Susan Reid ‘77 was one of the first female scholar-athletes at Davidson College and was the first female to compete on the swim team.
In the summer of 1973, Susan Reid found herself below Johnston Gym, swimming laps in the pool of what is now the lower level of the Union at Davidson College.
“I’m a fish out of water without swimming,” said Reid, now in her late 60s.
She was visiting campus for freshman orientation, and was set to make history in the fall, joining the first four-year class of women at Davidson just one year after the college had gone co-ed.
Anxious and excited, as most soon-to-be college freshmen are, Reid met a fellow future classmate down in the pool that day.
“We talked about going out for the swim team, and at one point I thought, ‘You know what? This is crazy not to,’” she said.
Growing up in Atlanta, Reid had been swimming competitively for nearly her entire life and lettered everywhere she swam, ending her high school career at The Westminster Schools. So, when it came time for college, Reid’s father told her she could go to any school that she got accepted into.
“Except UNC,” she noted with a laugh. “But I visited Davidson, and I really liked it. It was always at the top of my list.”
Fast forward to the fall of her freshman year and Reid had followed through on her summer promise and showed up to the first swim practice of the school year.
“I basically just showed up and said, ‘Here I am!’,” she said beaming.
As Title IX was barely over a year old, Davidson had just established women’s basketball and tennis teams as varsity sports on campus. But for Reid, there was no women’s swimming team, which meant her only choice was to fight for a spot on the men’s roster.
After puzzling the coach by simply showing up, she quickly proved that she could actually compete and wasn’t just “splashing around.” Nevertheless, her coach told her, “I have to make some phone calls.”
“He had to clear it with the Southern Conference if I could swim at all,” Reid said. “At first there were some discussions that maybe I could practice with the team, but wouldn’t be able to compete or count at duals. But that was all cleared up relatively early on, and I know Title IX was a big part of that discussion.”
In two seasons on the Davidson swim team, Reid was joined by only one other female in the pool – her teammate Katherine Bridges – during her sophomore season. Otherwise?
“There were zero women I ever competed against during those two years,” she said. “My sophomore year Katherine was there, but at all of our duals, it was just us.”
In fact, Reid’s presence was so unique, that her coach would have to call each school and let them know that he was bringing a girl with his team prior to each meet.
“You don’t have a women’s team, do you?”
“Well then, yeah she can count.”
On the road, opposing teams would put Davidson in a locker room, where the guys would change and then “clear out” for Reid to get ready for competition. At other institutions, and even at Davidson, bathrooms were not yet fully converted so there were urinals instead of stalls. And on the blocks before Reid took off in the 50 backstroke, even at the Southern Conference Championships, she would hear the occasional “you better not let that girl beat you” tag line.
Despite the raised eyebrows and confusion from opposing teams, Reid was at least a welcomed addition to her own team.
“There was no one that was not accepting,” she said. “I think if anything, everyone just thought wow that’s kind of gutsy to do this. But other than my bathing suit being different, we were really all the same.”
Of all of the memories that Reid has of her time in a Davidson uniform, there’s one that sticks out the most, even to this day.
At the start of her sophomore year, now with Bridges by her side, and still some confusion among coaches and administrators about what to do with their two female swimmers, the duo was sent down to Queens University to practice with the Royals’ women’s team.
“Neither of us felt like we belonged there,” Reid said. “We didn’t go to college at Queens, so why should we join up with these women? Maybe they thought it would make us feel more comfortable to swim with other women, but I think we both thought – thinking at the highest level that a college sophomore thinks at – this is just dumb.”
In spite of their frustrations, Reid and Bridges complied with their coaches and traveled to Charlotte to swim “up and downs” with the Queens athletes.
“They didn’t even call them laps there, it was just up and downs,” Reid added. “I mean, we’re coming off an era where women’s basketball was played at half court, they had rovers and offensive and defensive players. This felt like that. The ups and downs maybe didn’t sound as strenuous as laps, and you could rest as needed.”
The trip to the Queen City was short lived for the Davidson duo, as the competitor in Reid proudly recalled lapping and even double lapping the other swimmers, before being sent back up I-77 to rejoin the rest of her team and earn her second varsity from letter in as many years.
As the years went on, Reid and the rest of the women from that first female graduating class of 1977 formed a new team – The Pioneer Women. The group, of anywhere from 30 to 80 Davidson graduates, gathers annually and reunites, reflecting on memories and shared experiences from their time on campus and celebrating the trail they unknowingly paved forward for hundreds of female scholar-athletes today.
“I don’t know when we started calling ourselves pioneer women,” Reid said. “I think as we were trading these stories, and saying, ‘Oh I went through that, too.’ That’s when you think, ‘Wow, we really were kind of pioneers. Not kind of, we really were.’”
The shared respect among the Pioneer Women has spread beyond that of their group and to their male counterparts from their Davidson days. One of Reid’s former teammates even recently emailed her after a correspondence of a reunion writing, “Of course I remember you. How could I forget? You were faster than me,” and another who wrote a song in honor of his pioneering classmates:
“Pioneers they lead by example,
Pioneers they blaze a trail,
Pioneers they help build bridges”
As Thursday, June 23 marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Reid sits on the front porch of her new house in Antiquity, just over a mile away from Davidson. She’s in a different place in her life now than she was in 1973, just like Davidson is in a very different place now, too.
Both her husband and son are Davidson graduates, and her grandson and granddaughter now run around in Wildcat gear. Davidson, which eventually sponsored a women’s swim team in addition to its men’s program, competes with the best of the best in the Atlantic 10, and has the league’s back-to-back Most Outstanding Female Performer, Shelby Stanley, on its side. The pool is no longer in the basement of Johnston Gym either.
Pioneers build bridges, like the bridge from Antiquity to Davidson that will keep Reid tied to herstory at her alma mater.