Video: The First 18 - Volleyball, Unwitting Pioneers
Oct. 12, 2015
Part 2 of a 6 part series on South Carolina’s first female scholarship student-athletes.
Click here for the full First 18 Digital Presentation with new stories appearing each day this week.
Being one of the first 18 women to receive an athletics scholarship at South Carolina means something different to each of the members of that exclusive club. For former volleyball student-athletes Annette Gibson Lesher, Lee Branch Marks, and Cheryl Grindle, the idea of acceptance for women competing in athletics is what makes their role in history memorable.
“There were a lot of girls who didn’t understand why we liked sports,” Marks said. “I’m not sure that our parents understood our huge desire to play and compete. It wasn’t a fault of theirs. There just wasn’t an awareness out there.”
“My parents never watched me play,” Lesher said. “They just didn’t understand why I liked sports. Now you fill the gyms with parents. It’s more socially acceptable now. They weren’t ashamed. They were very proud, but they just didn’t come and watch you play. So you were a little odd. That’s gone now, and it’s accepted. That’s another big step that was taken with those scholarships.”
Validation for Female Athletes
After the implementation of Title IX, South Carolina made 18 scholarships available for female student-athletes for the first time in school history in 1975, with three going to each of the six sports. The teams were also under the direction of the athletics department for the first time. It wasn’t always an easy transition for everyone on campus.
“I almost got kicked out of my sorority because I went to volleyball practice,” Marks said. “They didn’t understand that there were other commitments and that this truly was a huge commitment. One of the members of the sorority fought for me, and that worked out. I wanted the full college experience.”
Lesher was a rising senior, while Marks was a rising junior when they were among those awarded a scholarship to pay for their tuition. While it wasn’t a tremendous award by today’s standards, it was very meaningful to those who were fortunate enough to earn one.
“I was working my way through college at a dry cleaners, so it allowed me to live on campus for the first time,” Lesher said. “My senior year, I got to live on campus and have the real college experience, whereas before I was a commuter. It was a big deal for me to be able to live on campus and go to practice from my dorm and be with friends.”
Grindle was different in that she was recruited to come to South Carolina to play volleyball out of high school in Hendersonville, Northing Carolina, earning the scholarship as a freshman.
“I do feel the scholarship had everything to do with me coming to the University of South Carolina,” Grindle said. “I would have gone to college regardless. I was fortunate that my family was able to support me with that, but I don’t know that I would have gone to South Carolina (without a scholarship) due to the out of state tuition. I knew my life was going to change because I was going to be the first one in my immediate family to earn a degree.”
Although the female student-athletes had competed hard in the years before scholarships, Lesher felt the change validated females in sports.
“It was so out of the ordinary, and for girls to receive a scholarship to play sports, there was a lot of pride involved,” Lesher said. “It gave us a validation that we didn’t have before that athletics was as important to females as it was for males.”
The women noted that they didn’t sense any animosity about the scholarships from other student-athletes, male or female.
“It was the law,” Marks said. “So there was media about how we were going to be in compliance with the law. The male athletes that I knew, I don’t feel like they thought anything was being taken away from them at that point. I know that my friends were very proud for me.”
“I think it just added pride to what we did,” Lesher said. “We wanted to represent our university. I just know how proud I was that I got to do that, and that I could represent the University of South Carolina playing volleyball.”
“We wanted to win,” Marks continued. “We were athletes that were competing.”
I guess we were pioneers. That’s not how I felt at the time. We were just so busy trying to enjoy it all and get a degree at the same time.Cheryl Grindle
Life of a Scholarship Athlete
While this was the first step in leveling the playing field in intercollegiate athletics for women, other areas of support were slow to catch on, such as attendance for home matches at the Blatt P.E. Center.
“We wouldn’t call it a ‘crowd’ really,” Lesher said. “You wouldn’t have to fight for seats. Mostly a lot of friends came. My boyfriend, who is now my husband, would go. Maybe some people in our P.E. classes would show up. We were just happy to play. We weren’t worried about the crowd so much; just the ability to be able to be out there and play volleyball.”
“I remember feeling that maybe if we had 20 people at a match that we were blessed,” Marks said. “Those 20 people, we could call them by name. It was also a day and age where families weren’t travelling as much to watch their student-athletes play. I don’t remember a lot of parents being there.”
“We did have one of the best venues out of anywhere we travelled to,” Grindle said. “It was such a privilege to play the sport I loved.”
Travel wasn’t as glamourous as it appears today, but the student-athletes were excited about any opportunity to compete. Tournaments soon emerged on the schedule which allowed teams to get the most out of their trips by playing multiple matches in a particular day or weekend.
“We’d pile into one 15-passenger van, and the coach would drive,” Marks said. “That was travel, and we were happy to do it. Many trips, we’d get back at midnight or one o’clock, but we were just happy.”
“We were young,” Lesher quipped. “We could live off of four hours of sleep.”
“I remember my freshman or sophomore year, I was driving one of the vans,” Grindle said. “In that moment, we didn’t think a lot about it. It’s just what needed to be done to get the team there. Things got better and better every year though.”
There weren’t big apparel deals, and only the basic equipment was available.
“I think we got shoes the year we were on scholarship,” Lesher said. “Knee pads were provided I think. I had to buy some for practice.”
“They were not volleyball shoes though,” Marks said. “They were the heaviest basketball shoes I’ve ever seen in my life. In this day and age, people would laugh over the shoes we wore. You couldn’t jump. There was one garnet volleyball t-shirt that I still have. That was given to us as a practice shirt; one t-shirt. Again, we were thrilled.”
“I thought the uniforms were great,” Grindle said. “What I did notice was that each year, things got better and better. I was 17 years old when I first got there, and I thought I was at the greatest place in the world.”
One thing some of the ladies were not thrilled about was their nickname as the women’s teams were initially dubbed “The Chicks.”
“That was not our choice,” Marks said. “I wish as athletes that we would have had a say in that. We did not refer to ourselves as that.”
The women’s teams were later referred to as “Lady Gamecocks,” but they now share the same nickname as the men’s teams, “Gamecocks.”
Moving Forward, Looking Back
In retrospect, members of ‘The First 18’ may have not understood the impact they were having, but they do know that their experience paved the path for their future. Grindle has had a successful career in business and now lives in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Marks currently lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she owns her own business and has also worked as a volleyball official. Lesher has been teaching for 36 years and is currently a sixth grade science teacher at North Central Middle School in Kershaw County in South Carolina.
“Nobody in my family had ever gone to college,” Lesher said. “It built a lot of confidence in me that I didn’t have before. Just feeling that thrill and joy of saying that I’m an athlete and I can do this; you can’t buy those experiences. I like to share my experiences with my students that the university is here and there are others that can change their lives, because it changed mine.”
“When it became a true sport for the university as opposed to what was considered, more or less, a club sport, it was a wonderful experience,” Marks said. “What I realized when I went to graduate school was what a good education I had gotten at the University of South Carolina. I’m proud of that. I got to play, I had a good education. I met great friends. I had a blast.”
The lessons they learned while representing the university carried over into their professional life.
“The team experience carries you through life,” Marks said. “Once you learn how to become a team player, then you take that and put it in other phases of life. We had diversity. There were people from different socio-economic backgrounds. People were good to me while I was here, so to give back to young people is one of my biggest life lessons.”
“You learned how to work as a team,” Grindle echoed. “The type of jobs I’ve had all involved teamwork. The mental toughness of being an athlete in college prepared me for taking on a very aggressive corporate career. Being a former student-athlete was attractive to a lot of my future employers. I’ve been a hiring manager, and I’ve always looked at what people did in college, even if I’m hiring someone who is in their 30s, 40s or 50s. There are other jobs I’ve had in my career where I was the first person in that position, where again, I had to sort of be a pioneer.”
“I absolutely love being a teacher,” Lesher said. “When you play a sport, you know how to work as a team, I can draw back on that. There is teamwork in teaching. I got that from sports. I know I did.”
Seeing all of the South Carolina women’s programs currently achieving at a high level creates a great sense of pride for these members of ‘The First 18.’ They hope their humble beginnings aren’t forgotten, and would have plenty to tell the student-athletes of today if given the opportunity.
“I’d want them to know there are people that paved the way for them to have what they have,” Lesher said. “How fortunate they are to be able to play something that they love doing. And to give back. That’s why I’ve been a teacher all of these years. I just feel like I’m giving all of these kids an opportunity.”
“Be thankful to the women before you who fought hard,” Marks said. “I don’t think some of the young athletes of today realize that it was a road that was hard to pave and that there were women at this university who worked hard to see that it was implemented correctly. Most of all I’d tell them to please enjoy what you’re doing and remember that you’re a student-athlete. Study hard. Keep your grades up because you’re not going to be able to play forever. Enjoy it and be proud to represent the university.”
“The first thing I would tell them is whatever you’re doing, have fun,” Grindle said. “Savor each and every moment. I would tell them to bond with their teammates. These are times they’re never going to forget. Above all get that degree, and appreciate those that came before them.”
As the University of South Carolina celebrates ‘The First 18,’ the first scholarship recipients are thankful that their place in history is being honored.
“I guess we were pioneers,” Grindle said. “That’s not how I felt at the time. We were just so busy trying to enjoy it all and get a degree at the same time.”
“The world has changed so much,” Lesher said. “When title IX came out, that started evening out the playing field. It also opened jobs up. These young ladies have so many more choices now. That’s part of the legacy of Title IX. I just feel lucky that I was in the right place at the right time. I feel blessed.”