Ely woman cherishes varsity letter earned before Title IX

In the late 1950s, long before Title IX solidified women’s rights to play sports, Virginia Shepherd received a varsity letter for synchronized swimming — a letter she was almost forced to give back after someone complained to the school board about women being honored for athletics.

"There basically was no culture of girls in sports. Girls’ sports didn’t have any budget, there was no competitive girls' sports, and we just accepted that and that’s just the way it was. It was all about the boys," Shepherd, who graduated from Ely High School in 1959, said. 

Through high school, Shepherd participated in a synchronized swimming program. The uniforms were made by her mom, the students were responsible for creating any props they wanted to use and the team wasn’t officially recognized as a sport by the school. 

"It was not competitive. Every year we put on a show set to music with a series of numbers, and they were good. We had a good show," Shepherd said. 

In her freshman year, her coach convinced the school to let the girls travel to the Twin Cities to compete against a few college teams, where they won the championship. 

By her senior year, during a banquet with her team, Shepherd received a varsity letter for her role on the synchronized swimming team. 

"I was proud of what we had accomplished. I was proud of having won it in competition, but I was proud of them recognizing [me]," Shepherd said.

After she received the letter, a patch of a male diver, since there were no women-themed varsity letters, she was called into her coach's office, where she was told someone complained to the school board about a girl being honored for athletics and she would have to give the letter back.

"And I said, ‘Give it back? I earned it and I sewed it on to my sweater and you can’t have it back,’" Shepherd said. 

Shepherd kept the letter and the sweater. She still has both and says she still feels proud when she looks at them. 

"I’m very proud of this. I achieved something and that’s it, right there, that little tiny less than an inch insignia means that I got an athletic letter when there weren’t athletic letters for girls," Shepherd said. 

Her daughter, Mary Pucel, says the story has become legend in her family and is an example of how her mother always stood up for what she thought was right. She says it’s hard to imagine her mom living in a world where girls were discouraged from participating in sports. 

"It was inconceivable that girls weren’t allowed to play sports, we played sports. It was always there [for me] as opposed to in her life it was not there. It’s a complete different world," Pucel said. 

Shepherd says she hopes girls and women today appreciate the opportunity they have and continue fighting to ensure their place in the world of sports. 

"I would love to go into high schools and just say Wwe didn’t have this. Enjoy Title IX. Enjoy this because we did not have those options.’"