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Office of the First Lady

"Remarks at the Little 500 BBQ in celebration of the 25th Anniversary of the Women’s Little 500"

Bloomington, Indiana
April 21, 2012

I am extremely honored to be asked to speak on such an important occasion, the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Little 500 bike race. I want to start by congratulating the Delta Gammas for their great win yesterday under the lights—who cared about the rain?

I also want to congratulate the over 2,000 riders who have made the Women’s Little 500 such a fantastic event for the last twenty–five years.

And I want to congratulate Martha Hinkamp Gillum and Lee Ann Guzek Terhune, who, along with all of their teammates present and elsewhere, were on that path—breaking Kappa Alpha Theta team in 1987 that broke a barrier many thought should have fallen long before, by qualifying for what was then a men–only race.

Think about that for a minute. Not only did Martha, Lee Ann and their teammates have to train and build up the strength and endurance to compete with the guys, they also had to summon the courage to confront the inevitable resistance from those wedded to the way it had always been. This took real determination, real commitment, and the heart of a real athlete. And I want to say, twenty–five years later, THANK YOU.

The Women’s Little 500 has not just been a hallmark of women’s athleticism and one heck of a great event every year how—many of you watched Caitlin Van Kooten break away last year to lap the field en route to Teter’s second consecutive win? Not only all of that, it has also contributed immeasurably to the great traditions of Indiana University.

Yesterday, I was escorted to my post as the Women’s Little 500 Grand Marshall by Spencer Baker from the Student Foundation, which year after year makes the Little 500 happen, and as we were waiting for the signal to move into position he said, “this event is so IU!” I know exactly what he meant, which made me feel like a real Hoosier! It’s wholly OURS, and I know I love it in ways that are hard to describe. One of those ways, though, is what it means for women’s athletics in general.

I graduated from high school in June of 1972, one week before the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that paved the way for equal educational opportunities for women. There were a few team sports available to girls in my high school, but what I remember most vividly was that one of my classmates, an ace tennis player, had to sue the Michigan Department of Education to gain the right to play on the boys’ tennis team where she could get the level of competition she had earned. Being a girl who was involved in sports seemed to me a little like being in the chess club not—something everyone did, and those who did were probably naturally gifted. And it certainly wasn’t something that everyone was encouraged to do.

Well, fast–forward forty years, and today everyone, boys and girls, are encouraged to play sports, and it’s unimaginable that it was ever otherwise. And I finally caught up with team sports myself. In service of raising money for the local children’s science museum, WonderLab, I found myself playing basketball on a team of other women roughly my age, literally the first time I played a team sport. I am happy to say that it was one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my life. And I realized, as a middle–aged woman, what I had missed. I finally learned the sheer joy being part of something larger than myself, in which my teammates and I all took turns in a beautifully fluid way, leading and following, always focused on a successful outcome.

We owe thanks to another fellow Hoosier, Birch Bayh, and his Senate colleague Patsy Mink, for their farsighted work to change the playing field, literally, so that girls and young women, like boys and young men, could participate in a wide range of sports with a sense of belonging, the limits of their competitiveness under their OWN control.

Team sports engage us completely—mind, body, and soul, and working hard in concert with others is as much an intellectual exercise as it is a physical one. And what we learn from sports are truly life lessons. One of the Theta team members who couldn’t be here today, Kathy Cleary Kellner, said it best: “You learn a lot of lessons about teamwork, about pushing yourself and giving 100 percent. You learn it in sports, but you live it in your life.”

I know that one of the reasons I love the Little 500 is the chance to see these wonderful, strong young women work together, each of them competing as part of something larger than herself, believing with every push of the pedal that she belongs on that track. And I love it because I know that each rider will take their experiences into the rest of her life and be better for it. To me, that’s the essence of the great traditions of Indiana University. They are about courage, commitment, integrity, and the opportunity to achieve something beyond what you thought you could do, and beyond what you can do on your own.

So again, to those original Kappa Alpha Theta women, on behalf of all who have ridden in the Women’s Little 500 since 1987, and the rest of us who get to watch the race every year, THANK YOU for giving us another tradition of excellence and accomplishment at Indiana University!