Betsy McDowell, a founder of Bemidji State women’s athletics, dies at 89

Betsy McDowell, a pioneer and an official founder of Bemidji State women’s athletics, trailblazed competitive avenues for every single female athlete at BSU -- past, present and future.

121022.S.BP.BSU-MCDOWELL Betsy McDowell.jpg
Betsy McDowell, a pioneer and an official founder of Bemidji State women’s athletics, died on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Park Rapids.
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BEMIDJI -- Betsy McDowell, a pioneer and an official founder of Bemidji State women’s athletics, helped female sports evolve from an afterthought into a bright spot.

She spent 29 years on campus with her sleeves rolled up, shaping the early identity of the Beavers during an era in which support was scarce and funding nearly nonexistent. She defied odds and conquered giants, and she trailblazed competitive avenues for every single female athlete at BSU -- past, present and future.

McDowell died peacefully on Tuesday, Dec. 6, in Park Rapids. She was 89.

"Every department has an origin story, and BSU's origin story is inextricably intertwined with Betsy McDowell," Bemidji State director of athletics Britt Lauritsen said in a release. "… I want to express immense gratitude to the family and friends of Betsy for their role in sharing her with the BSU family, as well as heartfelt condolences as they navigate this loss together."

McDowell joined the college’s physical education department in 1966. She founded the women’s field hockey program as an extramural sport in 1966 and soon coached the team for 17 mighty successful seasons. She is the winningest female coach in Bemidji State history with 388 victories.


121022.S.BP.BSU-MCDOWELL BSU women's field hockey.jpg
Bemidji State's 1971 women's field hockey team, coached by Betsy McDowell (far left), was one of the many teams that McDowell coached from 1969-85.
BSU photo

The Beavers’ field hockey program rose to national prominence under McDowell. They won six conference titles, six straight state titles (1975-81), four regional titles and qualified for the national championships seven times. What’s more, McDowell’s accomplishments also overcame numerous barriers restricting funding for women’s athletics.

She coached the team from 1969-85, when the program was dropped. McDowell is the only intercollegiate coach the program ever knew. She also coached the BSU softball team during its inaugural season in 1982.

McDowell didn’t wait for Title IX -- a 1972 law that prevents discrimination based on sex in federally funded programs and activities -- to take hold. At the time, such an idea was largely a pipe dream.

Instead, she and fellow physical education faculty members Ruth Howe and Marjory Beck brought extramural women’s basketball, volleyball, field hockey and swimming to Bemidji State in the 1960s, then watched their growth once Title IX took hold years later. The three also helped organize the Minn-Kota Conference, a competitive women’s league for schools in Minnesota and North Dakota and one of the first of its kind in the country.

McDowell, Howe and Beck are now celebrated as the three official founders of BSU women’s athletics.

"Pre-Title IX and throughout the first 50 years of Title IX, the commitment to equality, to excellence, to inclusion, and to a true student-athlete experience for the women of Bemidji State is traced back through our pioneers,” Lauritsen said. “Betsy's legacy stands as a charge for all of us – women and men of Bemidji State – to continue to do the work with love, with honor, and with purpose to make the next 50 years of BSU athletics impactful for all our student-athletes. I am forever thankful for and humbled by the opportunities we have all been given to follow in her footsteps.”

McDowell retired from the university in 1995. She was inducted into the Bemidji State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996 and the NSIC Hall of Fame in 2006.

A family celebration will be held for McDowell in July 2023.

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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