Sept. 9, 2006
By Ken Kleppel
Five Notre Dame women will soon discover that after thirty years you can go home again. But this time they will not depart nearly as quietly--and for good reason. Their breakthrough achievement has finally come full circle three decades later.
It took only a simple administrative act by Athletic Director Moose Krause during the 1976-77 academic year for the Athletic Department to formally recognize five female student-athletes with varsity monograms.
Yet, in a long line of historic names--Rockne, Bertelli, Huarte, Page, and Montana, to name a few--to have their place in the annals of Notre Dame history under the moniker "varsity monogram recipient," not even the most clairvoyant observer could predict that the names Mary Shukis, Jane Lammers, Chris Marciniak, Catherine Buzard, and Kathy Valdiserri would have any extraordinary significance.
A color barrier was not shattered--in 1947 Frazier Thompson was the first African-American to graduate from Notre Dame. Thompson also gained recognition as the University's first African-American student-athlete through his participation with the track-and-field team.
A gender barrier was not broken--Mary Ann Proctor was the first of 350 women to enroll at Notre Dame in 1972, the year in which the University became a co-educational institution. Thirty years later, Brooke Norton would become the University's first female student body president.
A glass ceiling was not immediately removed--opportunities for women in sports steadily developed over the course of the next three decades. Today, Notre Dame offers thirteen women's varsity sports in which hundreds of student-athletes compete each year.
An antagonist was not defeated--by 1976 the administration and the athletic department, most notably Krause, not only encouraged but also enabled the growth of varsity women's athletics at Notre Dame. Today, several women administrators feature prominent roles in the athletic department, and Julie (Peterson) Doyle, who played varsity volleyball, serves as the first woman president of the Monogram Club.
A legend was not instantly born--collectively, the five women did not earn any national or conference championships or All-American honors, and their respective sports of tennis and fencing had just only achieved varsity status after four years of play as club teams.
But for everything they did not do or did not accomplish, they collectively represent everything that Notre Dame Athletics is today and wants to become. And their message is undeniably strong.
"The lesson is to pursue your passion no matter what obstacles are in the way," says Kathy Valdiserri, who earned her first of two monograms in the spring of 1977.
"You must have patience in breaking obstacles down and not letting them stop you from accomplishing your dreams, whether those dreams are to be an athlete, lawyer, doctor, or mother. We must follow the intuition that we have as women and listen to our hearts no matter what."
Mary (Shukis) Behler, Jane Lammers, Chris Marciniak, Catherine (Buzard) Sazdanoff, and Valdiserri graduated from Notre Dame with the first five monograms issued to female student-athletes.
In creating opportunities for themselves through their participation in varsity athletics at Notre Dame--becoming a professional in commercial real estate, photographer for national publications, doctor, lawyer, and leader at a national marketing firm, and for some, a mother--they have ultimately created opportunities for others. In 2005-06, nearly two hundred women earned monograms in varsity sports at Notre Dame.
Behler and Lammers, however, were the first to be recognized. Together, they competed as number one and number two singles on the women's tennis team. Just months earlier, tennis became the first women's varsity sport as head coach Kathy Cordes guided Notre Dame to a 6-3-1 record while competing at the Division III level as members of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.
Lammers worked closely with volunteer coach and university professor Carole Moore, athletic administrators in charge of club sports Rich O'Leary and Tom Kelly, and teammate Betsy Fallon, among others, to persuade the administration and the athletic department to recognize women's tennis as a varsity sport.
"At the time, it was the recognition of the women's program that made everything wonderful," says Lammers. "Today, it is a thrill to be recognized for our accomplishments. We were all trailblazers."
In the spring of 1977, three women fencers, Sazdanoff, Valdiserri, and Marciniak, joined their ACC-mates to share the honor. Fencing became the second women's sport to gain varsity status that spring as Coach Mike DeCicco directed the Irish to thirteen wins and just one loss.
"I liked to be a pioneer," says Sazdanoff. "I had never previously participated on a team--in school or through an organization--but I liked the notion of playing on a team sport while at Notre Dame."
Following graduation in 1978, Sazdanoff earned a law degree from Northwestern University. She practiced law in the area of litigation at a Chicago law firm before ultimately becoming the Divisional Vice President of Ethics and Compliance at Abbott Laboratories.
"You need to be blind to potential obstacles that other people think might be there," says Sazdanoff. "Obviously, there are physical restrictions on how to succeed in sports, but arbitrary distinctions like gender are silly. You just have to go out and do it."
Sazdanoff, would earn two monograms despite having no prior experience in fencing before joining the club team as a freshman.
Neither did her 1977 teammate Chris Marciniak, who followed a similar journey from Notre Dame to graduate school, but in this instance to a career in medicine.
"I went to Notre Dame for the opportunity to go to medical school," smiles Dr. Marciniak. "I did not go there for fencing."
Dr. Marciniak attended medical school at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Today, she is the Executive Medical Director for In-patient Services, at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago--and her daughters were active in organized youth athletics.
"In high school, the only opportunities women had were to play basketball," says Dr. Marciniak. "I was too short, so that could not work for me. It is amazing what opportunities my daughters had opposed to what I have."
While unable to receive consistent opportunities to play athletics prior to attending college, Dr. Marciniak credits Coach DeCicco for his commitment to developing opportunities for women fencers and for her personal growth as a student-athlete.
"It was Coach DeCicco that made the difference," says Dr. Marciniak.
Kathy Valdiserri, whose father Roger served as Sports Information Director at the University during her tenure as a student and whose four siblings also attended the University, would agree. Coach DeCicco helped introduce Valdiserri to fencing.
After attending the Junior World Fencing Championships held on campus, Valdiserri immediately became enamored with the sport and began training with Coach DeCicco while still in high school. Under his guidance, the left-handed Valdiserri would become a standout foilist and captain of the first two varsity teams after serving as co-captain of the final team to participate as a club sport.
"The fact that we are being honored is amazing," says Valdiserri. "I am humbled and appreciative of the effort that the University has gone through for us. I think that women at Notre Dame, athletically and academically, have made a huge difference. I am so proud to be a part of this."
Like Valdiserri, Jane Lammers used her time at Notre Dame to extend her family legacy in varsity athletics. Her father Paul played basketball under Moose Krause from 1944 to 1945.
The relationship between the elder Lammers and Krause ultimately became a catalyst for the creation of the women's tennis program. Lammers made an appointment to visit with Krause shortly after her enrollment in 1973, and the successful meeting helped advance women's tennis at Notre Dame.
She did not just stop there.
As a student, Lammers founded the Women's Athletics Association, a group comprised of the captains of the University's women's club sport teams. In addition to her duties as president of the WAA, Lammers served on the Advisory Council for Women and on the Committee to Evaluate Co-Education.
Her tireless efforts would ultimately prevail. As a senior, Lammers became the first female captain in any varsity sport in Notre Dame history during the maiden season in 1976.
"We were a dynamic group of women at Notre Dame," says Lammers. "We worked hard together as a team. Everybody wanted to be successful."
Teammate Mary (Shukis) Behler, who earned three monograms as the program's first bona fide standout in number-one singles and was described as the "sophomore sensation" in newspaper reports that first season, helped provide much of the early success.
Despite competing against opponents on scholarship, Behler won eight of her eleven singles matches during the 1976 season.
"It was exciting to be on the forefront of a big change like that," says Behler. "At the time, I did not realize how positively it would impact my life. It seems much more significant now than when I was actually going through it."
Today, her daughter Carol attends the University as a senior in the Mendoza College of Business. From the student section, at ceremonies during the Football home opener against Penn State, she will watch as her mother, along with Lammers, Marcniak, Sazdanoff, and Valdiserri, are honored by the Athletic Department in recognition of their varsity monograms.
"Once you leave school, the fact that you were an athlete at Notre Dame is something that people always seem to admire," says Behler. "I am so thrilled my family and friends will be there as we are honored."
While there was no pomp and circumstance accompanying the initial feat, more than eighty thousand members of the Notre Dame community will celebrate the anniversary of the achievement--a weekend homecoming complete with ceremonies, dinners, and overdue recognition.
This celebration, as part of the program honoring thirty five years of women's athletics at Notre Dame, will continue all year long before culminating in a "Weekend of Champions" that will bring former female Irish student-athletes back to the University during the weekend of April 27-29.
And on one of these occasions, somewhere in the stands, a young girl will take note of what has been accomplished. She will turn to her parents and proclaim that she, too, will play varsity athletics at Notre Dame.
Because of the efforts of these five exemplary women, there are now opportunities for any young girl to blaze her own trail.
And because of that, their place in athletics history at Notre Dame is well deserved. Welcome home.