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First in Sports, Then Careers, These Women Played to Win

From funding support to the style of uniforms, countless aspects of women’s college sports have changed throughout the past 60 years. In fact, little remains the same.

But one constant has been that involvement in college sports helps athletes develop the perseverance to achieve, according to three former standout lacrosse players who reflected on their experiences during a campus forum. Sponsored by the Department of Athletics, the event was titled “The Way to the Boardroom Leads Through the Locker Room.”

Achieving their goals on the playing field prepared Smith alumnae Gloria W. Heath ’43 and Agnes Bixler Kurtz ’62 and Vassar College alumna June L. Biedler to succeed in the workplace as well.

After graduating from Smith, Gloria Heath '43 and Agnes Bixler Kurtz '62 went on to excel in sports as well as their chosen careers. Both played with gusto in the United States lacrosse touring program, Heath, left photo, as the goalie when the United States competed against Great Britain and Ireland in 1951 and Kurtz, second from right, front row, right photo, as a member of the U.S. team that faced off with Great Britain, also in photo, in 1967. Photos courtesy Gloria Heath and Agnes Kurtz.

“It was frowned upon to be an athlete when we were young,” said Kurtz. “But we did what we wanted to do -- just like women going into medicine or science.”

By playing sports, Kurtz said, she developed the focus and drive necessary to succeed. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), sports also bolstered her chances of earning a college degree. An NCAA study recently reported that athletes graduate at higher rates than nonathletes.

After graduation these three women continued to excel: first in sports -- the Lacrosse Hall of Fame plaques honoring Kurtz and Heath now hang in the Ainsworth Gymnasium -- and then in their chosen careers.

Biedler, a cancer researcher, rose through the ranks at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to become program chair of the Cell Biology Department and serve on the center’s 10-person executive committee -- the only woman to do so at the time.

“Science was highly competitive -- a lot of the men who were ambitious were [difficult] -- and I found the best way to handle them was to smile,” said Biedler, whose slight frame once powered her play on the national women’s lacrosse team. “In sports, I had learned it was no good to get angry or show it.”

Heath pursued aviation. She served as a World War II pilot assigned to fly the B-26 bomber for fighter pilots’ gunnery practice and was recently named one of aviation’s 100 most influential women.

During the era in which she represented Smith, and later the country, in lacrosse, Heath noted that players would pay for their own transportation to games and stay in the homes of their opponents -- an arrangement that has certainly changed over time.

Family support for the athletic endeavors of young women has also shifted, said Kurtz, who witnessed a positive change after she ushered in the women’s athletic program at Dartmouth College and coached there over the course of nearly two decades.

Many parents did not approve of women’s sports participation when she was in college, noted Kurtz, adding that her own father seemed not to care.

“My brother tells me that is because my father was such a chauvinist that he knew that whatever women did didn’t matter anyway,” she laughed.

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