By the time Shalane Flanagan finished talking to the media Friday night in Eugene, the clock was ticking toward midnight on the East Coast. In minutes, it would be June 23: the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.
Breaking down camera equipment nearby was Cheryl Treworgy, Flanagan’s mother. Treworgy, the president of the photojournalism website PrettySporty.com, had once again been waiting, lens focused, as her daughter crossed the finish line of a major competition. Flanagan finished third at 10,000 meters in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, but would relinquish her spot because she had already made the team in the marathon.
Treworgy approaches her job with the passion, skill, dedication, and stamina of the athlete she once was, good enough to set a world record in the marathon. But that was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were no press conferences, with TV lights glaring and microphones being passed around to top journalists from around the world. There was no shoe contract or endorsement dollars.
With the help of Title IX, the landmark legislation passed in 1972 that forbids gender discrimination in schools that receive federal funding, could she have become what her daughter—a three-time Olympian and the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist at 10,000 meters, with a professional Nike contract— is today?
Maybe, maybe not. But she would have liked the chance to find out.
“I wonder where I could have gone with it,” she said. “I know how I felt on my hardest workout, and I wonder how she takes it to the next level. Sometimes I do wish I had had her life, but I know what sacrifices she’s making. She’s put everything else she ever thought she might want to do on hold. I would have loved to have been able to just focus on that, but then again you also have to remember the pressure that comes with putting all of your eggs in that basket and that’s something that not everyone can master.”
She was asked: Do you think you could have mastered it?
Her answer: “I don’t know. But the first thing I would have gotten from Title IX is acceptance, rather than being an anomaly.”
What Treworgy does know is that she made the most out of the limited opportunities at the time. Whereas Flanagan was already a national star when she ran for Marblehead High School back in Massachusetts, Treworgy had to battle for every inch she covered. Someone on the school board saw her running on the grounds of her high school at the same time as a boys’ team, she said, and a meeting was convened. If you’re going to run, she was told, it has to be on the other side of the campus, nowhere near the boys. She was offered the chance to be team statistician, or maybe something like track queen.
“I was like, no, really I want to do the running part, you know?” she recalled.
Treworgy managed to run enough to catch the attention of Dr. Eleanor St. John, chairperson of the Department of Physical Education for Women at Indiana State University and a pioneer in women’s sports. St. John offered her a “talented student” scholarship in 1966, which covered almost half of her tuition and was likely one of the first sports-based scholarships awarded in the country. But, although she trained with the men, she was only allowed to run in meets if the coaches of all the other teams agreed. When it came time to put on her “uniform,” she would change in the ladies’ rooms of nearby gas stations into a T-shirt she bought at the campus bookstore.
To compete more often, she would run against boys in high school meets but, again, every coach had to approve. To top it off, she had to wait three or four seconds after the gun fired before she was allowed to start, to stay out of the way. In 1969, she placed fourth in the International Cross Country Championships.
After college, Treworgy got a job teaching, but she wanted to give running one last try. (“Sure, I wanted to make an Olympic team, but the 800 was the longest event they had.”) So, in the summer of 1971, she contacted Bill Dellinger, then the assistant track coach at the University of Oregon.
“I said, ‘I’m getting ready to retire. I’m 23 and I have no business doing this anymore. I’d like some input, I’d like to go out on top,’” she explained. That December, she won the Culver City Marathon in 2:49:40. No woman in the world had ever run faster.
Six months later, Title IX was born, although it wasn’t until 1975 that sports was explicitly added to the language of the legislation. Its addition was not universally popular.
In 1976, Treworgy became assistant women’s athletic director at Michigan State University. “When Title IX finally did come in and scholarships had to be offered to women, there was just so much resentment,” she said. “We fought for what Title IX entitled us to, but, man, the fight was brutal. It did not come easy and was not fun. A lot of the general population was really angry about Title IX, but I’ll tell you when it changed: When [those men] had daughters and realized they didn’t have to give up their dream of coaching their kid or watching their kid play sports. I think that’s what changed it all. All of a sudden, girls had a value in a man’s world as an athlete.”
If sports was a new source of value to the men, it was also a new source of strength to the women. Treworgy cites her own young life, during which she endured an abusive stepfather.
“This gave me power,” she said of her running. “It took me a while to put him in his place, that this was inappropriate, but without the running I couldn’t have done that. That’s why I feel that, especially for women, running is so empowering. It can change your life.”