2017 / by Kurt J. Kolka
In 1972, Russian gymnast Olga Korbut was making headlines during the summer Olympics as millions of Americans watched on.
At the same time, the University of Michigan had no official women’s gymnastics team, nor any other official women’s athletic teams.
It was also the year Title 9 was was passed. The new law said no person could be “excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
One year later. Enter: Sandra Machalik, a U of M freshman with a passion for gymnastics. When she inquired about the possibility of becoming part of the gymnastics team, she was told there was no gymnastics team for women.
“I began working out two to four hours a day by myself. I got permission from one of the guys in the old Barber Gymnasium to drag some mats out. Eventually, other women who were interested saw what I was doing and began to workout as well,” explains Sandra, now a resident of Grayling.
The following year, Sandra and the other women spoke with one of the assistant athletic directors, Marie Hartwick. She told them they could create a club team, not recognized by the university and arrange their own competitions. If the club proved to be viable, the team could then apply to the university to become intercollegiate.
“So, I rented the cars. I made the travel arrangements. I communicated with other coaches. I did everything.”
In essence, Sandra became a combination coach and athletic director for her gymnastics team. While the male athletes had been given their sports opportunities and were immediately recognized by the university, the female athletes had to earn it.
“We competed quite a bit in Canada. Canada was a lot more open to us than other [U.S.] teams were. And we stayed coaches’ houses or with other members of their athletic departments.”
Before the year was over, however, the gymnastics team won the right to become intercollegiate.
Still, there were problems. The recognition of a women’s teams itself brought conflict to the athletic department.
As an intercollegiate team, the women were supposed to receive university jackets to wear. Some of the male faculty became angry over the women receiving jackets identical to the men. Among the most outspoken was legendary coach Bo Schembechler.
When the jackets finally did arrive, they lacked the leather sleeves the men’s jackets had and had a smaller M on the front.
The team brought home two trophies from their matches during their years together. Unfortunately, during her senior year, Sandra injured her collar bone and could no longer play. The team also did not have a coach, so no records were kept in the university’s athletic archives of their first gymnastic team.
Afterward, the gymnasts split up and went their own ways in life. Sandra went on to earn master’s degree in special education and doctorate in educational administration. She married and had a family. They bought a vacation home in Grayling in 1982 and moved up permanently in 2010.
Meanwhile, throughout those many years, retired Assistant Director of Development for the university,Sheryl Szady, also a former athlete, and her associates sisters Linda and Sandi Laatsch and Sue Reynolds Passeno continually lobbied the university to give women jackets which were equal to the men’s. Finally, their stubbornness paid off.
On Nov. 19, past women’s teams were acknowledged with new university jackets, complete with leather sleeves and a larger M at a huge tailgate party set up by Ward Manuel, the current athletic director, during a football game with Indiana.
“We had the Board of Regents come and congratulate us. Ward did a presentation. There was all this acknowledgement on how we were wrongly treated. And then when we were introduced on the field, they said we were there for a reunion. So, in public they couldn’t admit we were given the wrong jackets and we brought back to get the real jackets. It kind of ruined the day for me.”
Members of Sandra’s team returning to their alma mater for this acknowledgement, brought back memorabilia from their days as gymnasts for the U of M. All of their documentation was handed over to the new coach.
“Since there was no record of our team, we all brought back our athletic cards. I brought this letter from Marie proving we were intercollegiate. They now have the evidence to prove that we were the first team.
“Since we didn’t have a coach, I was the keeper of the two trophies we won. They traveled with me from apartment to apartment to condo, until I turned them over to the university a couple years ago.”
While her gymnastics days may be long over, Sandra still enjoys a good work-out, usually in the form of outdoor activities. In fact, it was the beauty of Crawford County which lured the couple up north.
“We had camped in the area for years. We loved to camp at Lake Margarethe. It was the most incredible place”
These days she and her husband enjoy snowboarding, skate-skiing, mountain biking and other outdoor activities at local places like Hanson Hills and Hartwick Pines.
“We [the residents] don’t capitalize on our resources [in Crawford County]. It’s an incredible place!”