Whale pioneered women’s sports at Cornell

When Ellen Whale arrived on the Hilltop in 1978 as volleyball coach and assistant professor of physical education, Cornell women were just beginning to play intercollegiate sports.

Whale“Women’s sports were perceived quite differently from men’s sports,” Whale recalls. “The philosophy of women’s sports was decidedly tilted toward intramurals. Competitive sports were seen as unfeminine and possibly damaging to women’s bodies,” she added.

Whale’s timing was fortuitous. Six years earlier, Title IX was passed as part of the United States Education Amendments of 1972, protecting people from discrimination based on gender in education programs and activities that received federal funding. Athletics was not mentioned in Title IX, but it soon had a profound impact on colleges and universities. Women’s athletics became more important and visible.

“I came to Cornell the first year women’s sports joined men’s sports in the current gymnasium, originally built as the men’s gym,” Whale says. “It was a good move out of Alumni Gym for women, but still a hard change. Some of the older men’s coaches really had a hard time with the changes.”

Whale says the presence of legendary athletics director Barron Bremner helped make the transition work. He continually stood up for the women’s program with recalcitrant male coaches and courted controversy when he had the wrestling room remodeled into a women’s locker room.

“One day some workmen were in the main gym installing the sleeves in the floor that hold the volleyball poles,” she says. “The basketball coach came over excitedly and asked what they were doing to his basketball floor. Barron Bremner pointed out that it wasn’t ‘his’ floor.”

During her first year on the job, there wasn’t an athletic conference for women. The coaches lined up the games, arranged for the officials, and reserved the gyms. In 1979 she started the women’s track squad. Three years later the team beat Coe for the conference championship.

“That first track team had only eight athletes. They weren’t always the fastest or the most athletic, and our team was certainly small in numbers,” Whale recalls. “But they had a lot of heart. We became very close, and I admired them for their dedication and willingness to compete in any event where they might be needed.”

At first there was only one set of warm-ups, which the women’s tennis and volleyball teams shared. Whale says the volleyball team usually let the tennis team wear the warm-ups because they played outside. In another instance the women’s softball team used cast-off men’s practice pants as their game uniforms.

In 1979 the Midwest Athletic Conference for Women was established, with English Professor Geneva Meers as its first commissioner and Whale as the voting athletic representative for Cornell. The next year Whale was appointed chair of the health and physical education department for both men and women, the first woman to hold that job.

Her career as an administrator was just beginning. In 1989 she was named athletic director with responsibility for both men’s and women’s athletics.

Ellen Whale, circa 1986
Ellen Whale, circa 1986

“I was hearing that some alumni weren’t happy that Cornell had a female athletic director,” she says. “One day I was pumping gas and Paul Scott ’29 [long-time director of alumni affairs and coach of the 1947 national championship wrestling team] came over. He asked if he could give me a hug. He congratulated me and told me he was proud of me. I never worried about alumni support after that.”

Whale points with pride to the long list of individual and team champions and All-Americans the women’s program has produced.

“Athletic opportunities for girls at the younger levels have never been greater,” she says. “Parents now encourage their daughters to be athletes. It’s a very different environment from 1978.”

At the beginning of the 2003-04 school year, Whale and Steve DeVries, her colleague in the Department of Physical Education, made the move from coaching and teaching to teaching full-time. The rest of the physical education staff moved to coaching full-time. Four years later the Department of Physical Education became the Department of Kinesiology, which reflected its evolution from primarily training coaches and PE teachers to also preparing students for careers such as athletic training and physical therapy. Today kinesiology is the second-most-popular major on campus.

As Whale settles into the final year of her phased retirement, she can look back with pride on what she and her col-leagues have accomplished. She will leave with an impressive list of personal achievements, having coached volleyball, track, swimming, diving, and basketball while serving as adviser to the Kippers synchronized swim club and the cheerleading program, and as director of intramural sports. In 2004 she was inducted into the Cornell Athletics Hall of Fame.

What does the future hold for Whale? “I’m hoping to travel some,” she says, “but my big project is to document the history of women’s athletics at Cornell. Females have been participating in sports here since the late 1890s. I want to tell that story.”