Lessons from Legends: Sue Pitt Anderson and Brave Young Girls
By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor
The NCAA program that feeds America’s National Teams separates the USA in depth from any other country in the world. By following Swimvortex’s rankings of the global top 100 times, we know that on average, each year, the American swimming team produces about 20 of the ranked men in every event and about 25 of the ranked women. Those numbers are not only higher than any other country, but likely higher than any continent around the world.
America’s high number of world-ranked women is directly related to the huge number of collegiate swimming opportunities they enjoy today. The attempt to balance the opportunities for women to those of men didn’t get a firm push forward until Title IX was passed in 1972. Even after it became law, it took another 10 years to begin to make a substantial impact on extending girls careers in swimming beyond high school and providing a wide breadth of collegiate opportunities.
The experience of one young girl in New Jersey in the 1960s might be a glimpse into how the female athletes were treated compared to the boys, and how their courage helped forge the opportunities that young women enjoy today.
Sue Pitt loved to play virtually any sport, but there weren’t many available to her. Her parents, Larry and Kay, guided her into swimming as an outlet for her boundless energy. Sue soon discovered that she had a proclivity for endurance, particularly as it pertained to swimming butterfly. The Pitts lived in Highland Park, N.J., near her father’s work at Rutgers University and her mom’s as an elementary school teacher. Larry and Kay looked around for a good swimming coach and the best one was a young man named Frank Elm at the Summit Y. Unfortunately Summit was nearly an hour’s drive away. Undaunted by the commute, the Pitts embarked on a seemingly discreet attempt to help their daughter have a good experience and perhaps meet her potential in a sport.
Devoting nearly two hours in the car, in addition to the two hour practices, took a big chunk out of the afternoon and evening hours for Sue’s homework. So Sue would sit in the backseat of their family car with a flashlight completing much of her schoolwork on the ride to and from training. In the summer, coach Elm’s team trained twice a day, so Sue spent four hours in the car and four hours at practice.
In 1963, Sue was enrolled at Highland Park High School. Shortly after she turned 15, she broke the world record in the 200-meter butterfly in Philadelphia. World records tumbled relatively quickly in those days, but Sue’s global standard stood an entire year. When the New Jersey High School Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSAA) selected their outstanding high school athlete of the year at the close of the 1964 school year, a quarterback from South River High School named Joe Theismann—who later starred at the University of Notre Dame and on Washington’s professional football team—won the award. There was no mention of Sue Pitt, still the world record holder.
In the summer of 1964, Sue earned a spot on the USA Olympic Team where she competed in Tokyo, in the preliminaries of the 400-medley relay. Her teammates in the finals won the gold medal (however the rules in 1964 didn’t award Sue a gold medal as they do today). Along came the NJSAA banquet the next year…hmm…tough call…local girl that set a world record the previous year and this year made the USA Olympic Team at 16…might she be New Jersey’s best high school athlete?
In their wisdom the NJSAA, and the virtually all-male sportswriter contingent, selected Sue Pitt as High School Athlete of the Year. Sue showed up to receive her award at the gala event, and was ushered to an outside lobby area. She received her award there, away from the spotlight enjoyed by the male athletes.
Only Sue could say where she felt the most courageous in those teenage years, but she walked away from the ceremony, went back in the pool, and in 1965 won a national championship in American record-setting time. The following year she had one of her most interesting experiences in swimming when she competed in the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war. She showed her mettle again managing her training on the trip, and her emotions on race day, to win the 100-meter butterfly.
In fairness to the NJSAA, male participation dominated the opportunities in sports in those days. At the 1964 Olympics, for example, 77% of the athletes were male and Sue was one of only 79 women that competed in a sports field that included 346 athletes.
In 1966, Sue began her freshman year at the University of Vermont. There simply weren’t college swimming opportunities for women, thus she retired. That is what girls did at that time. But Sue took a look at the results of the 1967 summer nationals and decided she had a chance to make the 1968 Olympic Team. So she did what very few girls in college did in 1967.
At 19 years old she began to train again to swim fast.
Armed with a burning desire to represent the USA in the 1968 Olympics, Sue transferred from Vermont to Rutgers, where Coach Elm was now the head coach. She trained with the men’s team. At the ripe old age of 20, she became the second-oldest woman on the USA’s 1968 Olympic Team and was voted team captain.
The determination to engage in a full athletic career by swimmers like Sue Pitt Anderson, and others, forced the world to recognize equal opportunity for female athletes with males.
While the experience, will power and love for swimming fast by Sue and her contemporaries forced a seismic shift in the entire sporting world, you might face some smaller challenges that Sue’s story could help you face:
- Creativity in your commitment (like a flash light in the back seat of a car) can help you meet your goals even in the face of adversity.
- Awards are nice in the moment, but medals and trophies tarnish over time. Your character endures.
- When you think your opportunity is restricted, consider what Sue and her contemporaries faced. Yours are likely small in comparison.
Sue’s two daughters, Catie and Sally were also national-caliber swimmers. They each earned an opportunity that was never available to their mom – a college scholarship. Recently, Catie gave her mother the same gift that Sue gave hers: A grandchild. That child will be further removed from the experiences of many brave young girls of yesteryear, that blazed a path for the opportunities’ that exist today, like their grandmother’s.
Sue Pitt Anderson continues to create opportunities for others today in her work on the staff at USA Swimming.
For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to www.areteswim.com (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association. You can follow Chuck Warner on twitter @chuckwarner1.