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Belmar Gunderson, the ‘mother of women’s intercollegiate athletics’ at the University of Minnesota, dies

The smile on Belmar Gunderson’s face grew as she recounted one of the times she pushed the University of Minnesota to invest more in women’s sports.

It was the early 1970s. His secretary had just come across the bill for football coaches’ shoes. They cost over $5,000. Women’s sports had a total of $5,000 to spend that year.

So Gunderson approached his boss. “That’s basically how we got them to sing,” she laughed as she finished the story.

The moment was recorded in a video featuring Gunderson and other tennis legends, and in the week following his death on May 15 at 88, some of Gunderson’s former students found themselves looking back at this clip .

“It’s classic Belmar,” said Linda Lander, a student who stayed in touch with Gunderson.

Nearly 50 years after that showdown, Gunderson is known as the U’s “mother of women’s intercollegiate athletics,” credited with starting 10 varsity sports at the state’s flagship university. Today, approximately 260 women participate in 13 athletic programs run by the U.S. Department of Athletics.

“What she established, what she started, her expectations will still hold true to this day,” said Julie Manning, assistant director of athletics and senior administrator for the U. She credits Gunderson with creating opportunities for women even before Title IX.

Athletic prowess ran in Gunderson’s family. His father, Clarence Harvey Gunderson, was a colonel in the army. Her mother, Belmar Shepley Gunderson, was a talented swimmer and her brother, Raymond Eric Gunderson, was a boxer.

Gunderson developed two childhood loves that would stay with her for the rest of her life: tennis and horses. She played tennis nationally for about a decade, achieving a No. 11 ranking in women’s singles and a No. 2 ranking in US women’s doubles. She was just 4ft 11in tall and played four times at Wimbledon. Journalist and sportscaster Bud Collins dubbed her the “Tiny Tiger”.

She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Pennsylvania State University and Texas Woman’s University. She took a job at the University of Minnesota in 1962, telling her students that the women’s athletic club budget at the time was only $5.76.

It took some time for students to learn more about Gunderson’s tennis accolades.

“The focus was never on Belmar,” Lander said. “It was always about other women and giving them opportunities in sports.”

In 1975, Gunderson became the first director of women’s intercollegiate athletics at the U. His selection represented a new era in the sport that left “big, strong men across the country literally running around in fear,” the Minneapolis Star reported at the time.

It’s a phenomenon that baffled Gunderson, who told the newspaper: “I’m all for the men’s program. We don’t want to mess it up. Whatever we do, we’ll only further justify and strengthen the program further. Minnesota Total Sportsman.”

When she left the U in 1979, the budget for women’s sports had grown to $330,000. She had helped start a scholarship program for female athletes, and some of her students were launching their own coaching careers.

“We really owe our professional careers to Belmar Gunderson,” Lander said. The Women Physical Education Majors of the Class of 1969 were so grateful to Gunderson that they invited her to their 50th reunion.

Gunderson continued to win tennis titles well into her 70s and has been credited with starting a division for octogenarians. In the last years of her life, Gunderson divided her time between Wisconsin, where she and her husband, Dan Lay, had a ranch raising horses, and Florida, where she continued to play tennis.

She is survived by her niece, Karen Gunderson Elliot, and her nephew, Raymond Eric Gunderson Jr. Memorial services will be private.

startribune Gt Itly

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