Sarah Mleczko Woolworth ’76, a member of the Andover’s Athletic Hall of Honor, knows the challenges of being a female athlete.
Upon entering Andover in 1973 as a member of Andover’s first admitted coeducational class, Woolworth felt pressure to prove her and her teammates’ athletic prowess. During her time at Andover, however, Woolworth made strides as one of the first female students and athletes, earning a total of nine varsity letters in field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse, as well as playing on the Boys Junior Varsity Squash team. Additionally, Woolworth went on to become the first seeded player on Andover’s first Girls Varsity Squash team.
In an interview with The Phillipian Woolworth said, “I did feel like we had something to prove when PA starting accepting girls. I wanted to prove that women could be competitive in athletics.”
Despite the setbacks, Woolworth handled the pressure gracefully.
Woolworth said, “I was not intimidated because I had done sports all of my life, and I have three older brothers, so I was very seasoned for the male-oriented environment. I came from a very sporty family, and the theory was ‘do everything well so that you can participate.’ If you didn’t play well, you didn’t get to participate. So I grew up playing squash and paddle tennis and tennis with boys. [It was] very competitive, and I just learned how to adapt quickly.”
The challenges she and her teammates faced included having to deal with practically non-existent locker rooms in the basement of Cooley House, according to Woolworth. Woolworth looks back on thesew experiences with an understanding that it was a different time, but also with the memory of wanting to prove her worth.
Woolworth said, “I did witness the feeling that girls can’t do sports, girls aren’t as competitive, girls aren’t as intense, and that’s just not true. We’ve heard it over and over in the subsequent decades, so I definitely did feel that. And then I also felt pressure because you grow up being called a dumb jock. And so I felt the pressure to excel academically also.”
“There was no girls squash team when I came, so I played on the Boys JV for awhile. That was interesting because we had a match at Exeter, and a boy got on the court and said, ‘I’m not playing a girl,’ and that was different, but we ended up playing,” continued Woolworth.
Throughout her time at Andover, Woolworth was a leader both on and off the field and court. She was the high scorer for both her field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse teams, and was a headstrong individual.
“There was just no way we weren’t going to compete and be good and do the best we could do. My feeling was that every practice, every game, I just did the best I could and left it all out on the field. I was very intense that way and I loved it. I loved playing sports, I loved being with these teammates, and I just loved competing,” said Woolworth.
Woolworth worked hard at Andover and was passionate about romance languages, excelling in her French and Spanish classes. She credits her teachers with inspiring and supporting her, as well as Ted Sizer, Andover’s headmaster at the time. Sizer, as well as many teachers and coaches, were genuinely interested in understanding the unique experience of newly admitted female students. Basketball and field hockey coach Marge Harrison was also a source of inspiration for Woolworth during her time at Andover.
“Marge Harrison was my coach for a lot of things, and her pep talks were so inspiring. She was very diminutive and just a crusty, tough lady. She was very matter of fact about why were there, what we were out there to achieve, and there was just no question we were going to achieve it. She was also always a very caring person, and you knew she cared about you off the field also, that was special. It was an overwhelmingly male place, it had been a boys school for what, almost 200 years, so she was a special person to me there.”
After graduating from Andover, Woolworth went on to play field hockey, squash, and lacrosse at Harvard University. Once again, she found herself a member of the first admitted co-ed class. Her time at Andover prepared her for what was at times a challenging, but also exciting, experience. Eventually, Woolworth became the first woman inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame for her contributions as an All-Around athlete there.
Woolworth said, “I think [that being one of the first women at Andover allowed me to lead the way at Harvard], and like anything, the more you do something, the more experience you have. And I just had a certain intensity that I had throughout college too.”
Woolworth’s advice for other young women, men, and athletes is to work hard, stay inspired, have a strong moral compass, and just do the best you can.
Woolworth said, “If people know they can count on you, if they know you’re going to deliver, they know you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do–whether it’s on the sport’s field or in the office–then that is what counts, and that’s what counts in life. Lead by example and follow your passion and I do believe that you will find your way. It was a different time back then, but I think the idea of hard work, and focus, and passion is timeless. There’s always a silver lining.”