Nineteen of the biggest moments in Northwestern women’s athletics history


Graphic by Zoey Soh

Major moments in women’s sports history at Northwestern. Fifty years after Title IX, Wildcat women’s sports rank among the top teams in the Big Ten and NCAA

Achievements like Big Ten titles, All-American honors and Big Ten Player of the Week nods may seem commonplace for Northwestern athletes. But the ability to compete and succeed at the highest levels has been a long time coming for Wildcat women.

NU women have made strides in the athletic world well before Title IX. Here’s a breakdown of the biggest moments in NU women’s athletics history, from the 19th century to now:

1869: The University begins admitting women

In comparison to Ivy League universities, NU was decades ahead of its peers when it began admitting women as undergraduate students in 1869. While the decision opened the doors to coeducation on campus, it would be several more decades before women formed sports teams at the University.

1898: Women play NU’s first basketball game

Just a few years after basketball’s invention in 1891, a group of women became the first people to play the game at NU — three years before their male counterparts. 

1936: Betty Robinson Schwartz (SESP ’34) wins second Olympic gold medal

As a 16-year-old, Betty Robinson Schwartz (SESP ’34) became the first winner of the Olympic 100-meter dash for women. The 1928 Olympics marked the first year women were allowed to compete in the games, and Schwartz broke the world record, clocking in at 12.2 seconds. 

Soon after her win, Schwartz enrolled at NU and continued to run. But in 1931, her progress was temporarily dashed when a car crash rendered her nearly unable to walk. Still, Scwartz rebounded for the 1936 Olympics and took home her second gold medal — this time, as a Wildcat. 

1972: Passage of Title IX

President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law in 1972. The legislation was a result of years of work to address widespread educational discrimination, as women had limited opportunities to advance in higher education. The law did not go into effect overnight, however. Schools were given until 1978 to comply with the law, and it wasn’t until 1979 that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare delivered a final interpretation of the amendment that said universities had to provide equal opportunities in athletics.

Athletic opportunities for women at NU steadily increased in the years following the passage of Title IX. By 1974, there were a number of women’s varsity sports offered, including field hockey, tennis, track, volleyball and softball. These programs often competed in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which was founded in 1971 as a governing body for women’s college athletics. But, as a 1974 Daily article noted, these sports received “little publicity and even less money.” 

1981: Big Ten adopts women’s sports

After some deliberation, the Big Ten became one of the first collegiate conferences to adopt women’s sports in a 9-1 vote. NU voted in favor of doing so. Ahead of the vote, the University’s Big Ten faculty representative, Laurence Nobles, sent a memo in 1980 to academic officials around the Big Ten setting forth a plan for adding women’s sports to the conference. Following the vote, the first Big Ten women’s conference championships took place in fall 1981. 

1982: NCAA starts women’s championships as AIAW halts operations

As more schools offered women’s sports, the NCAA began holding women’s championships in 1982. It was a controversial decision at the time, as many still supported the AIAW’s women-led governance. Soon after, many Big Ten schools began competing in NCAA women’s championships.  

Prior to the NCAA’s ventures into women’s sports, NU did not support a fast-moving NCAA takeover of women’s college sports. In 1980, Nobles wrote to a colleague at Minnesota that he wanted women’s and men’s conference governance to “move closer together with time.” But he didn’t feel that a sudden joining of conferences would be wise for either men’s or women’s sports.

1984: Softball goes to its first world series

Just eight years after the founding of the softball program, NU booked its ticket to the third-ever NCAA Women’s College World Series in 1984. Pitcher Lisa Ishikawa Sliwa (McCormick ’88) was key to the Cats’ success, earning All-American honors in addition to being named both Big Ten Freshman and Player of the Year. She also set an NCAA record for strikeouts in her first season in Evanston, striking out 469 batters in 302 innings.

This legacy of success remains today. NU has gone on to make six WCWS appearances — including its most recent in 2022. The Cats’ run in 2022 was buoyed by another dominant pitcher in All-American Danielle Williams.

1998: Soccer makes first Sweet 16 and records best record in program history

Like softball, soccer enjoyed success early in its program history. NU’s program was founded in 1994, then went 16-5-1 in 1998 — the program’s current record for wins — and made its first Sweet 16.

Now, the Cats are enjoying revived success as one of the top teams in the Big Ten and the country. NU has made just one Sweet 16 after its appearance in 1998 but looks poised for a run in 2022. 

2002: Cross country finishes 30th at NCAA Championships

The first team in history to run in the NCAA title meet despite not having a track team, NU entered the championship ranked 30th. The team was able to finish ahead of Washington, a team that beat the Cats in the Pre-National Race a month earlier, in the 31-team race. Six of NU’s seven runners improved on their Pre-Nationals times.

The Cats recently entered the national rankings for the first time since 2002 and could make a crack at their second-ever NCAA Championships meet this offseason.

2002: Volleyball makes first NCAA Tournament since 1984

After 18 seasons since its last appearance, NU returned to the NCAA Tournament. The Cats ultimately fell to Missouri in what was then the longest game of tournament history at a total of 78 combined points.

While NU’s program has experienced ups and downs since then, it is in the middle of one of its strongest seasons in recent memory. The Cats have struggled in Big Ten play, but their 12-game start at 11-1 was their best since 2012.

2005: Lacrosse national championship begins a dynasty

Success came quickly after Wildcat lacrosse was relaunched in 2002. The Cats made lacrosse history with their 13-10 victory over Virginia, becoming the first non-Eastern Time Zone school to win a national title.

Within just a few years, NU ruled the college lacrosse world. The Cats won seven national titles in eight seasons and have gone on to play in 13 Final Fours. Along the way, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller has established herself as one of the most dominant figures in college lacrosse history, earning IWLCA Coach of the Year honors four times and getting inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2012.

2009: Tennis finishes season ranked No. 2 

A program with a storied history, tennis reached new heights in 2009. The Cats held the No. 1 ranking nearly the entire season and finished at No. 2 for the second-straight season. NU also set program records for wins and winning percentage that season.

Since then, coach Claire Pollard’s Cats have continued to be a force. NU has cracked the NCAA Tournament every year since Pollard arrived in 1998, finishing a program-high fifth place on three separate occasions.

2014: Golf records best tournament score in program history at NCAA Championships

Golf has made frequent appearances in the NCAA Tournament over the past decade. Perhaps its strongest was in 2014, when the Cats recorded their lowest tournament score in program history of 1,166. Their efforts led to a 15th-place finish at the championships.

NU has excelled under coach Emily Fletcher’s leadership in recent years. Among the Cats’ accomplishments include four consecutive top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships, numerous All-American honors and three Big Ten conference crowns.

2019: Fencing wins second consecutive Midwest Fencing Conference title, ranks second nationally

The Cats placed sixth at the NCAA Championships, finishing the season with a 39-5 record. In this milestone season, the Cats earned 11 victories against top-10 teams. The team dominated at the Midwest Fencing Conference Championship, taking home all three weapon group titles for the first time in program history. The team’s success vaulted it to No. 2 nationally, the highest ranking in program history. Now, NU looks to continue its winning ways in the MFC. 

2019: NU-Qatar’s Mariam Mamdouh Farid runs at the International Association of Athletics Federations world championships

As a communications major at NU-Q, Mariam Mamdouh Farid was among the first Qatari women to represent the country at the IAAF World Athletics Championships. One of two Qatari women competing in the championships for the first time, Farid logged a personal best of 1:10 in the 400-meter hurdles.

Farid has said she intends to work toward a career in sports management, focusing on uplifting Muslim women athletes.

2020: Basketball wins Big Ten regular-season title

When the Cats defeated Illinois in February 2020, it was a game for the ages. Students stormed the court, confetti flew down and players danced in celebration. Finally, for the first time in 30 years, NU had clinched a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.

The NCAA postseason was canceled that year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the legacy of that team lives on through stars Lindsey Pulliam and Veronica Burton, who were both drafted in the WNBA. NU has had some bumps in the road since 2020, including not making the NCAA Tournament in 2022, but looks to rebound this season.

2020: Katie Robinson promoted to head coach of NU swimming and diving

As associate head coach of NU swimming and diving since 2018, Katie Robinson was elevated to the head position in June 2020. Now, Robinson is just the second woman to oversee both the men’s and women’s programs among the Power Five conferences. She is also one of only six female head coaches of swimming and diving across the conferences.

Under her leadership, NU churned out three Big Ten champions in the women’s program and a record-high score for the men’s program at the Big Ten Championships in 2020.

2021: Cheerleaders file Title IX lawsuit, athletic director Polisky steps down

In January, a NU cheerleader filed a Title IX lawsuit against the University, alleging fans and alumni sexually harassed cheerleaders and that the athletics department did not respond appropriately. Other cheerleaders also said they had faced racial discrimination on the team.

Among the defendants was Mike Polisky, who was selected as athletic director in May. Nine days later, after a protest attended by more than 200 community members and a petition for his resignation that garnered more than 1,000 signatures, Polisky stepped down.

2021: Field hockey wins its first national championship

After years of success in the Big Ten, the Cats tallied their first national championship in November 2021. It was an emotion-filled day, as players dogpiled goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz, danced outside the Walter Athletics Center upon their return to campus and hoisted their trophies high. 

Coach Tracey Fuchs, who also won a national championship as a player at UConn, has been key to the program’s growth. She has coached numerous All-Americans and helped NU to multiple Big Ten titles. Now, the Cats look to build on their success and earn a second national title in 2022. 

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