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Karyn Ridgeway

Photo of Karyn Ridgeway as a Little Leaguer

remember it clearly: I was 10, sitting in the back of our car. It was a hot day and I had my face pressed against the window. I was watching my eight-year-old brother try out for Little League and I was jumping out of my skin. It was killing me that I couldn't try out. I could throw and catch pretty well ... and I was fast. Suddenly, my mom left the car and walked right up to one of the coaches. I watched as she talked, gesturing back at me. She ran back and opened the car door: "Okay, Karyn, you're on!" Within seconds I was on the field with the boys. I was in my element. I played well and made the team. It still is one of the happiest moments of my life. On the ride home my brother looked awfully glum. Oh, he'd made the team, too — but now his big sister would be the only girl.

I never thought about being the "only girl" on the team. I loved practice and the competition. We won a lot of games and I held up my end. So after a while, the boys — even my brother — didn't think about the only girl. I've never forgotten the moxie it took for my mom to get me that chance. It was a great summer.

A couple of years later my family moved from Salt Lake City to Montana. I was disappointed to find out that there were all-girls teams at my new school. I had loved playing with the boys. Most of the girls teams lacked the organization and rigor I had gotten used to. But girls basketball was an established sport in Montana and I quickly joined. During those harsh Montana winters — when there wasn't much else to do — towns literally shut down on girls game night. The gym would steam up and smell of farms and tractors. Parents packed the bleachers and watched their teenage daughters play full out. The entire town showed up and cheered. I was part of a special community.

Newspaper photo of Karyn Ridgeway playing basketball

For me, basketball has always been a pure, total experience. In the heat of an intense game, my body felt like it was on fire, almost numb. Muscle memory took over and I was on autopilot. I was a hundred percent engaged to the exclusion of everything else. I was in the zone. I defined myself in basketball terms and my self-worth depended on it. I'd be sky-high if my team won and I had contributed to the win. If I missed a crucial free throw, or played poorly, and we lost, I'd be devastated.

ost of all I liked the equality of sport. It was — literally — a level playing field. I enjoyed that test, I loved the pressure. But it was hard not to notice that the boys' teams were frequently given the better equipment, facilities and schedules. Parents and coaches — who believed that girls should be given a fair shot — held spirited town hall meetings to discuss the situation. My mom and I attended these gatherings. The commitment of some parents and coaches to improve the opportunities for girls inspired me. At one meeting, a moderator asked for volunteers to become plaintiffs in an early legal case that would challenge the inferior athletic opportunities routinely given to girls. I immediately volunteered and at 18 I became one of three plaintiffs in the case. When part of the case settled a year later, we were promised equal equipment, facilities and field space. Athletic seasons for both girls and boys would now be the same length. Coaches would get equal pay for equal work.

In my sophomore year at the University of Montana, I made the basketball team. I spent a lot of time on the bench that first season. That was the hardest thing. Every cell in my body was screaming to get into the game. But sport is humbling. I had to face the fact that I just wasn't ready to be out on the floor yet. So I trained harder. The next year, I set the single-game assist record. The year after I started as point guard. Our team — The Lady Grizzlies — went 29-2 that season, and lost in overtime in the NCAA tournament to Stanford.

After college I began to teach science half time. I was always drawn to science. I had a bachelor's of science degree in microbiology and a master's in plant pathology. But I couldn't give up basketball. It was in my blood. So I became a coach. As I got better coaching jobs I tau