Medal That Binds
June 11, 2007
In 1982, Cheryl Flowers-Gavin became the first black player ever on a Boilermaker volleyball team. Ten years later, Badger goalkeeper Heather Taggart was named the Big Ten Athlete of the Year as a senior. Golfer Kristen White graduated in 2005 from Ohio State with a marketing degree after capturing medalist honors at the Big Ten Championships. While distinguished by their school colors and their own decades of accomplishments, the link that binds these women is a surprisingly stronger connection than one might think.
Since its inception in 1982, the Big Ten Medal of Honor has been awarded annually to a graduating senior female of each university that has demonstrated her ability to successfully balance the rigors of athletics while all the while pursuing the high expectations placed upon academics. Flowers, Taggart and White have all proudly represented their schools with the distinguishable honor that has been a mere supplement to their already accomplished careers.
When Flowers enrolled in the minority business program at Purdue in 1982, it was a unique time in women's athletics. The NCAA and Big Ten had just officially recognized women's sports a year before and Title IX was still in its infancy. It was by chance and a little luck that Flowers actually ended up on the Boilermaker roster. After being directed to head coach Carol Dewey and enduring two rounds of tryouts, Flowers was presented with a full scholarship. To the youngest of 14 kids growing up in the inner city of Chicago's notorious South Side, it was something that seemed unreal.
"It was truly a blessing and something I had never dreamed of," said Flowers. "It wasn't as if I grew up playing in volleyball clubs and knew I would play at some Big Ten school. Even though I came from Chicago, I was only exposed to a very small area, so just attending a major university like Purdue was beyond me."
For someone who had no intention of playing beyond her high school years, Flowers had unknowingly walked onto one of the most competitive volleyball squads in the Big Ten. At that time, Dewey had already compiled a 33-14 record since being named head coach in 1975, in addition to leading her team to back-to-back Big Ten Championship crowns. In 20 years at helm, Dewey became Purdue's all-time winningest women's coach, guiding the program to a 469-256 record (.677 winning percentage).
Flowers arrived on campus one year prior to the Big Ten's sanctioning of women's athletics - and just in time to become a part of a team that garnered two conference titles and topped the east division all four years she was there. She also saw the Boilermakers reach their highest national ranking to date (eighth in 1982) and secure four NCAA post season appearances.
While Flowers didn't rack up the individual accomplishments that some of her teammates did, she was a constant contributor and natural leader. By Flowers' senior year, Dewey entrusted her with the responsibility of team captain, along with superstar teammates Marianne Smith and Kim Corwin. In fact, Flowers' intangible skills impressed her coach in a preseason meeting.
"Every year before the season would start, Carol would sit us down and ask us about our goals and expectations for the upcoming year," Flowers said. "When she asked me what I thought she expected of me, I said, `My leadership abilities and being a leader by being an example for the younger players.'"
Flowers was scared she had said something wrong when the coach sat back and started laughing, but she was relieved when Dewey finally spoke.
"Cheryl, that is what makes you so different," Flowers recounted of Dewey's reaction.
While most of her teammates before her listed passing or hitting the ball better, it was Flowers who understood just what her coach was looking for.
Dewey entrusted Flowers with leading the team on the court, moving the outside hitter to setter where she earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors her final year. Flowers lead the team in assists while tying Smith with a team-high 65 service aces. She still ranks in the Purdue record book's top 10 with 1,366 career assists.
Her ability to survive is what Flowers is most proud of in her collegiate career.
"My statistics weren't record shattering. I wasn't an All-American or anything like that, but what I am proud of is stepping up to the challenge," said Flowers. "The program taught me not to set limits, but to set goals and constantly push beyond them."
The chance to play and study at Purdue was hardly lost on Flowers, who understood the limited educational choices her parents had endured, and because of that knew from an early age how important academics was. At Purdue, Flowers saw her opportunity and ran with it. It didn't come necessarily easy to her, but by her senior year the hardworking Flowers had garnered second team Academic All-America honors.
Flowers graduated Purdue's school of management as an accounting major and stumbled into the hospitality industry where she has been happily working ever since back in the Chicago area.
Making trips back to West Lafayette - this time with her own children in tow - Flowers can see just how far women have come in sports.
"Women's athletics have grown 10 times over," said Flowers. "The media is on a whole different level. I sat there amazed and wondered if I could have been able to handle it for how shy I was. I am happy to see how far women's sports have come. I feel there is more appreciation for the dedication and energy women put into their sport."
A decade after Flowers stepped foot on Purdue's campus, Heather Taggart completed one of the most successful soccer careers for a goalkeeper at Wisconsin. While the groundswell for women's athletics was beginning to take off with schools complying with Title IX, it was still an early period especially for women's soccer, evident in the absence of Taggart's name from the Big Ten record book.
From 1988-91 Taggart enjoyed a rather flourishing Badger career that was marked by 33-2-1 record at home, four consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament and at least an 11th-place ranking in the final national poll. However, it wasn't until two years after graduating from the Madison campus that the Big Ten adopted women's soccer into the conference.
"When I was in college there where only two Big Ten teams that fielded intercollegiate women's soccer teams (Wisconsin and Michigan State)," said Taggart. "So there weren't that many opportunities for someone growing up and playing the sport I was playing at that point in time."
Growing up in Omaha, Neb., Taggart earned a spot on her state's Olympic Development Program team that made annual trips to Wisconsin for camps. It was there that Badger head coach Greg Ryan first laid eyes on the stellar goalkeeper.
Much like Flowers before her, Taggart was unaware of what Wisconsin and Ryan had to offer.
"It was still a new program at that time," said Taggart. "Wisconsin had just gone to intercollegiate play a year or two before, after rising out of a club team and hiring Ryan. It was all very new, but it was also the closest place to home that was doing well and where I had a chance to play."
Along with four other freshmen, Taggart earned a starting role and hoped to make an immediate impact on the Badger team. By the end of her rookie season, Soccer America honored Taggart as its Freshman of the Year.
A young Wisconsin team held its own back in those early years, and along with the help of Taggart, advanced to the NCAA Tournament all four years of her career. The Badgers capped Taggart's four-year stint with an appearance in the national championship game. However, it was during her freshman campaign that Taggart remembers when the Badgers surprised everyone by storming through the postseason and into the semifinal contest. There, Wisconsin faced the daunting task of playing powerhouse North Carolina. It was around the 75th scoreless minute of the game that Taggart took a second to realize how amazing the experience actually was.
Fifteen years removed from her collegiate playground, Taggart is still etched in the Wisconsin record books as the Badgers' most dominating goalkeeper. The Badgers' Hall of Fame keeper monopolizes the four best goals-against average records while owning the three best standards for shutouts in a season. With 52.5 shutouts in her career, Taggart holds a 14.5 shutout advantage from the player behind her. In comparing her numbers to current Big Ten records, Taggart would top most of those as well.
"There is no doubt that college sports for women and sports in general is incredibly important," said Taggart. "Sports teach a lot of the skills that are important in the work place, in life and within relationships that sometimes are not easy to learn or skills that I think women aren't necessarily exposed to without some sort of physical activity."
Sports as well as academics came very easy to Taggart, who grew up never viewing college as an option.
"My dad has a PhD and my mom has worked in academic institutions her whole career, so college and universities have been a part of our lives forever," said Taggart.
Despite the absence of on-the-field conference honors that would have surely been added to her resume, Taggart proved to be a three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree in biochemistry and molecular biology. (Although women's soccer was not a sport sponsored by the conference, all athletes are eligible for recognition as at-large academic team members.)
For her efforts both on and off the field, Taggart earned herself a NCAA post-graduate scholarship that she used to attend medical school. After securing her medical degree from the University of Nebraska, she moved to Creighton where she completed her residency and specialized in gynecology. Staying around the Omaha area, where she grew up, Taggart has been a practicing physician for the past seven years.
By her senior year, White had capped off her impressive career at Ohio State with the lowest three-day round at the 2005 Big Ten Championships to capture medalist honors and help her team to its fourth consecutive conference title. The feat was an exclamation point in the golfer's impressive career as a Buckeye. It is surprising to think that it was the swing of a tennis racquet rather than a golf club that jump-started this golfer's dreams.
"I was a rather chubby child, so my mom used to drag me along to her Sunday night tennis leagues in order for me to run around and work off some of that baby fat," said White. "I was three when I first picked up a tennis racquet and took to the sport quickly."
White continued to excel all the way through high school, earning all-state honors in the sport until she developed her passion for golf.
"I played golf a lot during the summer and I had a lot of good memories, but never took it seriously because I was always traveling and playing tennis," said White. "It got to the point in my tennis career where I had been playing since I was three and I got burnt out and decided I didn't want to do the tennis thing anymore."
It was between her freshman and sophomore years in high school that White redirected her efforts to the fairways, all the while assuring her parents that the initial goal to attain a scholarship was still on the top of her list.
Not unlike many female athletes in today's time, White was influenced by male family members such as her grandfather.
"I had a big golf-oriented family," said White. "My grandfather was a scratch golfer who basically taught us all to play and literally went down in the basement and made all of our clubs."
To gain some added perspective, White was born in the fall of 1982, the same year Flowers was just stepping onto the campus of Purdue. Growing up through that time, opportunities for women were continually increasing and it seemed normal for White - a four-sport athlete in high school to be participating in sports.
"It felt natural to me," said White. "From the outside it may have seemed a little odd that on the playground I would go with all the boys to play football or kickball, but I thought nothing of it as it was obviously more fun to me than anything else at that time."
When White eventually decided to make the switch from tennis to golf in high school, she found herself once again competing with the boys. Despite the leaps and bounds that women's athletics had made in the last 20 years, the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year had to play on the boy's golf squad because her school didn't offer a girl's team at that time.
"I learned a lot and because of the competition I got better," said White. "You are kind of stressed into a situation which really gives you some thicker skin than maybe you wouldn't have had otherwise."
"I think one big obstacle women have is convincing people and especially men that we are worth coming out to watch," said White. "We are just as entertaining and just as talented."
The battle for equitable endorsement deals and the disparages between prize money still wage on. But looking at Flowers, Taggart and White, one can see the progress that has been made.
This week, 11 male and 11 female student-athletes from each conference institution will earn the sacred Medal of Honor and join the Big Ten's elite club.
And despite not sharing the same playing field, the same school colors and competing in three different decades, for Flowers, Taggart and White, it is a medal that will never lose its bond.