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Springboard to Success

Talk about symbolism: Ruth Podbielski recalls a time when results of IUP women’s athletic events were buried on the obituary page of the local newspaper.

So, pardon Podbielski, the university’s former associate director of athletics for women, if she pops a champagne cork to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary this year of Title IX. Part of the Equal Rights Amendment passed by Congress, Title IX outlaws discrimination on the basis of gender in any program or activity at institutions that receive federal funding. It triggered cataclysmic changes. The successes of IUP teams are occasionally chronicled on the front page nowadays, an unthinkable prospect in 1972.

“Title IX was a springboard,” says Podbielski, who arrived on campus forty-seven years ago as a member of the Health and Physical Education faculty and piloted the women’s varsity program from its inception in 1970 until her retirement in 1987. “When you see where it has come from and where it is now, it’s mind-boggling. We started with $3,700 and four teams [basketball, volleyball, tennis, and fencing]. Now there are ten teams, and the budget has gone up to $131,000 with $164,000 in scholarships.”

Women's soccer team

Frances Nee, left, and Ruth Podbielski with the women's soccer team

Since Title IX, the program has blossomed, exchanging obscurity for prosperity: two national team championships (and five individual titles) in gymnastics, two individual national champions in track and field, a berth in the NCAA Division II semifinals in field hockey, a spot in the Elite Eight in basketball, NCAA tournament victories in volleyball, tennis, and softball, top-ten finishes in swimming and cross country. Now that they’re accorded first-class treatment, IUP’s women are producing first-rate results.

The changes sparked by Title IX astound athletic pioneers like Diane McCormick French, a 1972 grad who played on IUP’s very first women’s volleyball and basketball teams.

“It’s so incredibly different now,” says French, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic volleyball squad. “But we kind of accepted things back then. We were so happy just to have the opportunity to play that it didn’t matter so much to us that we were in the tiny [auxiliary] gym or that we all wore hand-me-down uniforms.”

Ann Thompson Kabala, a 1969 grad, played basketball at IUP before a varsity program even existed, back when the only athletic outlets for women were intramurals and Play Days, informal get-togethers that provided off-campus competition with students from other schools. Because her daughter, Theresa, played varsity basketball at IUP (1995-99), Kabala is especially cognizant of the strides made since Title IX.

“It’s really like two different worlds,” she says. “In our day, Pod would drive us around in a station wagon, and she would wash our uniforms for us. Nowadays, they travel by bus, the uniforms are taken care of, they have trainers, they have scholarships, and the games are on the radio. It’s amazing to me, because we had nothing.”

Today’s athletes have everything, except perhaps a sense of history. Regale them with tales of the “Dark Ages”—the pre-Title IX era when Podbielski acted as chauffeur and laundress and constantly waged battles to gain a foothold in an athletic domain ruled by men—and their response is invariably a blank expression.

Women's field hockey team

Frances Nee, left foreground, and Ruth Podbielski with the women's field hockey team

“Unless you lived it—whether it’s a war or anything—you can’t appreciate what was,” says Frances Nee, IUP’s associate director of athletics. “Unless it happens to you, you just don’t understand. You have to live it. Hey, I’m the same way. As much as Ruth tells me and as much as I empathize with her, I can’t even imagine what it was like.”

Fortunately, today’s athletes only have to hear about the inequities of years past, not experience them. Women’s teams that once languished in obscurity, their feats buried alongside the obituaries, are lauded on the front page nowadays. Trailblazers like French and Kabala longed for resources their male counterparts took for granted, but today’s athletes are provided with everything necessary to achieve success. The women’s program, consequently, is flourishing like never before.

So pardon Ruth Podbielski if she pops a champagne cork in celebration: IUP’s Dark Ages, like mankind’s Dark Ages, are ancient history.

“You can’t imagine how I feel about the progress that has been made in opportunities for women to play,” she says. “It’s almost like a miracle. I just never would have dreamt it would go as far as it has. And hopefully I can live long enough to see it go a little farther.”