Friday, December 17, 2021

Speaking Of The Book


TigerBlog was invited by Princeton Executive Vice President Treby Williams to give a talk about the book on the first 50 years of women's athletics at yesterday's University senior staff meeting.

It was quite an honor. TB was allocated 20-25 minutes to speak, which seems like a long time, though he did say he could speak for 20-25 hours or days about the project. 

He was really happy to be able to share what what into the book and some of the stories, and he was especially excited for the opportunity to speak to a group outside of athletics. As he has said before, TigerBlog wanted to write a book that told the stories of women's athletics at Princeton and not an encyclopedia of women's athletics at Princeton. 

His goal was for it to be engaging for sports fans but also for people who might not be in athletics but can appreciate the value that competing at Princeton has had on the women who have done so.

TB told the group a bit about his own background and how he came to be writing the book. Mostly he talked about the women in the book.

Just as in the book itself, he started his talk with Merrily Dean Baker, who was hired at the age of 27 to start women's athletics in 1970. He spoke about some of the other women who are featured, especially Vietta Johnson, a track and field athlete from the Class of 1982 who went grew up next to the housing projects in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. 

Vietta went from Brooklyn to Stuyvesant High School in New York to Princeton to Harvard Medical School. She's had an amazing career as an orthopedic surgeon, including providing free medical care to underserved communities in this country and abroad.

TB shared this quote from Vietta:

“The whole thing has made me a more sensitive person,” she says. “I learned how to be far different
in my approach. I’m not going to let things slide when I see injustice. I’m going to fight it. Today I can
counsel others. But it was Princeton that prepared me for this kind of thing, from my injuries to all the
hard work. I absolutely loved Princeton, and I loved being part of the women’s track and field team.”

There can't be too many more alums at Princeton who best represent everything good about the University better than Vietta Johnson does. She received the Class of 1967 Citizen Athlete Award last year at the senior awards banquet, and it was well-earned for sure. 

During his talk TB used a PowerPoint presentation, which, by the way, was his first one ever. His heading for Vietta's section was "What the book is really about."

Basically, what he means by that is that the common theme of the book is the way that the Princeton experience has shaped the women who have competed here and how they will always draw on their athletic experience for the rest of their lives. And why shouldn't women have that same dimension to help them move forward that male athletes have always had?

That's one of the two biggest takeaways he'd like people to have after they get through the book. The other is what the earliest women pioneers had to go through to have the opportunity in the first place.

The Princeton that they walked into had been fielding men's varsity teams since 1864, and that's a lot of history to have to come in and handle. There were many who helped and some who hindered, and the women had to deal with all of it.

TB would like to thank Treby for letting him speak and all of the people in the audience who appreciated the stories. For today, he leaves you with this excerpt, from the story on Amy Richlin, the first women's rowing captain, who was told that women would not be rowing out of the Princeton boathouse. 

Of course, that proved not to be the case, largely because of Amy Richlin's efforts:

“The very first thing on my first morning I went down to boathouse to look it over,” she says. “I was determined to row at Princeton, so I walked into the boathouse. I was just standing there looking around. Then Pete Sparhawk sees me.”

Pete Sparhawk spent twenty-three years as the head rowing coach at Princeton. A Cornell grad, he had been a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, not to mention a captain in the United States Air Force. He could be intimidating.

“So he sees me,” Richlin says, “and he says ‘What are you doing here?’ I said I just

arrived at Princeton and I’d like to row. And he said ‘no.’ And I said ‘no?’ And he said ‘No women in the boathouse. No women row here. Forget it.’ I asked if I could at least help out, work maybe. And he said no and threw me out.”

Richlin left the boathouse, and her earliest days at Princeton were spent in the

choir and drawing for the humor magazine. Still, the love of rowing was strong, and the way that first meeting went nagged at her.

“I thought to myself that I wouldn’t just accept what he said,” Richlin says. “I made up some flyers, and I posted them. I said if there were women interested in rowing that they should contact me."

A member of the men’s rowing team, Arthur Miller, who happened to be a sophomore also, saw the flyers and contacted her. He gave her some basic advice about how she might go about getting the answer she wanted. To this day, the two are still friends.

Her first Princeton boyfriend turned out to be a weightlifter. He introduced her to Dick Landis, who was then the weightlifting coach, a few decades before the term “strength and conditioning” was introduced. Landis introduced her to lifting weights, something she’d never done before. He also taught her how to organize better. She put together a group of a dozen or so women who wanted to row, and Landis put together a training program for them.

“There were men who asked us if we were afraid that we might get muscles,” she says. “That was the state of women’s athletics then.”

Eventually, Richlin set up a meeting with Sparhawk and Baker, as well as then Director of Athletics Royce Flippin and his deputy Sam Howell. As Baker recalls, she got the same line that Richlin had gotten from Sparhawk about how women would not row out of his boathouse, and she famously corrected him, saying that she wasn’t looking for his permission, only his help. Forced to include women, Sparhawk threw out an offer he thought would not be accepted.

“He said ‘Fine, the women can row at 6 a.m.,’” Richlin says. “I remember it clearly. He said we had to row at 6 a.m. because we’d be too much of a distraction to the men, that our perfume would come across the water. So I said ‘6 a.m.? Fine with me.’ And he turned beet red and said ‘shit’ right in front of all of us. Then he asked what he should call us, oarsmen? And I said ‘At Smith, Miss Benson always called us ladies.’”

And that’s how women’s rowing at Princeton was born.

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