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Throwback Thursday: Betsy Bernard, Notre Dame’s First Female Varsity Diver

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I think my years spent at Notre Dame were the most wonderful gift that my parents could have given me. 

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Betsy (Shadley) Bernard grew up in the “city of seven hills,” Cincinnati, Ohio. While she never dreamt of being a woman who would break barriers in college, she most certainly did. Betsy was the first woman to dive competitively on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (men’s) varsity swim team, and went on to become a two-time All American representing the University of Notre Dame. Before setting off to Notre Dame she worried if the high price tag of a Notre Dame education would be worth it, but it has definitely paid her back since graduation a hundredfold. How did Betsy Bernard end up attending the University of Notre Dame and diving with the men’s swim team? This is Betsy’s story.

“I did not set out with the goal of being a diver in college. Growing up I was an athlete. I liked sports, and I enjoyed the competition. As kids, my siblings and I all swam at the local swim club, and I started diving at the age of ten. I started on the trampoline in my parent’s back yard, learning how to do flips, which translated very easily into diving. When I got to high school, my all girls private catholic high school did not have a swim team, so I played volleyball and basketball. I also worked with a private diving coach because I had some potential. Eventually I told my parents this notion that I had some diving potential was silly. I never went to any meets, I was not getting any competitive experience, and I was not able to compare myself against others. I ended up shelving diving when I was a junior in high school.”

“I was not focused on playing a sport in college; I was focused on going to college and getting an education. I only applied to Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College. I started to apply to the University of Miami (of Ohio), which is near where I lived in Cincinnati, and very quickly changed my mind. My father had gone to Notre Dame, and my brother was a student there when I was applying, and so there was a significant pull, drawing me toward either attending Saint Mary’s or Notre Dame.”

“I had it in my mind that I would attend Saint Mary’s. While I was a decent student, I was not a great student (as you have to be today to get into Notre Dame). I had already paid my deposit and had picked out my dorm at Saint Mary’s when I received my acceptance letter to Notre Dame. I went to my dad, concerned about the difference in cost. ‘Notre Dame is a lot more expensive than Saint Mary’s. What if I get my Notre Dame degree and then decide I do not want to pursue a career; that I just want to be a mom?’ He replied, ‘I can think of nothing I’d rather invest in.’ I did end up pursuing a career before I got married and had kids, and I enjoyed it very much. At the time that I was heading off to college, there were so many more opportunities for women than there had ever been before. Previously, women had primarily studied to be teachers and nurses. Options are good, but they can confuse you as an 18-year-old girl.”

“When I arrived at Notre Dame, women had been there for about ten years. While women were not new to Notre Dame, women’s athletics definitely were, and there were very few female student-athletes. The first opportunity to play sports at Notre Dame that presented itself to me was volleyball, which happened to be the sport I liked the best. It was a club team and I went to the first practice with the intention of trying out. It was utter mayhem. The coach was clueless, and I could see it was going to be a big waste of my time. There was also a women’s basketball team, but it was much more organized than the volleyball team was, and I did not think I was good enough to make the team. The next opportunity to present itself to me was the swim team.”

“My brother Fritz was a senior and a diver on the team and he encouraged me to try out. They had two senior divers, but that was it, and they desperately needed more. Another freshman (guy) and I showed up for tryouts. I had not been actively diving in two years, but I went ahead and tried out and they took me because they really needed more divers. It was the men’s varsity swim team, and I was the only woman on the team, but they welcomed me with open arms. My parents thought it was cute that my brother and I were on the swim team together. It was great that they could come to Notre Dame and watch both of us compete at the same meet. While I technically was a Division I athlete, the NCAA did not even exist/apply to women’s sports. It was the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women). Because there were not that many female students at Notre Dame, I was classified a ‘small college’ athlete. It was not a big deal at all to me, though, because it was something I liked doing.”

“The first year I was on the team the primary coach was a swim coach, and not a diving coach. Diving only takes up two events at a swim meet, one meter and three meter diving, and I guess it didn’t warrant its own coach. The swim coach, Dennis Stark, was a wonderful man, and a legend, but he did not know much about diving. He would say to me, ‘that was pretty good; maybe point your toes a bit more.’ I received more coaching from my fellow divers than I did from Coach Stark. In my first year on the team I did not perform all that well. I traveled to a meet or two, but I did not make the travel team. The next year my brother graduated and stayed at Notre Dame to go to law school, and they hired him on as the diving coach. That is when I really started to improve. It was a great opportunity for him. He was able to earn a little money doing something he loved while he was in law school. He was a great coach and my diving got significantly better under his instruction.”

“Being a student and an athlete at a school like Notre Dame was both time consuming and challenging. There is a significant change from being a student-athlete in high school, to doing it at the college level. In high school, your time is quite scripted, but once you get to college, you have way more free time on your hands. Being a student-athlete forced me to budget my time because I had more to balance than just my academics. We practiced in the evenings and I remember going to the library after practice and feeling so far behind because everyone else had already been there for two hours. As a student-athlete you just didn’t have the time to mess around, you had to be productive and not waste time.”

“As a woman at Notre Dame, the fact that there were more men on campus than women never seemed like a big deal to me. It just never dawned on me that it was not normal. The women who were already there made it very easy for us to come in. Yes, it was obvious that there were not as many women as there were men, but I always felt like I belonged. The only time I felt different was being the only woman on the swim team. When we traveled, many of the pools would only have two locker rooms. The home team would typically get the men’s locker room, and the away team would get the women’s locker room. Then there was me. Since I could not go in the locker room with the rest of my teammates, they would typically put me in an office where I could change clothes. My teammates, however, always made me feel like I was a part of the team. The other teams, however, probably did not like me too much, especially if I beat them. You knew their friends were going to give them all kinds of grief over getting beat by a girl. That was fun. I was lucky enough to have had a real college experience with a little good competition on the side. I worked hard, don’t get me wrong, but I also had a very normal college experience, which many college athletes don’t have today.”

Every college experience is filled with countless precious memories, but a few special ones usually stand out from the crowd as favorites. “Some of my favorite memories from competing on the swim team didn’t happen on the diving board, but rather on the bus. Traveling with the team on the bus and playing cards in the back with the guys, those are some of my favorite memories. We had a foursome that played spades, and we were always betting a keg. No one actually ever paid off those bets, but we sure had a lot of fun. We traveled with a priest so we always had a pre-meet Mass, or a quick Mass on the way home to get our Sunday obligation in (we timed it, we could get Mass done in 17 minutes!). The camaraderie and the friendships I made with my fellow teammates; that was truly the best part about being a student-athlete. You suffered together, you worked hard together, and you shared each other’s successes together. It was a wonderful thing.”

“At the end of my junior year they announced there would be a women’s varsity swim team the following year. As a senior, I wanted to stay with my teammates, and so I continued to compete with the men. I did not want to start on a new team my senior year, I wanted to finish where I started. I was still able to compete in the post season against other women, so it all worked out perfectly. Twice during my time competing at Notre Dame on the men’s swim team, I proceeded on to nationals and competed against women from other small colleges. My senior year, when I went on to nationals, I was able to compete with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish women’s team which was an anomaly, but it worked. I made All-American status twice: my junior and senior years. One year it was in Reno, Nevada, and the other year it was in Meadeville, Pennsylvania.”

When you head off to college, four years seems like such a long time, but without fail, it goes by in the blink of an eye. Before you know it, it is time to take what you have learned along your journey on the Notre Dame Value Stream, and set out to see where the wind blowing your sails will take you. “In order to be a successful student-athlete you must be disciplined in all aspects of your life, which translates very easily to life after college. It also requires you to have perseverance, goal setting, and just being tough. During my years at Notre Dame, I not only learned all of those skills, but I bolstered my faith as well. I think my years spent at Notre Dame were the most wonderful gift that my parents could have given me. Yes, the experience was tremendous, but in the years since, what I learned at Notre Dame has enhanced my life a hundredfold.”

“I graduated from Notre Dame in 1981 with a business degree, with a concentration in finance. In 1981, the country was in a recession/economic downturn, and it was difficult for me to get a job. I ended up landing a part-time job at IBM through a connection my parents had. I did well and the part-time opportunity turned into a full time job, and I worked there for 15 years. I enjoyed my time at IBM and I really grew up during my time there. I learned how to live in the world, and be successful in the workplace, and I gained a lot of confidence in those years. When my first child was born, I was lucky enough to be able to stay home and raise our children.”

“We are a Notre Dame family for sure. I have three children, all boys, who all went to Notre Dame. My husband was also on the swim team at Notre Dame (it is how we met … I married one of my teammates!) He was an accounting major at Notre Dame. He went on to get his law degree and is currently an attorney in Detroit, Michigan. We dated for nine years before we got married. I wanted to find my own way in the world first, and be independent before I got married. All of our sons played sports growing up, but none of them pursued anything at the varsity level in college. They all played intramural sports at Notre Dame, and were coaches for the women’s intramural teams. My youngest son, Mikey, won Bookstore Basketball twice.”

Depending on the sport, the relationship between coach and athlete can vary. In some sports, the coach is very involved in the day-to-day details and instructions, and in other sports, not so much. Betsy spoke with me about her relationship with her coach. “The coach of the Notre Dame swim team was very open minded to allow a woman to compete on the men’s team. Back in those days that just did not happen. At the same time, he did not always know what to do with me. Before the first swim meet he asked me, ‘do you need a bathing suit? Do you think if I gave you two of the guy’s suits it would work?’ Um, no! (laughs) He was kidding with me (sort of) … but not really. I traveled with the team a few times as a freshman, and they would put me in a room with my brother. As time went on we got a few more women on the team, but they did not travel too much, so most of the time I had my own hotel room. I am very thankful that he was so open-minded with me, and gave me the opportunity to compete with the men. It sure did make his life more complicated, but I’m very grateful that he was willing to work with me.”

Notre Dame does such a great job of teaching Her students to give back, and so I always ask my interviewees if they have any volunteer efforts they would like to share. “I do a lot of volunteer work. I cuddle babies in the NICU weekly. I deliver communion to the homebound. When our kids were growing up, we were involved in a program that hosted sick children from other parts of the world who needed medical care and did not have access to it. Over the years, we hosted four different children through a program called, ‘Healing the Children.’ (https://www.healingthechildren.org/) The children would stay at our house and receive treatment at the local hospital. Local doctors would in turn donate their time/care. It was an incredible experience, not only for my husband and me, but for our children as well. It was such a great thing to be able to show our children that everyone can make a difference. That we all can work for social justice and make an impact. You always get more than you give.”

I greatly appreciate Betsy for spending some time with me and talking about her experiences at Notre Dame. I also found two other stories about her that I would like to share as well. One from the Scholastic and one from the Observer.

From the April 15, 1993 edition of the Scholastic:

A New Tradition

In the fall of 1972, 325 women arrived on campus. At the time, there were no organized athletic activities for women. But, according to Notre Dame Sports Information director John Heisler, the university was open to implementing opportunities for women to compete in sports. . “The office is prepared to do all it can ‘to arrange athletic events for the girls. Thus the girls are encouraged to make their desires for various athletic programs known,” said interhall girls supervisor to the Scholastic in 1975.

Since it took several years before varsity teams were established, there were a few instances where women were allowed to compete with the varsity men’s team. When the men’s swimming team went to meets before there was a women’s varsity swimming team, females were allowed to compete at the meets against the opposing women’s squad. In 1977, Betsy Shadley, a Notre Dame diver, earned a monogram on the team.

According to The Dome, the first woman to earn four monograms was Maggie Lally. She was a member of the basketball team from 1977-1981. Jeanine Blatt and Betsy Shadley, both members of the swim team, were the first female Notre Dame All-Americans in 1979 and 1980. Molly Sullivan, a fencer, was the first and only four time Notre Dame female All-American in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988

And this snippet from the March 17, 1980 edition of Observer:

Four Achieve All –American Status

by Michael Ortman Sports Writer

MEADVILLE, Penn. — Notre Dame swimmers Jeanine Blatt, Lee Ann Brislawn and Kathy Latino and diver Betsy Shadley were honored as AIAW Division III All- Americans following their performances in the three-day-long National Swimming and Diving Championships held here this weekend. Since Notre Dame has no separate varsity team for women, the four had to compete with the men during the regular season. Times recorded against male competition qualified them for the 102-team national championships. Both Blatt and Shadley earned All-America honors last year in a similar small college championship in Reno, Nevada.

Shadley put on an impressive diving display, earning her laurels from the 1-meter board. Her 342.81 points placed her third in a field of 55 divers. In the 3-meter competition, Shadley failed to qualify for the finals by just six-tenths of a point and finished in 13th place. “I was a little calmer than last year,” admitted the Cincinnati native, “but I was still really nervous. I perform a little better under pressure, and I think that was a little plus.”

“I was incredibly pleased with the girls’ performance,” said Irish swimming coach Dennis Stark. “I really think they represented women’s swimming at Notre Dame in grand fashion.”

Cheers & GO IRISH!