A Look at the Early Stages of Princeton’s Women’s Athletics

BY SYDNEY MANDELBAUM | Princetonian | May 29, 2015

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Carol Brown ’75 was a trailblazer for women’s sports both at Princeton and on a national scale. Starting her athletic career before the implementation of Title IX, Brown championed women’s sports at Princeton and was the first alumna to earn an Olympic medal. The Daily Princetonian sat down with her to discuss the challenges she faced being in building women’s athletics at Princeton from the ground up.

Daily Princetonian: What was the hardest part of being a woman athlete in those early days?

Carol Brown: The lack of access and support from the male coaches and the athletic department. That first women’s crew program, we were only allowed to row if we weren’t seen by the men at the boathouse. We didn’t have a bathroom, we didn’t have a shower, we had to row and be gone by 7 [a.m.] because they were afraid we would corrupt the men’s program if they saw a bunch of sweaty stinky women at the boathouse. We had to fight just to be allowed to row. We weren’t allowed to lift weights; the women’s basketball team wasn’t able to play or practice in Jadwin [Gymnasium]. It’s so hard to imagine any of this now because the women have everything. Our coach was a volunteer Princeton alum and we had to have bake sales to buy him a rain coat and a megaphone so he could coach the varsity crew team. That formed a really special relationship. It wasn’t just the strong friendships that being part of a sports team builds regardless. It was because we had to fight so hard just to be allowed to participate in some these sports. Tennis and field hockey didn’t have to go through this, but women weren’t supposed to row, according to the men’s coaches that were here.

DP: What impact did Title IX have on your teams and women’s sports in general at Princeton when it was passed?

CB: There was no immediate impact because, yes, it’s a law, but until all the regulations were written, it took a couple of years for any of the schools to realize this is serious and make changes before they were exposed to lawsuits. There was no legal action while I was here, but just knowing it had passed empowered the women who were here to believe it was ok to want to be a female athlete and go to the athletic department and say we’re not the only one saying women should be athletes and should have access to the sports, everybody was saying this and doing it. Some of our peers, rowers at Yale, while I was here, got national press because they wrote “Title IX” on their backs and stripped in the athletics director’s office with a New York Times stringer with them, and it was in the … Times, so that got a lot of press. The male alumni at Yale were saying, “Get these women a shower.” I’m sure that was a wakeup call, to Princeton and everybody else, we were lucky the men here didn’t do that to us. Princeton was so totally committed to embracing women as students but missed a beat on being prepared that women who wanted to come here didn’t want just part of the Princeton experience. We wanted access to everything. I learned after I graduated that they had a five year plan for women’s athletics: … with the first year or two intramurals, and then club and then varsity, and we blew through the five-year plan in about five months. They weren’t prepared.

DP: You were on the team at a time when women’s athletics were really gaining traction, and you were the first Princeton alumna to win an Olympic medal — what made you decide to make your Olympic campaigns? Would you say you were inspired by a climate of change for women in sports, or was it just a natural pursuit of something you were passionate about?

CB: My Princeton experience overall definitely empowered me and gave me the confidence to go after that. 1976 was the first time women’s rowing was on the Olympic program. I didn’t even know what the sport was in 1971 so I didn’t come to Princeton saying, “I want to row and make an Olympic team.” I was part of the growth of the sport in the [United States] and internationally. The whole Princeton culture was to explore your passions, and there was tremendous support here from some of the men’s coaches. Particularly the men’s swimming coach was an inspiration to me. He was an Olympian and the women’s swimming program was more structured most of my four years here than the rowing program. He was a full-time men’s coach; he was supporting and coaching the women and the men, whereas the women’s rowing program [had] a volunteer coach, and [women] weren’t really welcome in the boathouse. It was summer of my junior year when I qualified with another Princeton teammate, Janet Youngholm, in the pair. We won nationals, and that earned us a spot on the U.S. National Team going to the World Championships. Neither of us expected that. We hadn’t planned for it, and here we were: we had the chance to race in the USA uniform. First, we had to raise money to get there. We walked around passing the hat at Reunions, asking, “Will you help us buy our plane tickets to Switzerland?” … We couldn’t afford to take a coach. That opened my eyes to saying maybe racing in the Olympics in Montreal in 1976 is a realistic goal. Princeton was really supportive of that. I graduated in 1975 and worked out with the university. I was an [RCA] so I had a dorm room and 18 freshman boys for my advisees — they called me mom. But I worked for the admissions office and taught PE swimming classes, and I could row here and lift and train and have a place to live and support myself, so that worked out very well.

DP: How would you say Princeton prepared you for the jump to life after college, both in your athletic and professional careers?

CB: It was that feeling of confidence, of having been part of a cohort of women that came here and said, “We’re not afraid of being pioneers, of being trailblazers, of doing something different and believing I could be successful in whatever I chose to do.” That carries over in work and parenting, and everything else. I think that’s what Princeton gives any of its students and student athletes, a balance of [knowing] you have a strong intellectual capability and there are lots of ways to apply that, and [being] OK to step off the job career track and pursue some other passion and have the confidence that you’ll find you way back to life. A series of careers and not be afraid to try something.

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