Blount: At 68, she's on trail she helped to blaze

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2012 - 11:53 AM

Judy Jungwirth still plays sports she once was banned from for being a girl.

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Judy Jungwirth

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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More than five decades after the fact, Judy Jungwirth still remembers the day she found out how unfair the world can be. She was 11 years old, one athlete among many in the Westby family, who wanted to follow her brothers and play hockey for a Minneapolis Park Board team in the early 1950s.

She thought about using only her first initial when she signed up. But she knew players could get in trouble for misidentifying themselves, so she wrote her full name. It took exactly one game for her to get thrown out of the league for the crime of being a girl.

"There was a big hullabaloo," Jungwirth said. "I didn't understand it at the time; I wasn't doing anything wrong, and I'd been playing hockey and football with boys forever. But they said, 'Girls can't play hockey.' It was the first time I realized I couldn't do something I wanted to do."

At age 68, she is making up for lost time. Jungwirth reconnected with the sport as an adult and still plays for a team in the Women's Hockey Association of Minnesota, a league she helped establish. She has also spent a lifetime spreading the joy of sports, helping other athletes -- male and female -- maximize the vast array of opportunities that exist today.

Jungwirth will receive a special merit award Wednesday at the annual celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day at the State Capitol. She has played women's professional softball in a league founded by Billie Jean King. She's coached mentally challenged adults, several high school teams and her own grandchildren. She's umpired high school and college softball and helped get varsity letters awarded to women athletes at the U who played before Title IX was passed.

Though Jungwirth has retired after 30 years of teaching physical education in Bloomington, she hasn't slowed down. After being ordered off the ice as a kid, she's determined to do everything she wants to do for as long as possible.

"I've had season tickets to Gophers women's hockey since Day 1," said Jungwirth, who lives in Bloomington. "When I'm watching those games, I'm wishing I was out there playing.

"The day I feel glad to be sitting down and watching, I'll know it's time to hang up my skates. My brain plays a better game than my legs these days. But I haven't reached that time yet."

Jungwirth grew up in a hockey family in south Minneapolis. Her brothers Jim and Gerald played for the Gophers, and Jim was a defenseman on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team.

The park board did allow girls to play softball, which became her signature sport. An infielder and self-taught pitcher, Jungwirth began playing with a U club team at age 14 and became one of the most honored fastpitch players in state history. She also got a taste of pro sports in the mid-1970s, when she played two seasons with the Buffalo (N.Y.) Breskis of the International Women's Professional Softball league.

The team played a 120-game schedule crammed into four summer months, for which Jungwirth earned a salary of $3,000. She also taught and coached several sports at Bloomington's Lincoln High School and in the Bloomington Athletic Association. But she never gave up on playing hockey and at age 34, Jungwirth joined a team -- and the administrative board -- of the Minnesota Women's Hockey League, created to give women of all skill levels a place to learn and play the game.

That morphed into the Women's Hockey Association of Minnesota, which now boasts more than 1,300 players in seven divisions. The women who got it rolling in the early 1970s, including Jungwirth, put on clinics to teach the sport to newcomers and advocated tirelessly to give girls more opportunities to play.

The efforts of those women, and of many others who will be honored Wednesday, eroded many of the barriers that kept them out of sports years ago. But Jungwirth never has forgotten how it felt to be excluded. Being allowed to play today, she cautioned, does not guarantee women will have those same opportunities in the future -- making it all the more important to keep pushing forward, which she plans to do for as long as she is able.

"People think where we're at now is really good, and they've gotten comfortable," she said. "But people forget history. They don't know how hard we had to fight for what we have.

"They used to say, 'Women don't sweat, they glow.' But sweat is sweat. And an athlete is an athlete. We worked hard for these opportunities. And we deserve them."

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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