The OHSAA Salutes the 50th Anniversary of Title IX
An Interview with Carolyn Bowers
NOTE: With this being the 50th anniversary of Title IX being enacted into law, the OHSAA is saluting Carolyn Bowers as an Ohio Title IX trailblazer. After moving to Columbus in 1963 to work on her master’s degree at The Ohio State University, she was instrumental in teaching physical educators across the state the sport of gymnastics. Through hard work, determination and encouragement, she influenced the OHSAA to conduct a state championship in the sport, and an Ohio Title IX moment of magnitude came when the 1973 state gymnastics meet was the first OHSAA state tournament held for girls. She was an OHSAA gymnastics referee and/or state rules interpreter for 42 years and was chosen to officiate in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. A 1995 inductee into the National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Fame as an official, the OHSAA caught up with the 82-year-old Bowers in mid-August 2021. The following was edited for clarity.
Q. How did you get involved in gymnastics?
A. I was introduced to gymnastics while in high school in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. A friend and I were taking ballet lessons together, and a group from Europe came to Central Michigan University and did a whole gymnastics program for us. We watched it and I was asked if I wanted to do that with their team. I said OK, and it was just kind of natural for me.
From there I attended the University of Michigan. Women didn’t have gymnastics teams – they weren’t allowed to – so I asked the men’s coach if I could train with them. And we worked it out. I had a great time doing that. So I trained with them, made a lot of immediate friends and I said ‘all these big brothers . . . this is great!’ The only competition for girls at that time was AAU. There were pockets of competitions around the country, but it mostly involved people who came from Europe.
Q. How did you end up in Ohio?
A. When I graduated, I taught for a year at Ann Arbor (Mich.) High School and did a national gymnastics program. I had a lot of offers to teach the program at colleges, and the best offer was from Ohio State. They were forward-looking with their women’s programs and said they would pay for me to get my master’s degree if I would come and teach.
Q. What were your early experiences like in trying to get the OHSAA involved in offering gymnastics?
A. When I first arrived in Columbus, I met with the OHSAA and told them I was going to be starting this program through Ohio State, and we were going to be doing things with all the high schools. I said ‘I think I need to let you know.’ At that point, they did not want to touch it.
So they sent me to (a statewide organization) the Division of Girls’ and Women’s Sports. I went to the DGWS – which had a lot of things that were good for girls – but they wouldn’t let us have full competition. So I set up a program where you could perform the things that you would need for competition. We called them “play days.” They really were competitions. We formed a group of statewide teachers, we trained judges and we created a tournament. We really had a good setup, so we decided to go to the OHSAA again.
Q. What was your experience like when you approached the OHSAA at second time to ask about gymnastics becoming a sanctioned sport with a tournament?
A. We thought it was silly that the girls could not have the same competition that the men had. During that period of time, I believe they (the OHSAA) could see the handwriting on the wall. We told them ‘we really belong with you.’ We explained how many schools and teachers were involved. So they talked about it, asked questions and said they thought it sounded really good. They said they have one question: “how much is this going to cost?” And we all started to laugh because at that time we did not have any costs. They also were insistent that we have judges who were not connected to the schools, which we were able to do. The OHSAA already had such a good, strong program with the boys sports that they were doing, so they let us have a state tournament the next year.
Q. What role do you think Title IX played in the OHSAA agreeing to a gymnastics tournament?
A. I think because of Title IX, the OHSAA agreed to do this and set up a tournament. It was the first one, and they wanted it run properly.
Q. Do you have any particular recollection of Title IX becoming law?
A. I really did not. I knew I had this opportunity at Central Michigan when I was in high school, and I just believed that it could be something that is really fun for girls, and I wanted to promote it. I was so busy helping around the state, was teaching at Ohio State and working on my master’s degree, so I had my hands full (and don’t really recall Title IX being enacted into law).
Q. Do you take pride in knowing you played a role in starting organized interscholastic athletics programs and providing opportunities for girls in Ohio?
A. I don’t know that I’ve really thought of it in those terms. I knew that I was helping to promote girls sports, so it was fun.
Q. What are your thoughts on female athletes today and how far they have advanced compared to your early days?
A. The equipment is different and, like when ours changed, every time the equipment improves, the athletes find a way to really push the envelope. The athletes today train longer and start earlier. I’m not sure having an athlete train in the gym all the time is healthy. But the athletes of today have more opportunities to be dedicated to the sport. If anyone looked at what we did, the skill level of what I was able to do, they would just laugh because today’s athletes are so much better.