The College was trendsetting in women’s athletics before it was legally mandated,” says Wilcox. “That’s the mark of a true pioneer.” 

Embracing the ‘soccer dad’ moniker

Former basketball teammates reunite as supporters of women’s athletics

Katie Dougherty ’18 played softball for two years at her suburban Chicago high school but decided to try soccer her junior year. Already captain of the basketball team at a mere 5-foot-4 inches, she also played golf.

“The coach cut her after one indoor soccer tryout,” says her father, George Dougherty ’82. “She’d never been cut from anything. She was going to give it up senior year, but I told her, ‘If you really think it was a mistake, you have to try again. Go with your passion.’ ”

Katie not only made the soccer team—no small feat in a 4,000-student sports-obsessed school—but in a crucial game was the high scorer and got the only goal in a 1-0 win.

“That’s the kind of athlete she is,” says her dad. “Tenacious.”

That is no surprise to George Telford ’84, who played on Swarthmore men’s basketball team with George Dougherty in the 1980s, since that is how he characterized Dougherty’s play. It’s also how Telford describes his own daughter, Emily Telford-Marx ’16, a defensive teammate of Katie’s on Swarthmore’s women’s soccer team.

It is an unusual situation—two male Swarthmore teammates fathering two female Swarthmore teammates, but the soccer women find it just the kind of thing that is emblematic of the school.

“I wanted to go to a small school where you would have close relationships,” says Telford-Marx, who attended a big high school in Durham, N.C. “It’s good to have that sort of thing when you play at a place like this.”

Telford says that when he tried out as a walk-on, Dougherty was already a starter at his position, small forward. Dougherty was also better. They didn’t play together Dougherty’s senior year, because Telford tore his ACL.

Both daughters claim their fathers were good sports dads—going to their many school and recreation-league games and only giving advice—not criticism.

“He was quiet when I was playing and admitted he didn’t know a lot about soccer, so he was just always there and supportive,” says Katie Dougherty of her father. She has three younger sisters, all of whom play sports. “He knows as a former athlete how to treat us and has always been encouraging.”

“Emily and her sister, Rebecca, got their sports genes from their mother,” Telford says. Christine Marx ’86 was a varsity gymnast at Swarthmore. “People say they almost seem to dance when they are on the field,” Telford adds. “They have grace, which obviously comes from their mother.”

Marx went to Duke Medical School, while Telford went to law school there. He became a fundraiser at Duke but says his wife’s career took priority. He was the soccer dad.

“I was around to drive to the practices and go to every game,” he says. “It was always fun for me.

“When we were first married, my wife and I said if we had girls, we’d encourage them to do sports,” he adds. “My wife was not encouraged by her parents, and she became successful on her own. It’s a different era now, even at Swarthmore. I don’t think people cared much back then whether we won or lost, but now the spirit is to do your best. That helps in everything you do.”