A few years ago, I took my then pre-school daughter with me to the Old Township Hall where I vote. I was paying attention to my daughter, when I looked up, and the woman handing me my ballot was my old swim coach, Ermalea Doyle. I said, “Hi Mrs. Doyle, I don’t know if you remember me?” She smiled and slowly said, “Oh, yes…I remember you.”
Myriad memories rush back, as I look in her eyes, I want to ease back out the door, I am so embarrassed by my actions more than thirty years prior.A group of us swam on teams growing up, and when we started high school, and wanted to swim, we were told we could be “dolphins,” the name given to girls who timed the boys’ swim team. A group of us petitioned to start this girl’s swim team. We were fortunate. We had Nancy Anderson as our ace in the hole. Nancy was a nationally ranked swimmer, who still moves through the water like it’s not only her first home, but her real home. I remember writing to our local newspaper, in 1977, asking why there wasn’t more coverage of girls’ sports. I was told, “if more people were interested, we’d cover it, but they aren’t.”
It was in that climate that Ermalea Doyle said yes to coaching a first year girl’s swim team. The school district granted us permission to start the team and we got the old warm ups from the boys’ team. Looking back, I had no doubt we’d have a team, which is funny, because my kids have tried for years to get a soccer team for their school, to no avail. We just knew, somehow, that it would happen. And, of course, there was Nancy. Her father said of her, “She’s poetry in motion in the water, but get her out of water….”
So, there we were, our freshman year, with a brand spanking new team, arriving in the boys’ mismatched sweats that were pinned with safety pins, because the elastic was shot. Nancy and I named ourselves “Tsunami elders,” and made our friend Julie our “pledge.” We were a motley crew, there were no expectations of us, we had no records set yet, and daily practical jokes were a part of daily practice. But, Mrs. Doyle encouraged us still.
Mrs. Doyle had immense courage, being willing to take a chance for us and with us. I don’t know what she knew about coaching swimming, we treated her like she did not know much. When we started, she ordered purple paneled tank suits for the team, and the panels filled up with air when we’d dive in. No speed suits. She didn’t know what to recommend, in terms of food, before we swam. She didn’t know what events to put us in, nor intervals to have us swim. We were often incorrigible, sending our “pledge” in the towel bin out into the gym during boys’ varsity basketball practice. We were a challenge, learning how to coach a new team must have been a challenge, and Mrs. Doyle rose to all the challenges we presented. She showed up every night, after her day job as a teacher. She was willing to spend hours of her time with us. She was gracious and kind to us. I don’t recall ever thanking her. Mrs. Doyle taught us that a girl’s team was something to value. She taught us that winning was not everything. As a parent of teenagers, I find her so admirable now.
One practical joke resulted in the principal being called in to speak with several of us. I had not been at the swim meet in question, and when I asked about it, I was told, “Had you been there, you would have been doing what everyone else was doing.” You know what? They were probably right. I would have been right there in the thick of things. We were told we had done “moronic deeds,” or in my case, “you would have done a moronic deed, had you been there.”
Times have changed. One year my sons were excused from school to go and watch their girl’s softball team play in a regional championship game. I marveled at the idea: the school turning out to watch girls play!
Recently while speaking with a swim team member, from my alma mater, I say, “You know, I was on that team, and we had to petition to start it.”
She replies, “Huh.”
I continue, “There was no girl’s team.”
She looks at me, sort of smiles, as if to say, “Whatever. You’re ancient.”
I am grateful that in her world, she has always known girl’s sports. 1972’s Educational Amendment, Title IX stated:
“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.”
According to the National Organization of Women, “In the days before Title IX, only one in 27 girls played varsity high school sports. By 2001, that figure was up to one in 2.5, for a total of 2.8 million girls playing high school sports.” Even the media made a stir about Michelle Obama’s toned arms as being “Title IX arms.”
I loved being part of that swim team, led by a fearless leader who didn’t know quite what she was doing, but did it anyway, for us. Among my closest friends, all these years later, are some of those swimmers, including the Tsunami elder and the pledge. Anyone with positive involvement in sports can tell you the life lessons that sports teach about team work, trying your best, challenging yourself; that the competition is really more within than it is ever is without, and that both the team and the individuals that comprise it, matter. Ermalea gave us a legacy when she gave us a swim team. Thank you Mrs. Doyle.
“If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well.” Romans 12:7
“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson