Janice Kurbjun
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November 9, 2012
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'Strong is the new sexy'

When the Summit High girls' rugby team walked onto the Infinity Park field last Saturday, they were prepared to play a game many of their mothers couldn't. And many of those mothers watched with awe as their daughters crashed into each other, making tackles that left the girls sprawled on the field; making runs that might have made a football player jealous.

Rugby is a tough sport. There are no pads. It's encouraged to run full-speed at another player - and though she was not alone, we saw Hailey Wyatt take a particularly spectacular blow from the side as she charged up the field in the championship game against Castle Rock.

Injury is what mothers are afraid of. But many of them, deep down, are thankful their daughters not just have the opportunity, but are encouraged, to play a team sport like rugby. A sport that, until 1972, would have largely been left to the boys.

That year, Title IX passed as law, requiring gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding. It set in motion a painful paradigm shift, primarily in athletics, in which women were not just given opportunities to play; they had that before. Instead, the law put the spotlight on female athletes, actually encouraging them to compete - and to expand their opportunities and horizons.

Then came the trickle-down effect. The mid- to late-1970s was when many of today's Summit High's mothers began to play sports. Parents like Amy Mastin and Priscilla Peoples, who attended the same high school in Littleton and played soccer together on an elite team.

"That's when all of us parents were starting to play," Mastin said. "Whether we were conscious of it or not, (Title IX) was a catalyst."

Would today's rugby players - who number 50 or more - be remotely inclined to participate in such a grueling sport if their mothers hadn't played? And would their mothers have played if there wasn't a subconscious shift (turned very conscious and contentious) in society that gave them permission to not just stand on the sidelines but engage in the sports they found intriguing?

Mastin thinks not.

"Having mothers like that ... I think it has to have an influence over what our daughters are going to pursue," she said. "Sure, there would be plenty of opportunities without Title IX, but because it happened at the right time for so many of us mothers who are 48 years old, it started creating opportunities where we played sports when we were kids."

Let me pause here.

At the risk of sounding like I'm a gung-ho women's sports advocate, I can honestly say I am. I'm all for full contact sports that challenge a woman to overcome. I did play water polo for eight years, after all.

But, that's not to say it isn't sad and unfortunate that Title IX had negative effects on men's sports, going so far as to eliminate many of them at the collegiate level, often in very contested, painful and angry situations.

"No one wants that as an outcome," Mastin said.

On the bright side, the law and its outcomes have empowered many women. And arguably, women are the societal reckoning force they are now indirectly because of Title IX, which came on the heels of a number of equal rights reforms and is just another progression in that timeline.

Today, it has evolved into a cultural norm where women want to compete. Just take a look around Summit County, a place inundated with high-caliber male athletes but also teeming with women who can often rise above their male counterparts.

"Strong is the new sexy. You get proud of those muscles. You're like, 'Wow,'" Mastin said.

Think April Heinrichs, who was among the first U.S. Women's Soccer Team athletes, later coaching the team to a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. In 1998, she became the first female player inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

She also played on Peoples' and Mastin's team in Littleton.

And, she attended the University of North Carolina on a full-ride scholarship.

It was the era of women beginning to receive college scholarships for sports, and Peoples wasn't the only witness.

In 1977, rugby mom Jessica May received a ski racing scholarship to Western State after touring the national circuit.

"I benefited totally. I got a college education because of (Title IX)," she said. "For me, Title IX was a lifesaver. It allowed me to do everything the boys did - and do it better. It's hard to imagine I would not have been able to do it - and I wouldn't have been able to do it 10 years earlier. ... I was right in the middle of the heydey."

The rugby team itself has attracted more than 50 young women. Arguably, it's not entirely as a result of the sport's nature (it's actually more likely that the team, as a club, has a counter-culture feel, it has a winning record under a caring and passionate coach and envelops the young women who join into a sort of family). But it, alongside volleyball and cross-country, attracts outstanding athletes who want to excel. They want to have muscles. They want to charge down the field, outrunning defenders to avoid the tackle - and take a tackle if it means they've made forward progress.

Mother Jennifer Farrell worries about her daughter, Kellie Cochran, particularly when she split her head open last year on the road and was patched up with six stitches in the emergency room.

But on the flip side, she's learned that it's a part of the game, and "you're at home with the ice pack afterwards," she said. Though she's nervous, Farrell finds a part of herself living vicariously through her daughter.

"I would have joined a team if there had been more emphasis on (women) playing," she said, explaining there was less variety (volleyball, basketball, swimming and tennis were the only options for her growing up in Grand Junction) and there just wasn't a culture of competition for girls. "After you sit and watch rugby, football is boring. It's such an interesting sport, if it was offered, I would have played."

So would Kristy Minor, if she'd had the chance growing up in Lakewood.

"I was a spectator because I hung out with the football players. That was a sport I could relate to. I was too short for basketball, swimming was never my thing. And you didn't want to see me shake pom-poms. ... I would have loved to have the opportunities my girls have now," she said.

Farrell also finds peace with the sport because of its ability to teach team players.

"Team sports teach children how to play with one another, how to communicate, how to fulfill a role," she said.

It also teaches strength, Minor added.

"It's nice to see these girls rising to the challenge of some of these physical demands," she said, though she says it's taken too long for the pendulum to swing.

"If it was passed in the '70s, it was awfully slow in getting (enacted)," she said.

Gini Bradley, a mother who played women's rugby at the University of Colorado after growing up outside of Philadelphia, is grateful her daughter, Rachel Fitch, has the opportunity to play.

"I don't know why, but it's empowering," said Bradley. She's older than other mothers, and says that from her point of view, Title IX had more of an impact on the West, Midwest and South than it did in the Northeast - a statement many mothers seemed to agree with.

"You see girls tackle," she continued. "You see them running hard without pads. I believe the girls are doing something they never thought they could do. And they think, if I can do this, I can do anything. It serves as a wonderful metaphor and building a core belief in their physical abilities."


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The Summit Daily Updated Nov 9, 2012 07:09PM Published Nov 9, 2012 07:07PM Copyright 2012 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.