UF will kick off a monthslong celebration of the 50th year of women’s athletics on Saturday as members of the inaugural gymnastics, swimming and track and field teams lead the crowd as the honorary Ms. Two-Bits.
A parade of champions will take the field at halftime of the UF-Tennessee game, featuring various NCAA and conference women’s champions who have returned to celebrate the 10th and 25th anniversary of their championships.
In 1972, UF became the first SEC school to launch a women’s athletics program—three months before Congress approved Title IX, which granted women equal rights to sports at educational institutions that receive federal funds.
Women leaders on campus had provided the spark at UF, writing a proposal signed by Dr. Ruth Alexander, chair of the department of physical education for women; Donna Deutsch, tennis coach; Linda Hall Thornton, tennis coach; and Mini Ryan, golf coach.
Nancy Thayer, a member of the first women’s gymnastics team, has visited current practices and said the times were different in 1972.
“It was much more relaxed,” Thayer said in an interview. “It was a group of women who enjoyed the sport.”
She said the program was less disciplined and even the warmups were hand-me-downs from the men’s track team.
“I don’t think anybody had any idea of where this was going with the exception of Dr. Ruth Alexander,” Thayer said. “We were students. We were looking to get our degrees and get out of there and get on with our lives.”
Since that first year, UF’s women’s teams have won 23 SEC All-Sports trophies, the highest in the conference, while 94 UF women have won 64 Olympic medals―29 gold, 14 silver and 21 bronze.
In this year’s Tokyo Olympics, Gators won 17 medals for various countries, including three silver medals from the USA softball team.
This season’s sports calendar includes numerous teams not yet formed in the early ‘70s. The 1972-72 season only had women’s golf, gymnastics, swimming and diving, tennis, cross country and track and field.
Basketball arrived the next year, then volleyball and softball gained varsity status for the 74-75 season.
The sports teams entered the NCAA in 1982, 10 years after the program’s start, a change that ended slow-pitch softball.
Soccer joined UF’s repertoire in 1995, with lacrosse snagging a spot in 2010.
“There was a lot of pushback from the male-dominated university athletic association,” Thayer recalled. “But, Dr. Alexander forged ahead.”
Now, she says, UF has developed an outstanding women’s athletics program that is worlds apart from where it began.
The early gymnastic teams bought their own uniforms and performed front walkovers on a wooden beam without padding. The floors were neoprene, not the springy mats used today, and the vault, Thayer said, is completely different.
On top of that, all the skills are elevated compared to Thayer’s day.
“The workouts were a lot of fun,” Thayer said. “You got to be with like-minded women who enjoyed turning upside down.”
Thayer stayed in Gainesville after graduating and said watching today’s Gators compete is a special experience.
“I am so proud, especially when I go to the gymnastics meet, ”Thayer said. “I actually get teary-eyed. It is so wonderful to see; it makes me so proud of all the women who came after me and made the program what it is today. It is spectacular, just spectacular.”
UF will celebrate the history of women’s athletics by holding special 50th anniversary events at one home game for every sports team. And Gator teams will wear anniversary T-shirts throughout the season.
The first of these special home game events was Thursday’s soccer match against Kentucky, and another special 50th anniversary game night is Friday’s 7 p.m. volleyball matchup against Mississippi State.