During my long-ago (1965-69) undergraduate days, as I walked the malls and halls of the University of New Mexico campus, I knew for an absolute fact that there were no intercollegiate athletic opportunities for UNM women students at the time.
How did I know this? I had neither seen, read nor heard of such a thing. Therefore, such opportunities must not have existed,
This I wrote, sticking to my story, during the Journal’s series on the 50th anniversary of Title IX earlier this year. Nothing for women at UNM, interscholastically, at least, before Title IX. Period.
Yet, walking those same halls and malls almost concurrently (1966-70) was Linda McDowell, the very personification of how wrong I was.
And she was not alone.
In a recent phone interview, McDowell politely absolved me from blame for not knowing a UNM women’s volleyball team had won the 1970 Intermountain Conference volleyball title in Laramie, Wyoming – or (embarrassingly) better said, not remembering, since she and I had talked about it once before, in 1991.
As for my blissful ignorance back in the 1960s, she said, “How could you (know)? We’re not playing in front of huge crowds and we don’t sell tickets and we don’t have any money and we don’t even wear uniforms.
“We scrounged and wore pinnies (practice vests), those dopey things that you tie on the side with numbers on them. Because that’s what we’d grown up with.”
Growing up, McDowell was fortunate to have attended Highland High School, where coach Elvira “Tiny” Vidano was ahead of her time – and ahead of her adopted state – as a driving force for girls’ and women’s athletics.
Vidano had earned eight varsity letters at Illinois State in the 1940s and couldn’t understand why such opportunities weren’t open to New Mexico girls by mid-century and beyond.
The Girls Athletic Association, an organization that staged athletic “play days” around the state, had existed at least since the mid-1930s. Vidano, with the the help of Sandia’s Weegie Poston and other coaches around the state, made the GAA a truly competitive enterprise and enabled HHS students like McDowell, Linda Estes and Jill Hutchison to use and develop their God-given athletic talents.
For Estes (UNM) and Hutchison (Illinois State, thanks to Vidano’s influence), athletics became their life’s work.
“I remember (of her high school days),” McDowell said, “that at least we had a bus and we could travel places. We had a tournament down at White Sands, which was great but we also got totally blistered from sunburn. We’d go play the School for the Deaf. We played high school teams, a few, because there weren’t that many high schools back then.
“Then in college, at least we did have teams. We’d go up to Highlands and we’d play the University of Albuquerque and we’d play New Mexico State.”
The Intermountain Conference volleyball tournament to which McDowell refers took place in January 1970 in Laramie. The UNM team drove to Wyoming in a Volkswagen microbus and slept on the floor of a Laramie Methodist church.
McDowell recalls that the UNM roster was dwarfed by that of Brigham Young. “We averaged 5-(foot)-3 and they averaged 5-9,” she said. “I’d never seen such tall people all together on one team.”
But the Lobos had come prepared. Somehow, UNM coach Jan Olson had managed to bring in an Olympic-caliber Japanese player to give her team some added instruction.
“We’d never had anybody hit balls so hard at us, and she taught us how to dive,” McDowell said. “We’d never seen such a thing.
“It was like, ‘Oh, you know, I’ll drop to my knees because I have knee pads on.’ But diving for a ball was a whole different idea.”
Thus forearmed, the Lobos won it all in Laramie. They returned to Albuquerque greeted by not the cheers of their peers and newspaper accounts of their victory, but silence.
“It was over Christmas break,” she said. “So when we won, we just came back, and the campus was empty. There might usually have been a little something in the Daily Lobo, but they were gone.”
For their triumph, the team had been awarded a small plaque. Years ago and again recently, McDowell inquired of UNM athletics if they still had it, but to no avail.
There was a basketball team as well. On March 20, 1970, the Journal reported that the “Loboettes,” led by Maria Allison and captain Susan Craig, had gone 15-4 that season and tied for second at the Intermountain Tournament in Salt Lake City.
Allison was one of McDowell’s volleyball teammates, along with Barbara Butler, Diana Elmore, Kathy Raver, Polly Unger, Susan Pecastaing and Carol Kress.
Craig, later to become UNM’s head softball coach and a member of the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame, made the Laramie trip as team photographer.
And, there’s this. Despite my lack of awareness, women’s athletics at UNM did exist even before my departure in the spring of 1969.
The first evidence found in the Journal archives was an Oct. 19, 1968 article reporting that Olson, a UNM P.E. professor, had been elected secretary of the Intermountain Conference for College Women in Physical Education.
The following February, it was reported that a 10-woman UNM gymnastics team was to compete in the Intermountain Championships in Provo, Utah. How the Lobos fared was not reported, at least not in the next few editions.
Of course, the passing into law of Title IX on June 23, 1972, was the rocket launch that changed New Mexico women’s athletics forever and for the better.
But without McDowell and her teammates, and without coaches like Vidano, Olson and Poston, there’d have been no launching pad.