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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

The roots of an athletic revolution

 • The '70s: Wahine born of tears and dreams
 •  Stunning growth, but more to do

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wahine athletics celebrates its 30th anniversary at the University of Hawai'i this school year. Its roots actually go back 40 years, to an African-American woman from Chicago's South Side.

Dr. Donnis Thompson possessed an "extraordinary vision," says Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji. "To see a women's athletic department the way she saw it was just unbelievable," he said.

Advertiser library photo • 1987

In 1961, university regent — and Hawai'i AAU track chair — Richard You offered Donnis Thompson the opportunity to start a women's track and field team at UH. One of the few female track coaches on the planet, Thompson recalls sensing she "had a full minute" to decide.

Her reaction: "I didn't know what to do with the other 59 seconds."

The author of three books on track and field, and future chair of the AIAW National Track and Field committee, Thompson was working with Mayor (Richard) Daley's Youth Foundation. She had her masters and desperately wanted to teach at a university, and coach.

In the early '60s, those opportunities were not available to her on the Mainland, for the same reason her love of sports could follow only one path. As a child, Thompson wasn't allowed to join the clubs that were home to what few women's sports there were.

"The only area they really could not discriminate against was track and field," Thompson said. "Nobody could stop you in terms of how fast you run, how far you throw, how high you jump. So the racial element was not that important."

In Hawai'i, a place Thompson then considered "wonderful," an opportunity was being handed to her like a baton on a relay leg.

She brought seven athletes, some from her 1961 national women's outdoor championship team. Her first year, she made $5,000 teaching in the Physical Education department, and $700 coaching.

UH finished third at the nationals. Leah Bennett Ferris, Lacy O'Neal and Cindy Wyatt were All-Americans.

O'Neal, who now works in the foreign service at an African embassy, would go to the Olympics. Ferris, who held the world indoor record in the 800, barely missed out at the then-winner-only Olympic Trials, along with Wyatt and Karen Mendyka Huff. Cel Rutledge held the American record in the shot and Ann Roniger was a three-time national pentathlon champion. Ernestine Pollard finished second in the 200 at the national championships — to Wilma Rudolph. Ferris, Wyatt and Cindy Dalrymple gave UH the largest U.S. contingent at the 1962 Pan American Games.

"They can be outstanding athletes and still be very much feminine," Thompson said then.

The Interscholastic League of Honolulu made track and field an official sport in the team's wake. But four years after she got here, Thompson left to pursue a doctorate of education. When she returned in 1967, track and field was dropped — "As I stepped in the door," Thompson recalls.

It would not return until 1972, when a group of female athletes approached Thompson, who was well aware of the coming tsunami called Title IX — a federal mandate calling for equal opportunities in athletics. She convinced the athletic department to give her $5,000 for volleyball and track and field.

"This is not just a whim of UH women," Thompson said then. "At least 150 Mainland colleges have intercollegiate athletics for women and more are adding them."

In the interim, Thompson taught, including a cutting-edge 1969 class called Physical Fitness for Women. She introduced weight training, using bottles of bleach instead of weights to keep it non-threatening. The class included walking, jogging, rope jumping, stretching and hula hoop for flexibility.

"Strong bodies are needed to do the work a woman has to do in the home," Thompson said then, "and to care for children."

In 1972, the University of Hawai'i offered one scholarship to its 8,245 undergraduate women. It went to the drum majorette. This year, the women's athletic program has a $3.5 million budget and 105 scholarships for 11 sports.

When volleyball coach Dave Shoji looks back, his UH memories begin and end with Thompson.

"Everybody talks about having vision, but hers was extraordinary vision," Shoji says. "To see a women's athletic department the way she saw it was just unbelievable. She was looking 20, 30 years into the future maybe. She probably envisioned it the way it is now. But back then, it was unheard of. People would laugh her off."

Thompson laughed last. She saw women's sports coming, understood the depth of Title IX's one simple premise, and long ago envisioned — and named — the Rainbow Wahine.

"Yes, I wouldn't hesitate to say that," Thompson says now. "If you have outstanding athletes and treat them well, and have facilities and resources, a human being can reach unreachable goals — what we think are unreachable.

"I couldn't say I knew there would be 10,000 people in an arena yelling for women athletes, but yes, they will do it for women as well as men. This doesn't surprise me at all. We all should be proud."