Friday, October 16, 2020

Co-Eds Triumph

As TigerBlog mentioned yesterday, the 50th anniversary of the first day that women competed in intercollegiate competition for Princeton University was on Oct. 17, 1970.

That would make tomorrow the 50th anniversary of that event.

As TB also mentioned, he's currently writing a book on the first 50 years of women's athletics at Princeton. It's a wildly fun project for him.

When he was first asked to write the book, TB said that he didn't want it to be an encyclopedia of events. Instead, he wanted it to be a narrative that told the story of how a school that didn't have women's athletics was able to build such a model program and have the overwhelming success it's enjoyed in these 50 years. 

As such, the book is divided into three sections, all of which are designed to tell the stories of the women who competed here and of the women - and some men - who made those competitions and experiences possible. 

So far he's spoken to many women about their Princeton athletic experiences, and he's not yet halfway to the total number to whom he will speak. In fact, there have been just about 4,500 women who have won varsity letters at Princeton in the last 50 years, and TB could probably get a great story out of all of them.

Interestingly, many of the women TB has spoken to have said the same thing at first: There's nothing special about my story. Then they go and tell TB a fascinating story. 

He's learned a lot about women's athletic history so far, with a long way to go. Some of the stories he's heard are incredible.

TB will be posting book excerpts from time to time as part of the 50th anniversary celebration. Another part will be the podcast series "The First 50" that he and Ford Family Director of Athletics will be doing, and there will of course be a ton of other content, especially on social media.

The first episode of the podcast features, who else, the first two women who competed for Princeton in that tennis match 50 years ago tomorrow. Those two would be Margie Gengler Smith and Helena Novakova.

The two of them could make an entire book all by themselves.

Margie is part of family that includes two sisters who also played at Princeton, Nancy and Louise (whom you may also remember as the women's tennis coach for 25 years). Did you also know that their maternal grandfather, John Logan, was a member of the Princeton Class of 1913 who also played football with Hobey Baker? 

That wasn't their only Princeton connection. Their father Herbert was in the Princeton Class of 1931, and his brother Arthur, their uncle, was in the Class of 1933.

Margie would appear on the cover of the Princeton Alumni Weekly as a senior in 1973 with the headline "Princeton's Best Athlete." A year later she would marry Stan Smith, the Hall-of-Fame tennis player whose credits include winning the singles title at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. 

As part of their travels together, Stan and Margie found a young man in South Africa whom they helped bring to the United States and then helped put through college here. That young man had three children, all of whom would graduate from Princeton, including Nathan Mathabane, who ran track and is now an assistant dean of admissions.

As for Helena, her story is even more remarkable. She was born in Communist Czechoslovakia and left the country at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1968. 

Through an incredible series of events, she made her way through West Germany to England and finally to America, eventually finding her way to Princeton University, where she became a great tennis player and swimmer and the 1972 winner of the Von Kienbusch Award as the top female athlete. 

Here's a part of her story, in her own words:

On the evening of August 25, 1968, the adults in my family decided that I should pack my suitcase and be ready to leave Pilsen the next morning to travel to the West.  I had planned to take a year off to study abroad and had an exit visa in my passport. My brother Vladimir jumped at this opportunity and decided to join me.

As we were leaving our home the following morning, Russian tanks were parked in the streets below our windows. Young soldiers peeking out of the hatches were bewildered by the fists, angry faces and words directed towards them. They had expected flowers and welcoming gratitude because they had been told that they were on a rescue mission. Instead of hugs they saw fury and also pity. Yes, some people felt sorry for these exhausted youngsters who had been tricked into believing a lie.

My uncle and my mother dropped us off at the train station in the most surreal way by keeping a distance from the platform to avoid possible suspicion of cooperation. We all passed the last moments before the train chugged off wondering when and if we would reunite again. Our eyes were glazed over with tears and anxiety, and the magnitude of the moment was squeezing our naked souls.

At the border crossing while passport control dealt with my papers, my brother, who did not have the exit visa, was escorted off the train. We did not even have a chance to hug and say good-bye. That was how I started my journey 50 years ago. I was then 21.

In the Nuremberg train station, American Red Cross workers asked English-speaking travelers to help with processing the influx of refugees. I volunteered and met wonderful people from Oklahoma who appreciated my help and invited me to their home, full of love and open hearts. During those initial days in Germany, I experienced the most difficult inner anxiety worrying about Vladimir. Did he try to cross the border through the mine fields on foot? Keeping busy helped me endure because lines of communication with Czechoslovakia were cut off and I had no way to find out what went on after I departed.

Three days later I said farewell to Mr. and Mrs. Cox, my new friends from Oklahoma from the American Red Cross, and took the train to my uncle’s home in Augsburg, where I was to spend a couple of weeks before crossing the Channel to England for my “Year Abroad” working as an “au-pair” and studying English for a Cambridge Certificate at Barnett College. A huge boulder of relief fell from my shoulders when the bell rang at my uncle’s and there stood two young Americans who had come from Pilsen with news from my family that my brother had returned home safely. These two students from Princeton University had been trapped in the events of Czechoslovakia while traveling and found shelter with my family the day I had left. Thus began my connection to the US.

It was 50 years ago tomorrow that those two women played in that tennis tournament. Margie won the singles title. Helena came in third. Together they won the doubles. Also together, they won the team title.

There was a small blurb in the Daily Princetonian that Monday, under the heading "Co-Eds Triumph."

It was the first time that was true, but hardly the last. 

So happy anniversary to the women athletes of Princeton. 

You've been triumphing for 50 years now, in the most impressive ways possible.

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