In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its fourth annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female writers on staff. Sports contributor and staff photographer Grace Beal continues the series with this story.
Any college freshman right now can say that their first year of college has been something a bit different than expected. That holds true for the thousands of freshman athletes across the country. In a month where we praise all women, we also assess the disparities many women still experience, specifically female athletes. From lack of television time for women’s sporting events, to competing at clearly less accommodating venues, to receiving fewer or worse amenities than men’s events, women continue to compete and accomplish incredible feats inside and outside of their respective gyms.
The Daily spoke with three freshman athletes about their experiences after a semester and a half of COVID-19 influenced college. Stephanie Sparkowski from women’s soccer, Monet Chun from women’s golf and Naomi Morrison from women’s gymnastics may all compete in different sports, but arriving on campus amid the pandemic ties them together in an unprecedented and respectable way.
Stephanie Sparkowski decided she wanted to be a Wolverine at a relatively early time in her high school career. The community in Ann Arbor, both athletically and culturally, were irresistible to her from the very first time she stepped on campus. Sparkowski’s mother Kristen even said Stephanie’s “face lit up” the second she arrived on campus — the dream experience of any college tour.
“It’s one thing, obviously, transitioning in a normal year, but COVID has definitely made it a bit more interesting,” Sparkowski said.
The transition for any college student can be a lot, but these women added in a sport and a pandemic.
Sparkowski explained that despite the AP classes in high school that helped her prepare for college, she has learned she must be a lot more accountable for herself than ever before.
“Especially with COVID, some of your classes you don’t have to show up or ever get to meet with your professor,” Sparkowski said. “So you have to make sure you are doing what you have to do.”
And COVID-19’s effects on her transition were not solely academic. Before even starting her season this February, the whole athletic department shut down due to the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant. The shutdown ended Feb. 7, just 13 days before the start of the season. And as many former and present athletes know, the weeks directly before the start of games are generally the most critical for preparation.
“The pause was definitely unexpected, but this whole year has been pretty unexpected for us,” Sparkowski said, explaining that after their fall season was canceled, the key to getting from that point to their first game on Feb. 20 was “doing everything that (the team) could control.”
Like many other Michigan freshmen, Sparkowski and her other freshmen teammates are yet to experience an in-person college class. As they approach the end of the semester and are hopeful for a more normal Fall 2021 semester, these young women prepare to transition all over again, but are excited for the opportunity. For Sparkowski, meeting new people outside of her already close-knit bubble is something she is greatly looking forward to.
Despite the challenges this year has brought, Sparkowski says that it has all really brought the team closer together. For the women’s soccer team, getting some wins and getting to compete together has made the craziness all worthwhile.
Monet Chun started her college career in a new country, after a gap year, amid a pandemic and with the pressure on her to perform. The Ontario, Canada native says the University of Michigan is “everything (she) wanted in a school,” and according to Golf Channel, Chun might be everything the women’s golf team needs.
Chun took a gap year following her high school graduation with no idea that it would mean she had to start her college career under these conditions. Along with taking on the rigorous academics of Michigan, Chun and her teammates also faced the athletic pause, causing them to miss their second scheduled tournament of the season.
Zoom sessions to check in on each other’s at-home workout progress are certainly not things that Chun or any other athlete could have expected, but the team is making the best of it.
“I think we are really just holding each other accountable and doing what we could inside, making sure we get out at home workouts done, and just mentally preparing ourselves for the next event,” Chun said.
Chun hopes for a smooth transition to in-person activities and is looking forward to getting to compete even more while also interacting with other students on campus. In the meantime, she is working hard on the course to deal with the additional attention she is receiving from the golf community.
“I do feel a bit of pressure just coming in as a freshman,” Chun said. “But just going out and playing my own game with my teammates, supporting everyone, will help a lot.”
Similarly to the other athletes, she explains that her excitement to be here and the fact that she got to play is what she values above all from this year.
As for encouraging more young women to participate in golf, Chun suggests “opening up the programs more to young juniors or those playing in high school.” Chun started golf and found her passion for it at a young age. She hopes to see that encouraged more for young female golfers and is excited to see it already happening by more youth and junior clubs encouraging female involvement.
Naomi Morrison has had an impressive debut for the women’s gymnastics team in a season in which the Wolverines twice set a new program-record score. She described getting to attend the University of Michigan as a “once in a lifetime chance,” both because of the phenomenal gymnastics team and the stellar academics, and she is surely making the most of that chance.
“There’s a lot more that you have to be aware of,” Morrison said.
From keeping a calendar and writing just about everything down, unlike the mental notes in high school, Morrison is seeing first-hand what it means to be a Division I student-athlete. And while it might seem daunting, she likes this challenge.
“The coaches see the amount of potential we have and that drives you to want to be your absolute best,” Morrison said, “The girls on the team are amazing and the team is very family-oriented.”
While a lot of this potential has already been seen inside the gym, the athletic pause and pandemic year in general have significantly changed the team’s schedule.
“When we got shut down again for two weeks, they did a really good job of making sure we were on Zoom calls and holding everybody accountable,” Morrison said. “We also have this saying — ‘Fire It Up.’ We would be like ‘Are you fired up?’ and of course I’m like, ‘I’m fired up,’ so just keeping the energy up even when we don’t have a chance to be in the gym.”
The sport of gymnastics has had one of the most public and egregious struggles with equality, a scandal with Larry Nassar and other male coaches, trainers and heads of sport at the center. Morrison took a moment to mention how the gymnastics community continues to work for change after the scandals with USA Gymnastics and that her “heart goes out to anybody affected.”
These athletes came into an already competitive environment in a year unlike any other and have made the most of it. The women also took a moment to discuss the expectations and realities for their treatment as a female athlete at the University of Michigan.
All three women expected equality in treatment.
“It’s the culture that Michigan Athletics has and aims for,” Sparkowski said.
Monet Chun also said she was expecting great support, and that’s exactly what she has received.
Soccer, golf and gymnastics all have a men’s team at Michigan, which adds another dimension to the treatment. The women felt there is great support between the programs.
“At our Big Five meet, the men’s team was there wiping out mats for us and cheering us on, which is very amazing to see,” Morrison said. “They have been one of our biggest supporters.”
She also added that her team will be doing the same for the men’s team to cheer them on.
Still, there are changes that can be made to improve the treatment of women athletes, both at the University and NCAA levels. And each woman had similar sentiments for what they wanted to see, which are important not just during Women’s History Month but all the time.
Sparkowski hopes to see more attention toward women’s accomplishments and said, “The University and the NCAA can keep promoting women’s sports, especially on social media and on television by televising more games.”
This bears particular relevance as, so far, just one women’s soccer game this season has been shown on TV, with two others on the streaming service BTN+.
Chun is grateful for the treatment and support the women’s golf team receives, but added that “the recognition of women’s sports does lack in some areas.”
This was recently seen in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, where the women received significantly worse amenities than the men.
Like most students at the University of Michigan the athletes are looking forward to some normalcy, even game days at the Big House.
Morrison added, “I am excited for this all to shift … but I am hoping that we remain focused and still have our eye on purpose and one goal, and that is to win a national championship.” This testament
As for the Uuniversity and the NCAA, Morrison said, “They can continue doing what they’re doing, but also making sure that there is a greater platform for us, as well.”
Freshmen like these three Michigan athletes have taken a difficult year and used it to continue to show the exceptional skill of female athletes. As these women, as well as all women in sports, continue to put their talents on display, listening to what they have to say regarding the athletic community is of the utmost importance.