Girls Kick Ass 

Missoula’s women athletes gear up for a winning season

“The worst,” wrote insurance salesman turned poet Wallace Stevens, “is not to live in a physical world.” For these peculiar dog days of summer, with any patch of green grass in which to huck a disc or launch a softball a precious commodity, Wallace’s words resonate with an acrid, smoky truth. The poet may not have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous forest fires, but he knew the risks of becoming too absorbed in the life of the mind. It hasn’t been just insurance salesmen or poets who recognize this risk, either. Americans, specifically Montanans, love their sports, and love them all the more if they take place outside. In a latitude that guarantees at least six months a year of weather conducive to the life of the mind and its inherent dangers, the intensity with which we run for the hills reaches a fevered pitch as the days get shorter.

Of course, many are content to watch others compete here in the lowlands. Autumn traditionally is a harbinger of a great sports season, the crack of helmet against pad, the perfect spiral, the grunts of grown men and nearly grown men trying to break one another’s femurs in the crisp golden light of fall.

Which, by the way, is not the only avenue of sports entertainment available this season. There’s women’s volleyball, women’s soccer, and the Olympics, in which Missoula woman Monica Tranel will be rowing down in Sydney on Sept. 17.

For a few athletes and spectators alike, especially those prominently displaying the social and genetic predispositions of the Y-chromosome, the presence of women’s sports is still a little unnerving. One has to look no further than the current issue of The New Yorker, where erstwhile professional tennis whiner John McEnroe devotes considerable space to denigrating the Williams sisters, who have spectacularly been setting new standards for athleticism in tennis. “Any first-rate college player, or any man on the senior tour,” snipped McEnroe, “would easily beat them.”

His comments seem indicative of a pervasive meanness lingering in sports and politics, wherein the prime motivation for participating seems to be to flaunt a perceived superiority over every possible opponent, regardless of their level of experience or skill. If the worst is to not live in a physical world, the second worst must be to always have to be the winner.

Conversely, if you accept the poet’s premise, then the best must be observing and participating in a physical world with those who have trained body and mind to behave in a way that’s wonderful, beautiful, exhilarating, exciting, powerful, and inspiring, where movement becomes a kind of poetry in motion. Or as Olympian Tranel puts it, “I think it’s essential, or even critical, for people to be exposed to the extremes of emotion that participating or even watching sports brings. I think it’s harder for women sometimes to be confrontational, to confront their own feelings or those of somebody else. Being an athlete gives us a chance to do that.”

The “us” in that quote probably describes a lot of people, or at least Wallace Stevens, who quit selling insurance and started writing poems for the same reason that Tranel at age 34 has put off practicing law in order to keep rowing: to confront and discover what’s valuable, what’s worth knowing and loving in the world, to leap over or run through the barriers that confine both the life of the mind and the experience of the physical world. When those walls come down, some simple truths come to light. Like that no one owns or has exclusive rights to aggression, brute strength, cat-like reflexes, the grace of a dancer, the explosiveness of a linebacker, the exuberance of a winning coach. Or that sports, or perhaps more appropriately, play, can be either profoundly silly, deadly serious, or both, or neither.

Of course, it’s imperative to have fun and occasionally kick ass when the opportunity arises. Girls can do that, too. A friend recently described his experience at a rugby tournament in which “it was raining like hell and all the fields were total mud. It was a slop-fest. Of course the beer started flowing a little early and we were all a little crocked, and then I noticed these two women—they were bigger than a lot of the guys there—were shouting and shoving each other. Then the fists started flying, and next thing you know they were wrestling around in the mud, hitting each other in the face as hard as they could. A couple of us guys sort of half-assedly walked over to break it up, but no one wanted to get between them. Then I noticed they were both bleeding—and laughing hysterically. They were beating the hell out of each other for fun. It was funny, but scary all at the same time.”

These women have achieved some astounding success and deserve a little of the limelight for it. What’s more, in talking and watching these women over the past week, it has become apparent that they are very good at what they do for the simple reason that they love doing it and have pursued excellence with a passion bordering on obsession. Any self-respecting sports nut should recognize this as the quality that makes athletic events worth having.

Olympic Rower Monica Tranel Rowing as sport conjures images of impeccably well-mannered and disciplined East Coast prep school students, plying the glassy waters at sunrise near the ivy-covered walls of some prestigious institution. It’s a bit unlikely then, how two-time Olympic rower Monica Tranel got started in the sport, far away from any ivy, closer to waters where ice-fishing seems a more likely pastime. Tranel will be the lone Olympic representative from Missoula, competing in singles rowing competition later this month.

“My parents have this philosophy that if a little is good, more must be better,” recalls Tranel with a laugh. “So they had ten kids and raised us on a ranch outside of Billings. That was where my training really started. There’s always things to do on a farm. Plus the competition between ten brothers and sisters is pretty fierce, as you can imagine.”

Fierce enough that Tranel became a formidable basketball and track athlete, but not so intense that sports became her focus in college—at least not right away. “I decided to try to walk on to the basketball team, and I ended up blowing out my knee,” Tranel says. “I wanted to be a part of some sport again on some level, but I wasn’t sure what that would be. Then I saw a flyer for the rowing team, which was a club sport at Gonzaga.” Tranel signed up and began working out with the team, which was co-ed because there weren’t enough people to have separate men’s and women’s teams.

“It was very laid back, with not a whole lot of high expectations,” she says. “There was never a party I would miss to train. One year we actually took fourth at an event down in Sacramento, and we were just ecstatic. But I started to love the feeling of getting on the water in the morning, and by the time I finished college, I knew I wanted to keep rowing. It was part of my soul.”

Enrolling at Rutgers to study law put Tranel closer to the heart of the rowing world. “Boathouse Row in Philadelphia is right behind the art museum, and I was just lucky to start training with all these national-class rowers,” she remembers. “It was very frustrating at first, because I couldn’t keep up with anyone.”

Boathouse Row is also where Tranel first ran into Fred Michini, himself a national-class rower who now is her husband and closest confidant. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Fred. I got lucky. The best thing that’s ever happened to me is marrying Fred. He’s my best friend, my biggest fan, and he’s my soul mate. Not everyone gets to marry their soul mate.”

That’s not to say that being married to an Olympian is synonymous with a constant state of bliss. “After Atlanta in ’96, Fred wanted to quit. And I knew I wanted to keep rowing, and I told him that if I didn’t keep going, I’d regret at some point later in my life. He saw that, and has been committed to this as much as me since then,” she says. Which means for Tranel that she’s been able to train twice a day in preparation for Sydney while Michini provides much needed emotional and domestic support.

“There are times when I come home and I’m just a grump,” she says, “and it takes a lot to put up with.” It’s a life that will change shortly after Sept. 17, Tranel’s first scheduled day of competition in Sydney. “I want to come back to Missoula, start practicing law, maybe start a rowing club, and settle down and have a family,” Tranel says with anticipation. She has no regrets about delaying such things in pursuit of becoming one of the nation’s top rowers. “I got to stay close to my original goal in doing this,” she says. “I’m not in it for money or for glory. It’s just something I love to do.”

As for being a woman athlete in a sport that receives little media attention, Tranel sees no point in complaining. “Being in any sport as a woman prepares us for the reality of living in a meritocracy,” she says with the edge of a sharp attorney. “The more important point is what you learn from disciplining yourself, from taking chances and a willingness to be bad at something when you start at it. It’s hard to take your knocks when you’re just learning and you suck. But the best part of sports is learning that discipline and hard work always pays off. Trust that, and things will always work out.”

The Lady Griz Soccer Team

The University of Montana women’s soccer program is good enough to be disappointed by high expectations. Winners of the Big Sky conference last year, head coach Betsy Duerksen has quietly been building one of the Griz athletic department’s perennial powers. Going into last Thursday’s match-up with top 20 Division I Brigham Young University, which features a collegiate all-American and a national team player in their line-up, was comparable to the men’s football team matching up with Washington or Wisconsin for their home opener. With one notable exception, which is that this team can play with the big girls.

There was no “happy to be here” gee-whiz-isms when the Lady Griz dropped a 4-2 decision to the Cougars. In fact, the consensus among teammates was frustration and disappointment. “I don’t think the game really showed who we are,” commented Junior midfielder Heather Olson. Despite the loss, it’s worth mentioning that one of the most entertaining tickets for an athletic event this fall has got to be UM’s women’s soccer program.

The match with BYU was fought with an intensity that makes an NBA regular season game seem like a Wednesday night visit to the neighborhood stitch-and-bitch circle. Some examples? For starters, senior goalkeeper Natalie Hiller’s fierce defense in the first half. Hiller had more saves than an evangelist preacher at a tent revival, almost single-handedly keeping her team in the game. She dove, leapt, smothered, snatched, and pounced on the ball, occasionally booting it far downfield after capture with the hang-time of a 50-yard field goal try. Junior defender Elisa Scherb so closely shadowed the ball at times that the frustration of BYU’s offensive attack became palpable, with the usual Mormon good manners and friendliness going by the wayside during cornerkicks and throw-ins. On offense, Nikki Bolstad stunned the Cougs with a lightning-fast goal with about ten minutes to go in the first half, making the score 2-1 at the break. In the second half, as the evening sun filtered through clouds and smoke in a bruise-colored sky, BYU was able to score two quick goals, seemingly putting the game out of reach. But no one was giving up, including the fans that filled the bleachers four-fifths full. The support from the crowd spurred the Lady Griz to keep up the intensity, with Amy Wronski scoring with an assist from Shannon Forslyn with about 15 minutes to go in regulation.

Unfortunately for the Lady Griz, that was as close as they got. At a rainy practice in Portland on Saturday, Duerksen pushed the team in preparation for league opponent Portland State. After a series of wicked five-minute scrimmages in which the two goals were moved 20 yards apart, creating a sort of hyperactive indoor soccer game, the team took the time to answer a few questions as the rain gave way to a brief sun break.

Most questions were aimed at delineating the differences between men and women elite athletes. The answer, according to the players who responded, is surprisingly little. “This is a great thing,” said junior defender Kerri Houck. “We all get to hang out together, playing a game we all love. Probably the only difference between that and the football team is that they wear those tight pants.”

As for whatever subtle differences might crop up in the psychology of competition at the collegiate level, senior forward Liz Roberts offered this insight: “We probably don’t leave as much of our emotions out on the field. There’s a lot of emotions that stay with you, with coaches, teammates, and yourself. I try to leave it out on the field. But it doesn’t always work that way.”

“Being an athlete,” goalkeeper Natalie Hiller observed, “is the same for anyone. “It’s having a lot of confidence, hard work, and dedication.” And with that, her team went to trounce Portland State in a driving rainstorm, 5-0.

Lady Griz Volleyball Coach Nikki Best

First-year head volleyball coach Nikki Best hung up the phone and took a deep breath last Thursday in her office in the Adams Center. “There was some sort of screw up with our travel plans,” she explained, “But I think we’ve got it all figured out.” Which meant only that her team would be getting up at 4:30 in the morning to catch a flight to Connecticut for a challenging tournament featuring the likes of UConn, Illinois State, and the University of New Orleans. The flight to the east coast and match-ups with teams from all over the country is a switch for Best, who most recently coached at the tiny School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, S.D. The stint in Rapid City belies Best’s experience in the big time of the volleyball world. She was a player and assistant coach at Division I Nebraska, a team that regularly contended for national titles in the ’90s. She brought with her to Missoula some of her Nebraska connections, including husband Dave, who is an assistant coach.

Oddly enough, one of the factors for the Bests in taking coaching jobs in Missoula was the strength of the football program at the University of Montana. “We found that Division I schools with really strong basketball programs and weak football programs had a hard time supporting women’s volleyball,” explained Dave Best. “I think the visibility of a good football program with a lot of support in the community makes people more aware of other sports.” Making Missoulians more aware of their volleyball team is one of the Bests’ primary goals in their first year here, along with exceeding the expectations of the preseason league rankings, which forecasts them to finish sixth out of nine.

Returning standouts from last year’s team include Tara Connor, Kodi Taylor, and post season all-conference outside hitter Erin Adams. After the big tournament in Connecticut, the Griz face Idaho in their home opener, a match for which Nikki Best hopes the gym at the Adams Center will be packed.

“This is really a great game,” Best said, after reviewing the particulars of the “side-out” for a somewhat obtuse sportswriter. “It’s a game of big momentum swings, serious teamwork, and big plays. There’s nothing like watching a whole match turn on one play—say a big block of the opposing team’s big hitter—yet it’s a game that can’t be controlled by one person.”

Casual volleyball fans may recall a time in the mid-’80s when the men’s national team won a gold medal and volleyball seemed poised for the big time, a phenomenon that sputtered into a few sand volleyball leagues in danger of collapse should Bud Light or Cuervo pull their MTV-plugged sponsorship. Such fickle waves of popularity, said Best, don’t really concern her.

“They’re really two different games,” she noted. “There’s a movement to make volleyball more marketable by streamlining the structure of the game, you know, so that a match might only take a predictable number of hours and therefore you could televise more games and sell ads and all that. But I’m against it. What you would lose is the changes in momentum that make indoor volleyball so exciting to watch.”

For the skeptic, or for those seeking something a little less facile than oil-slicked bodies entertaining boozed-up bikini and Speedo enthusiasts in two-on-two matches with all the excitement of a doubles tennis match without the rackets, a volleyball game at the Adams Center should be worth checking out. This is the only sport where a comeback from an 11-2 deficit is not out of the question, and a big dig after a windmill-driven spike will take your breath away. It’s a fast, intense game that should attract a much wider audience than it currently commands. Just know the side-out before you go.

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