Before we get going with this column, I’m going to ask you to do something that could prove to be quite difficult – stop thinking about football for a minute.
I know it’s hard. I, too, was crushed by the results of last weekend’s game. But I think that it’s worth it at the beginning of a new school year, a time when freshman in particular are becoming indoctrinated in University culture, to take the time to remember how our athletic forefathers (or in this case, foremothers) helped create the distinctive Michigan tradition that keeps us trekking to the Big House, Crisler or any other Michigan venue week after week. Plus, I think we could all use a little boost to our pride in the Maize and Blue.
In this spirit, let me introduce you to Rosemary Dawson, formerly Rosemary Mann, daughter of legendary Michigan and Olympic swimming coach, Matt Mann II. Although she was too-often referred to as Mann’s daughter, or as her husband Buck Dawson’s wife (Dawson founded the International Swimming Hall of Fame), Rosemary’s accomplishments stood sturdily on their own. She was a pioneering and successful swimming and water polo coach at the University despite struggling with diabetes, which finally took her life before the summer of 2003.
Of course, I didn’t know all this when I caught my first glimpse of Rosemary’s personality. Initially, I saw her as a nondescript elderly woman.
It was July 1997 – the eve of Camp Ak-O-Mak’s annual 5K swimming race – and each of the 100 or so girls who called the rickety cabins and icy lake in Northern Ontario her summer home voraciously carbo-loaded in preparation for the event. The 13-year-old version of myself unenthusiastically scratched her collection of mosquito bites.
Although I looked forward to participating in an open-water race, where I wouldn’t have that nagging “hamster on a wheel” feeling that troubled me in the pool, I was rather apathetic about how I would perform in this event, which pitted Ak-O-Makkers against their brother campers across the lake at Chikopi.
As the meal concluded, Rosemary, who was co-owner of the camp her father founded for her, gingerly hobbled to the center of the main house. In my few weeks there, I had never actually heard her speak extensively – I assumed she operated as a figurehead.
At first, her voice was as wobbly as her steps. But what began as a shaky lecture morphed into a bold, feminist diatribe. Instead of merely telling us that we could swim faster than those Chikopi boys, she regaled us with anecdotes of the many Ak-O-Makkers who actually out-touched their counterparts at the dock.
“If a boy gets in front of you, and he’s close enough to reach, yank him back by the feet and swim ahead!” she roared.
At this point the more experienced campers chortled knowingly, but all I could manage was a dumbfounded expression.
Rosemary continued on her intense, yet endearing rant for several minutes, and concluded with a trademark mantra.
“So, how tough are you?” she cried.
“Tough enough,” the audience bellowed.
The message of that terse, but poignant phrase permeated Rosemary’s actions throughout her life. She was, in essence, the first female coach of the first women’s sports team at the University. Before women’s varsity sports, before Title IX, there was Rosemary, standing poolside, coaching what was then known as “The Ladies Speed Swim Club.”
In this era, the athletic department would not allow a female to be called “coach,” instead giving her the milder moniker of adviser. This, of course, did not affect the manner in which she operated. To the contrary – it was fuel for the already blazing fire of her determination. While coping with a dearth of support from Michigan, she and a woman from Michigan State organized and sanctioned the first women’s national collegiate swim meet. Prior to this, she formed the Ann Arbor Swim Club in 1956.
She was more than “tough enough” during her 40-year fight against her illness, which she did not succumb to until she reached 81 years of age. She was “tough enough” that, in her so-called retirement, she continued to coach at Ak-O-Mak. Even after she could no longer stand poolside, as she did at the birth of her career, she made her best effort to pass her passion along to droves of young girls who made their ways up North each summer.
After my initial encounter with the pioneer’s spunk, I became a rather distant admirer of her unpolished grace and unapologetic style. Rosemary inspired me to act, not only the next morning, when I grabbed a boy by his skinny ankle and gave it a firm tug, but also when I stepped onto this campus three years ago, and every time I sit down to help etch a game or player into the Michigan history books.
Rosemary lived her motto, and because of her, so did legions of other women (and men too, for that matter). So whether you’re down about the Notre Dame game, terrified about the prospect of exam week or your job opportunities (or lack thereof) upon graduation, all you have to do is answer Rosemary’s question:
“How tough are you?”