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Title IX's 40th anniversary sparks memories of Lopez, Lieberman, Evert, Strug

Nancy Lopez was the first, an electric 21-year-old who had commandeered women's golf. So a buddy and I sneaked onto the Pine Ridge course in suburban Baltimore and watched Lopez dust the field for the third victory of her rookie season.

It was May 1978, and Title IX was less than six years old.

This week marks the legislation's 40th anniversary, and for all its flaws and unintended consequences, Title IX remains a landmark, an invaluable beacon for women pursuing not only sports careers but also quality educations.

The mandate prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity also helped enlighten Neanderthals like me.

As a kid, I couldn't have cared less about women's sports or athletes. I even cheered for shameless tennis hustler Bobby Riggs in 1973 when he routed Margaret Court and flopped against Billie Jean King in televised spectacles.

Then I saw Lopez, two years my senior, hit a golf ball farther and maneuver it better than I ever would. As a college student at James Madison, I watched in awe as Old Dominion's Nancy Lieberman dominated a game from her point guard position.

Of the hundreds of athletes I watched during four years at JMU, only Ralph Sampson was more memorable than Lieberman. She and the Lady Monarchs won that evening by 38 points en route to a 37-1 record and the 1980 national championship.

Like most sportswriters, I've chronicled far more men than women. But the female athletes and coaches I've encountered rarely have been less than compelling and engaging.

LPGA tournaments in Hampton Roads showcased icons such as Annika Sorenstam, Kathy Whitworth and Lopez. Wightman Cup tennis at William and Mary featured Chris Evert and Pam Shriver.

Hall of Fame basketball coaches Debbie Ryan, Kay Yow, Marianne Stanley, Sylvia Hatchell and Pat Summitt indulged my questions. Their players included the likes of Dawn Staley, Chamique Holdsclaw and Medina Dixon.

Elite talents such as La'Keshia Frett and T.J. Abraham ruled the Peninsula District before advancing to college and pro basketball, and 2012 All-American Elena Della Donne of Delaware remains the most skilled female frontcourt player I've seen — she put on a show at the 2006 Boo Williams Invitational in Hampton.

Women have humbled me in competition. They've crossed me over on the basketball court and sprinted past me in road races — one such runner was any-minute pregnant.

Then there was Atlanta '96. American women dominated those Olympics, and I was privileged to see many of them.

Her injured ankle throbbing, Kerri Strug nailed her landing before collapsing into the arms of coach Bela Karolyi; Staley and Lisa Leslie led the United States to basketball gold; Lindsay Davenport defeated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario for tennis gold, a springboard to her three major championships.

But it wasn't just Americans. Fatuma Roba, an obscure Ethiopian competing in just her fourth marathon, buried the field by more than two minutes.

As she entered the Olympic stadium to a standing ovation, Roba glanced over her shoulder several times. There wasn't a competitor in sight.

And to think: For decades, women were considered unfit, too fragile, to run marathons.

Not to suggest that all these women were direct products of Title IX. Clearly, they were not.

And not to suggest that Title IX has been a cure-all. Too many men's programs have been sacrificed to gender quotas that are as misplaced in athletic departments as they would be in nursing schools and physics labs.

But the overriding impact of Title IX, an acceptance of women on the field, on the sideline and, yes, along press row, has been a godsend. Sally Jenkins' acerbic wit ranks her among America's best sportswriters; Doris Burke's cogent analysis and sage questions make her one of basketball's best television presences.

I was lucky enough to marry an athlete. She played high school softball, basketball and tennis, and as a kid played Little League baseball. Not because she was a Title IX pioneer, because she was a ballplayer, and after years of competing on the sandlots with her older brothers, by golly she was good enough to make the team.

We have yet to compete against one another, but other than in hoops, where I'd post her up, my chances would be dim.

Two weeks ago, we took our 9-month-old daughter to her first Major League game. The good Lord willing, it won't be her last.

Who knows if Laura will be an athlete, but thanks in part to Title IX, she'll have every opportunity.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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