Women skiiers in the 1970s

Pioneering Big Red Players Look Back at Early Days of Women’s Varsity Athletics

Eight alumnae who competed in the 1970s share their memories—and how those experiences shaped their lives

By Beth Saulnier

Throughout this academic year, the University has been marking a key anniversary: 50 years since the passage, in 1972, of the landmark Title IX gender-equity legislation that vastly increased athletic opportunities for women at Cornell and around the country. As part of that celebration, Cornellians invited some pioneering alumnae—those who played on the Hill during the 1970s, whether or not their sport then technically had varsity status—to reminisce via video chat.

On the group Zoom were Beth Anderson ’80 (lacrosse, swimming, rugby, and soccer), Lisa Grapek Drillich ’75 (skiing), Molly Miller Ettenger ’74 (ice hockey and tennis), Karin Bain Kukral ’82 (field hockey), Linda Smith McKeown ’74 (ice hockey and track), Sarah Noble-Moag ’80 (field hockey), Vicki Saporta ’74 (sailing and basketball), and Kathy Stratton ’83 (basketball, bowling, and softball).

The following is edited and condensed from their wide-ranging conversation.

A laptop showing women in a Zoom meeting
Reminiscing via video (from top row, left to right): Anderson, Kukral, McKeown, Saporta, Noble-Moag, Drillich, Stratton, and Ettenger. (Composite image by Cornell University)

Let’s go around the Zoom room. Could you each share a Big Red sports memory?

Noble-Moag: As women coming into sports in the ’70s, I don’t think our expectations were very high; it was just a joy to step onto the college field. What I remember most about my freshman year was packing banana-and-peanut-butter sandwiches, getting in an upperclassman’s car, and driving ourselves to games. We didn’t have uniforms, but it was fine.

Anderson: Playing on Schoellkopf Field felt like the big time. There probably weren’t many people in the stands, but still, we were on Schoellkopf—and that was relatively new for women’s field hockey and also for lacrosse. We had been playing on the very bumpy, uneven Alumni Field or the field in front of Helen Newman Hall.

a women's rugby team in the 70s
Women’s rugby, with Beth Anderson ’80 jumping up at center. (Photo provided)

Saporta: Trudging through the snow to Helen Newman—how we used to practice three, four times a week, and it was dark and cold. We didn’t have a whole lot of games—there was no real Ivy schedule the way there is today—but we loved to play, and we practiced a lot.

Ettenger: I remember trotting down to the Cornell Store, prior to a road trip to Princeton, to buy myself a red jacket so people would know we were from Cornell, because we didn’t have uniforms. I vividly remember wanting to go to this match and have something that said “Cornell.”

 We didn’t have a whole lot of games—there was no real Ivy schedule the way there is today—but we loved to play, and we practiced a lot.

Vicki Saporta ’74

Kukral: I went to a progressive, all-girls high school, where I never lost a field hockey game. Sports were really encouraged. So when I got to Cornell, I wasn’t used to having the guys be the athletes, and I was kind of put off. I was in Balch, and that’s where the football training table was. It wasn’t that the food was bad at Cornell—but it was like, “Why do they get that, and we don’t? Why are they so much more special?”

Stratton: We had a station wagon and a van to get to the games; our coach and assistant coach were the drivers. One year we were driving back to Ithaca after having played against Vermont. It was starting to snow and the coach said, “I’m from Virginia. How do I know if the roads aren’t good? Do I slam on the brakes?” And we all just said, “Oh my God.”

kathy stratton in the 1970s holding a basketball
Basketballer Kathy Stratton ’83. (Photo provided)

McKeown: Being part of Cornell hockey was special; the men had just won the national championship. We got a lot of media attention, not only because it was Cornell hockey, but because we were women. At that time, there was only one other women’s team in the country, at Brown.

Drillich: The first year there was a ski team, it was a hodgepodge; we had discounted passes to Greek Peak. We’d set the gates, then we’d walk up the mountain, ski down—and walk up again. We were in very good shape. The Slope was nothing to us.

By and large, did you feel encouraged to participate in sports?

Saporta: For me, it was self-motivation. I played basketball in high school and loved it. To this day, I like shooting baskets and sailing. It’s been a lifelong love of mine.

McKeown: In hockey, we had a lot of support from the men’s team. My father thought it was pretty funny that I was playing, and he used to work at Clarkson. So he went to their coach and got me some equipment—including a jock strap with my name on it. They thought it was hilarious.

Anderson: What I really remember is the support among the women who were athletes. We’d go to each other’s games. There was that camaraderie of, “We don’t get the training table or the fancy uniforms. We’re all in this together as pioneers in women’s sports at Cornell.”

A group of field hockey players
Members of the Big Red field hockey team, with Sarah Noble-Moag ’80 in the back row, second from right. (Photo provided)

Noble-Moag: I second that—the support certainly was among our fellow students. I remember vividly as we traveled, stopping at teammates’ homes for a meal. We were all one big family.

Drillich: Once you were part of the group, everybody pushed you, recognized you, encouraged you, and cheered for you. And I was terrible; I’d roll down the hill and walk back up. But you didn’t feel foolish. You felt like you were part of something.

Did any of you have mothers who played sports?

Stratton: My mom was in the Class of 1956. She played basketball and volleyball in high school, but at Cornell she was on the golf team. Her recollection is that they played one competition during her four years, against Syracuse.

Anderson: My mom was also a Cornellian, Class of ’47. She primarily played basketball, but it was more of a club. Her other athletic-related story is being there during World War II, when there weren’t a lot of men on campus—so for phys ed, many of the women were handed a lawn mower and told to go mow the lawns.

women tennis players in the 70s
Tennis players, with Molly Miller Ettenger ’74 at front row center. (Photo provided)

How did playing sports enrich your undergrad experience, or spur personal growth?

Anderson: The teams on which I participated had such a wide variety of people. Some were in sororities, some weren’t. Some were from Ithaca, most weren’t. Some were engineers, some were in Ag, some were in Human Ecology. They were people I wasn’t going to meet in my class, my dorm, or other parts of my social life. So it was a really great exposure to the diversity of Cornell women.

 It was a really great exposure to the diversity of Cornell women.

Beth Anderson ’80

Stratton: It taught me an aspect of advocacy. Cornell at the time was one of only three Ivies that didn’t have varsity softball, so we were working hard to attain that status. I remember meeting with President Rhodes and asking him why Cornell did not have women’s varsity softball when five other schools did. At that point, there was a lot of frustration about it—but it became a good life lesson. It taught me to work with other people around compromise and common goals.

McKeown: The hockey team was a group where you really felt like you belonged; you couldn’t get lost in the shuffle of Cornell. And it gave me a lot of confidence. I always felt, “I can do this. It doesn’t matter that much if I just got a bad grade; I can still play hockey.”

a handmade hockey recruitment poster
Ettenger still has an original poster seeking women’s hockey players. (Photo provided)

Ettenger: I learned that if you’re going to be part of something that’s starting up de novo, you can’t wait for everything to be perfect. Linda was an outstanding skater who could skate rings around all of us, yet we were willing to have some practical-non-skaters on the team to get it going.

If we’d said, “We can’t do it because we don’t have the skating talent,” who knows how many more years it would have been? That was a lifelong lesson: it doesn’t matter that your recruitment posters are colored in with magic marker—if the enthusiasm is there, you can make it work.

What words of wisdom might you have for current Big Red women?

Saporta: Things are so different today. But I would encourage any woman to get involved and play a sport that they love and have some aptitude for. As we’ve been discussing today, there are so many lifelong benefits.

Noble-Moag: Being able to compete at that level and stretch themselves—it’s a broadening experience.

Ettenger: And they may find their lifelong friends in that sports group. I just picked up my tennis team picture; there’s nine of us, and I’m still in active contact with four of them. We’ve talked with each other or with family members within the last eight weeks—and that’s 50 years later.

It doesn’t matter that your recruitment posters are colored in with magic marker—if the enthusiasm is there, you can make it work.

Molly Miller Ettenger ’74

Kukral: I was interviewed for Career Day, and one of the questions was, “What would you say to help women feel more confident as they go into the workforce?” I said, “You’ve got to be competent.” It’s just like being on the field; the better players get to play first, or they’re on varsity—and you build your competence.

Stratton: One thing that is vastly different today is technology; stats are broadcast all over the Internet. When I missed a foul shot, I might not feel great about it, but it was over and I’d go back to my dorm. Now the whole world can see it, so these athletes feel enormous pressure; it’s so visible, so public, and so easy to compare themselves to one another. I’d impress upon them that to be good doesn’t mean to be perfect.

Are your Cornell sports experiences still paying off today?

Kukral: I’ve always been in male-dominated businesses, commercial real estate and banking. Being an athlete at the college level gave you an aura of toughness—no matter how good or bad you were at it. Even if you were the worst player, you went out and played. It really helps your confidence and how people see you, rightly or wrongly, as a person in adult life and work.

Anderson: Right; totally agree.

a field hockey player drinking water
Karin Bain Kukral ’82 hydrates during a field hockey game. (Photo provided)

Drillich: I echo what Karin said. The fact that I was on a sports team has given me a cachet in the male-dominated world of banking. It has definitely enhanced my prestige and it carries weight. And it helped my confidence to do something outside my comfort zone.

Saporta: I continued to play basketball after graduation, and sailing is something you can do well into your 60s, 70s, even 80s. You can be competitive, you can race; it has added to my life tremendously. I also work with a group that takes cancer patients, their families, and caregivers sailing, and I’ve volunteered to help troubled youth get out on the water. So there are ways to incorporate athletics and make a difference in people’s lives.

Top image: The women’s ski team, with Lisa Grapek Drillich ’75 sixth from far left. (Photo provided)

Published April 29, 2022


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