This year marks both the silver anniversary of the first women’s Little 500 race as well as the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Although the act was passed in 1972, which put federal power behind the notion that women should receive athletic opportunities equal to men, it took the IU Student Foundation until 1988 to announce plans for a Little 500 bicycle race for women. After years of being delegated to the Mini 500 tricycle race, IU women finally had a race of their own.
“It was terrifying,” said Anne Grotefeld, 43, who as a sophomore rode in the first women’s Little 500 race for her sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta. “We were afraid we would fail.”
Alpha Gamma Delta was one of 31 teams that participated in the inaugural women’s Little 500 race. Though it was a better-than-expected turnout, the first race didn’t come without its bumps and bruises.
“It was difficult to organize back then,” Grotefeld said. “I got a group of us, three other girls and myself, to start a team. Two of the girls had never played a sport before. It was both exciting and terrifying at the same time, because if anything happened to one of us, we were done.”
Title IX came into fruition in the summer of 1972, helping to bridge the gap between men’s and women’s athletics. Though the act does not specifically mention sports or athletics, it does contend that no person, on the basis of sex, be excluded from involvement in any program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance. Therefore, Title IX sparked the growth of equality in women’s athletics.
“Think about this: The idea of a women’s race, in the 1980s, was never something that was really ever thought about,” said James Capshew, associate professor of history and philosophy of science and an IU alum. “IU was a very open campus for both men and women, but it was just never thought of.”
Kappa Alpha Theta, a women’s team, attempted to qualify for the men’s race in 1987. Though they failed to qualify, their actions spurred the IUSF’s decision to create a separate women’s race. Though this is true, women had actually been trying to qualify for the Little 500 race since 1973, which, coincidentally, was the first Little 500 following Title IX.
In 1973, a group of six women set out to enter a Little 500 team, but were stopped by the IUSF. Though there was no rule barring women from riding, the Student Foundation took its stance as it feared for the safety of a women’s team competing against men. Undeterred, the women issued a complaint with the Bloomington Human Rights Commission. The motion was successful, as the commission filed an emergency order forcing the Student Foundation to let the women ride at qualifications. However, eligibility rules stated that teams couldn’t have transfer students, and one of the women had transferred to IU that semester. Though held out of qualifications, women would no longer be just spectators in the Little 500.
“For a time, the IUSF believed the race to be too dangerous for women,” said John Schwarb, author of the book The Little 500 and an Indiana graduate. “But through the 1970s and early ’80s there just wasn’t enough demand or initiative within IUSF.”
As times changed, however, so did the perception of women in athletics. A cycling club was formed in 1980, and where other women’s teams that attempted to qualify were unorganized and one-year things, women were better and more dedicated to racing.
“The ’87 Thetas got attention and respect because they had dedicated riders and were a sorority with a long history. They weren’t laughed at like women 15 years earlier. In retrospect the 1988 debut seems several years too late, but it just took time for a movement to take hold.”
“I’ll never forget our qualification time,” said Grotefeld. “Our first attempt was at 10 a.m., and we failed that, so we had to go back to the track at three in the afternoon to try and qualify again,” she said. “So we go back to the track after a five hour layoff, and we know that we have only one more shot at qualifying.”
1988 was also another anniversary, as ten years ago, the film Breaking Away was shot in Bloomington. The movie was about a team of four kids from Bloomington, called the ‘cutters,’ who defied the odds and won the Little 500.
“The first two exchanges went smoothly, which meant that we needed one more successful exchange and we would qualify. Well, the last exchange was to take place with the two girls who had never played a sport in their lives. We were all nervous, but the two girls made the exchange and we qualified. The scene was perfect; photographers were running down the track taking pictures, we were all cheering, and Dennis Quaid was there. We ended up qualifying third and got in the first row. It was one of the greatest moments of my college experience.”
The first women’s Little 500 race, similar to the first men’s race, involved a field of beginners going at a slow pace. No longer can that be said of the women’s race now, though.
“At first I didn’t know what I was getting into,” said sophomore Kate McDougal, a sophomore elementary education major and first-time rider for Kappa Alpha Theta. “We started training in August. Since then we’ve had fall rides, a winter break trip, and the team stayed in Bloomington for spring break to continue training,” she said.
“I love it, though. To be part of a team, and to have the whole house behind you and supporting you constantly, it’s awesome.”
Kappa Alpha Theta qualified sixth this year, and hopes to finish in the top five of this year’s race. As for how she compares both races, the riders view them differently than do the students.
“To the riders, neither race is more important than the other,” McDougal explained. “The men’s riders have just as much respect for our race as we do theirs. But I still feel like the campus and student body place more emphasis on the men’s race, solely because they’re men and they ride faster than women.”
Freshman Alex Ivory, a business management major, came down to Bloomington last spring to visit a friend during the Little 500. He issued the same sentiment as McDougal.
“Both races are a lot of fun, but the men’s race definitely generates a ton of energy around campus, more so than the women’s race. The women’s race is on a Friday night, and it’s a nice way to get hyped for the men’s race the next afternoon.”
The women’s race this year featured students and alumni, as well as empty bleachers, the reason being forty degree weather with consistent rain. The bad weather didn’t stop the race, and more importantly it didn’t stop the riders from demonstrating how competitive the women’s race is. Riders came out of transitions gassed, notably exhausted, yet kept pushing themselves and one another. The crowd was on edge too, cheering on their sororities and riders, hoping that their encouragements would be a deciding factor in the race. The race was even more exciting; entering the last lap, Theta clung to a slim lead, barely ahead of Delta Gamma. As both teams sped towards the finish line, DG passed Theta and nosed out a victory, winning by a front tire’s length. The DG riders celebrated by hugging one another, and the crowd cheered, not necessarily for the winning team, but for a great race.
Though there will always be differing opinions on which race brings more fans to Armstrong Stadium, the fact of the matter is that both men and women have their own races, and both groups respect one another. Most importantly, though, competing in the Little 500 signifies a special tradition shared with riders of the past.
“It was such an amazing time, to me it didn’t matter if we won or not. It just didn’t matter in the end. It was so hard and took so much effort just getting to the race, so when that gun went off it felt like we had already won.”