GENERATIONS: Bemidji's groundbreaking female athletes competed for the joy of the sport
The extent to which Bemidji area women have broken ground and have gone on to compete internationally is mind-boggling.
In the past two months, I’ve spent quite a bit of time communicating with some amazing women.
As a volunteer at the Beltrami County History Center, I’ve been working with our director Emily Thabes and a few other volunteers – mainly Mary Lou Marchand -- on a seasonal exhibit at the museum on Women in Winter Sports.
It was an enormous undertaking to pull things together for the display, but the past two months have allowed me to meet some phenomenal women athletes.
I started out with two sportswomen I already knew -- Muriel Gilman and Ruth Howe -- and visited with them about their experiences. Both Mur and Ruth offered several items from their personal collections to lend to the museum for the exhibit.
Mur brought in boxes of trophies, medals, racing bibs and cross-country ski-wear from her skiing, racing and coaching experiences dating back to the mid-1970s. Last month’s column focused on Mur with more about her many accomplishments .
But what I enjoyed most was hearing Mur talk about the joy of downhill skiing in fresh powder, cross-country skiing with her dog or skiing at night with friends and gathering afterward for a beer.
Ruth rounded up items from her several decades of curling: a straw broom, two cloth-covered hoops covered with pins she had earned or traded at bonspiels all across Minnesota and beyond, and a curling rock that had been gifted to her from the Maplewood curling club, Minnesota’s oldest club.
There were clippings from newspapers, photographs, programs from several bonspiels and a sweater from Bemidji Woolen Mills that she and her teammates had selected as their team uniform back in the 1980s.
Ruth says she’s curled in every curling club in Minnesota as well as rinks in Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, Canada and more. She and her teammates and fellow women curlers were Bemidji’s pioneer women in the sport.
This includes Donna May Naylor, Georgia Hirt, Shirley Froseth, Patricia Baird and many others. They have built a foundation of curling that continues to produce some of the most talented and successful women curlers in the world – and that is not an exaggeration.
I could tell you about Ruth’s accomplishments, her service on the board of the U.S. Curling Association at a time when they were working to get curling added to the Winter Olympic sports.
I could list her many accomplishments from BSU’s first women’s basketball coach and the impressive win/loss record she amassed, her induction into the BSU hall of fame in 1986 and so much more. But what I love most about Ruth is her passion and joy for sports. She talks about the sensation of sliding -- on snow when skiing; on an ice rink, skating; or on the curling rink, delivering a rock.
Both Mur and Ruth have been and coached serious competitors, have introduced people to sports, have earned medals and ribbons and titles, but most importantly, they’ve enjoyed their sports and have spread joy by teaching others.
Meeting other athletes
In gathering items for the exhibit, I also met some phenomenal women athletes I’d never known before, such as Bemidji-born Pam Nordheim, a World Cup competitor and Olympian biathlete.
Pam lives in Montana but just happened to be planning a trip to Bemidji when I contacted her, so she brought some items from her days competing for the U.S. Biathlon Team.
Pam didn’t say too much about her competitions but brought her 1992 Olympic Team jacket, a fancy fedora she wore for the opening ceremonies, two racing bibs from World Championship competitions and a few other items, no photographs, no clippings.
“The sports pages don’t cover much about biathlon,” she said. She downplayed her performance and successes, but when I asked her what she loved most about the sport, she said, simply, “Everything.”
Another Bemidji-born athlete I met by chance is Jean (Fulton) Weyer. We found ourselves seated at the same table at a meeting one evening. She later contacted me to share photos, clippings and scrapbook pages from her high school years when she, her twin sister Joan and her older sister Betty played on Bemidji High School’s first girls basketball teams, starting in 1973.
They and their teammates were ground-breakers, wearing their gym clothes since the school didn’t buy them uniforms. They and their teammates’ mothers sewed numbers onto the shirts with blue electric tape.
The varsity team’s first season ended with a 2-7 win/loss record but followed up with an 11-3 record their second year. In spite of the challenges of breaking into girls’ sports, the memories Jean shared were precious.
Girls’ high school hockey was another breakthrough, opening their first season in 1996. After girls had inched their way into Bemidji Youth Hockey in the 1990s, with pioneers like Carrie Miller and Erin Sullivan playing on boys’ Squirts before girls’ teams were formed, the high school finally added girls’ hockey in 1996.
Having to muscle into pre-existing schedules -- the first game in Hudson, Wisconsin -- the BHS girls managed a 14-7 season that first year under the direction of coaches Rick Coe and Pete Sullivan.
By 2000, they were competing in the state tournament. Rick brought into the museum a box of scrapbooks, some plaques, a few jerseys and other memorabilia. Marilyn Miller brought in more mementos – scrapbooks, plaques, a medal, a souvenir hockey puck.
In sharing memories of those early days, Rick and Pete talked about the differences between coaching boys and girls, but 26 years later, Rick says he can’t remember anything bad. “It was all good!” he said.
There’s much more to be seen at the Women in Winter’s Sports exhibit. More curling, with the incredible successes of the past 20 years from Jr. World Cups to four Olympics. Figure skating, with items brought in by Jean Patnode and Laura Buchholz. Downhill ski items on loan from Buena Vista, speed skating items brought in by Kris VanWilgen-Hammitt, and lots more.
The extent to which Bemidji area women have broken ground and have gone on to compete internationally is mind-boggling. But the best thing about it, as Ruth Howe might say, is the joy with which these women play.