Prominent Women in Minneapolis Sports History
Minnesota women have dominated the national sports world since before the start of World War II. Their skill and grace wowed millions who followed their every three-pointer, line drive or slalom pass. Many of these athletes were the forerunners to Title Nine, paving the way for thousands of young women today with dreams of gleaming trophies, playing in packed stadiums, and claiming Olympic gold.
Patti Berg was the pioneer. Although the Minneapolis native is a golfing legend, surprisingly her first love was football. Standing only 5’ 2”, Berg quarterbacked for the neighborhood team – The 50th Street Tigers, battling with boys twice her size on the field and beating them. But when she was 13, Patti’s parents decided they wanted to polish some of her rough edges and talked her into trying golf.
Patti was a natural. It didn’t take her long to conquer the links. Within three years of learning the sport, she won the city championship in 1934. As an 18-year-old University of Minnesota student, she led a team of US women golfers to victory over the British to take the Curtis Cup, one of the leading amateur golf matches between the two countries. It made Berg a media sensation: The more trophies she collected, the more she became a role model. After 29 amateur victories, she turned pro in the 1940’s, winning seven Western Opens. But there wasn’t a women’s golf circuit during those years, so Patti earned a living playing exhibition matches and hosting golf workshops for sporting goods companies.
A car accident damaged Berg’s knee in 1941, but she recuperated in time to join the Marines in ’42 where she was a commissioned Lieutenant. But not much changed in the golf world by the time Patti retired from the military in 1946. She returned to women’s golf but knew something had to change. With the help of fellow golf greats such as Babe Didrikson and 10 other pros, Berg helped found the LPGA and was elected its first president. Ironically, she became the leading money winner on the circuit, but never won the LPGA tournament. Berg retired from the tour in 1962 but for the next 40 years she never stopped promoting the game and working to train young golfers. Patti Berg died in September of 2006 at age 88. Her 60 tournament wins and 15 major titles are still a women’s golfing record.
Megan Kalmoe is by today’s standards The Ultimate Bad Ass: Never picked up an oar until her sophomore year at University of Washington. By senior year, she was an All-American and captain of the Huskies’ varsity rowing team. Not surprising to anyone who knew her from high school where was captain of both the cross-country track and basketball teams, senior class and student body president, a section leader and drum major in band and graduated fourth in her class and National Honor Society member.
Kalmoe’s a three-peat Olympian, most recently in the 2016 games in Rio de Janiero in the Women’s Quadruple Sculls where the team took the bronze – the first Olympic medal in that event for the US. The 38-year-old rower calls herself ‘a utility player’ – sculling (rowing with two oars) and sweeping (rowing with one oar). Kalmoe says she makes up for ‘lack of size (a surprising 5’10”, 160 lbs) and youth’ in ‘feistiness and attitude’. She’s won the gold and silver in four World Championships, and while she admits she’s never participated in the Women’s Eight – the US Women’s top rowing event, it’s because the Minnesota-Wisconsin native says she’s devoted much of her career to helping other American women athletes in what she says are the less glamourous events like the pair, double and quad competitions. The outspoken redhead mixes it up online with social media sports fans about athletic doping, money struggles and hilariously pines about trying to date when rowing trumps everything else: “I’m broke… I will always, with no exceptions – ever – choose training, eating, sleeping and recovery over you… Call me?” Kalmoe and her friends also put out ‘The List’, an annual ranking of the 20 hottest male rowing athletes of the year, which gets lots of attention – and some debate – from the international rowing community. She currently calls Princeton, NJ home while training at the US Rowing Center.
Regan Smith is The Scene Stealer. Not willing to stay at home while her big sister got swimming lessons, she begged to tag along. The impromptu trip turned into lessons of her own, and at 7 Regan beat every girl she competed against – even swimmers several years older than her. At 10, she broke 4 national swim records in one meet. By 14, Regan was competing with Olympians like Katie Ledecky in the backstroke and freestyle. In 2016, she was invited to become a member of the US National Junior Team – setting records again in the backstroke and butterfly, breaking records and racking up awards at the World Aquatics and Junior Swimming Championships in 2017 and 2018. But once Regan turned 17, her world went supernova. Showing no signs of an old fear of hitting her head on the wall, she shattered Missy Franklin’s seven-year backstroke record, clocking the second-fastest time in 200-meter history. “Keeping this World Record with an American flag by it means everything,” Franklin wrote to Smith congratulating the teen on her social media page – who happened to be 10 years old when Franklin captured the gold at the London games in 2012. Now the 20-year-old pink Crocs wearing metal winner is being courted by sports companies like Speedo while she goes to school and swims competitively at Stanford, getting her mental and physical game ready for Paris 2024. “I hope – God Willing – that I can go to Paris… And do something special,” Regan told reporters after the Olympic games last summer. “There’s more to my career. I truly thank that.” The rest of the world does, too.
MN Lynx Undoubtedly the best sports team in Minneapolis, the Lynx are four-time WNBA champions. They’ve won more Western Conference championships than any other women’s basketball team. They hold a record 10 consecutive playoff appearances. And their dynasty in the League reigns supreme: Five Lynx players are named among the greatest 25 athletes in WNBA history:
Representing the debut years of the franchise, Smith put six seasons in with the Lynx, totaling more than 6,400 points and ranking her eighth in WNBA history. Smith was a versatile player; her skills on the court as a small forward and point guard earned her the honor of being enshrined in the NBA Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018. She is the lead Assistant Coach for the Lynx.
The number one overall pick in the WNBA draft, was one of the most recognized stars of the Lynx. The shooting guard led the Lynx to their first of four championship titles, earning MVP honors. Augustus was an eight time All-Star and a member of the WNBA 20th Anniversary Team. She is currently Assistant Coach of the LA Sparks.
A player who ranked her beliefs equally with basketball, the small forward was called by Sports Illustrated the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball. A four-time champion, MVP, and six-time All Star, her awards and statistics are staggering. Moore is also a devout Christian who is currently on sabbatical, working on reform in the justice system and ending modern slavery through forced labor and human trafficking.
The reigning WNBA rebound leader, the 6’ 6” Center joined the Lynx in 2015 and in the same year helped lead the team to a championship and named Finals MVP. Considered a legend in the game, Fowles has won every award imaginable: Twice named League champion, seven-time All Star, league MVP, four honors as Defensive Player of the Year and four team gold medals at four Olympic games. A valuable asset to the Lynx, Fowles will make 2022 her final WNBA season after 15 years with the team. “I cannot understate our appreciation for not only Sylvia Fowles the basketball player, but more importantly, Sylvia Fowles the person,” says Head Coach and GM Cheryl Reeve, who called Fowles “The greatest center in WNBA history.”
The Minnesota superstar was a staple of the Lynx dynasty. From Hutchinson – an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities, she helped drive the women’s basketball program at the University of Minnesota to national prominence and is the only four-time team MVP in the U’s history. First drafted by the Connecticut Suns, Whalen played point guard for five years on the east coast before heading home to the Land of 10,000 Lakes and the Lynx, putting her career history on the map in front of the people who mattered most: 4-time WNBA champion, 5-time All Star, Gold Medals in two Olympic games. Over 14 years, Whalen earned a career 4,000 points, 1,500 assists and 1,000 rebounds. The Lynx honored her on June 8, 2019 by retiring her number 13 jersey. Whalen is currently the head coach of the U of MN women Gophers basketball team.
Just like real siblings, Sister cities share everything – even athletes. Two women from St. Paul are so exceptional in their field of sport they make the list of legendary Minneapolis sports figures:
Marcenia Lyle ‘Toni’ Stone
Marcenia Lyle ‘Toni’ Stone’s story is part myth, part fact. Some say she got a hit off the great Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige on an Easter Sunday in 1953, although there’s no record of it actually happening during that exhibition game. It was widely reported Stone signed a $12,000 contract with the Indianapolis Clowns – more than Jackie Robinson’s first major league contract. But those marketing ploys to attract attention for a female ballplayer could have been exaggerated. Publicists bragged about Stone’s Macalester College degree, but it said she dropped out of Roosevelt High School as a teen to pursue a career in baseball. The truth about Marcenia Lyle Stone is that she was the first woman to play as a regular on an American big-league baseball time. Born in 1921 in West Virginia, her family moved to St. Paul when she was 10 years old. She was a natural ball player and loved playing with the neighborhood boys. But her mother, a hairstylist, tried to curb the ‘tomboy’ in Marcenia and bought her ice skates. It didn’t work. Stone reportedly skipped school to play baseball. She tried the local school leagues, even girls’ softball – nothing moved fast enough or played hard enough for her. Coaches weren’t interested in cultivating her raw talent. So, Stone taught herself by reading rule books and showing up to watch the St. Paul Saints practice. She’d get chased away, only to come back and beg the manager for a chance to play.
At 16, she finally got her wish: Stone started playing weekend barnstormers with the twin City Colored Giants. Earning $3 a game only gave her bigger dreams of making it in baseball. She packed her bags and moved to San Francisco, where Marcenia took a stage name and became ‘Toni’ Stone. It was here she met a World War II Captain named Aurelious Alberga who married her, despite her determination to play professional baseball. A sports career didn’t come easy: She shaved 10 years off her age to play amateur baseball teams for teenagers. She talked her way onto The San Francisco Sea Lions in 1949 but quit when she found she was paid less than the men on the team. Stone joined the New Orleans Creoles for three years before signing with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952 to play second base. She played in more than 50 games, batting .243.
Stone was the first female player in the Negro Leagues. Her unique role drew crowds, but she was not accepted by the teams she played on. Her arms carried scars from being spiked by runners. She wasn’t allowed in the locker room. Kept on the bench. Once she was asked to wear a skirt during play, but she refused.
By 1954, the years of fighting for a place in baseball took its toll. Her contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs, but she never got much playing time. When the season ended, Stone moved home to Oakland, California to care for her aging husband. Alberga died at age 103. Stone retired to an Alameda nursing home where she died of heart failure in 1996. She’s been included in exhibits at the Baseball Hall of Fame and has been inducted in both the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Sunisa Lee was born to win gold. At six she took her first gymnastics class. A year later in 2010 she won the state all-around competition – only the second meet of her very short career. By eight, Suni was climbing the talent ladder, competing three levels higher than her age group. She earned Elite status by 11, but her time in the Junior leagues lasted as long as it took her to perform an Arabian Double Front. In 2017, Suni made the Junior National Team and in her international debut won the silver on the uneven bars at the Junior Cup. Two years later she tore through the events on the bars and the floor at her Senior debut, winning the gold medal and breathing down the neck the reigning world champion on the balance beam with a bronze. Her meteoric rise grabbing metals in the 2019 National and World competitions catapulted Suni past many of the sports’ stars and placed her close behind gymnastic great Simone Biles. Still, the road to greatness comes with stones in its path: Her father – her biggest supporter - suffered a debilitating injury, falling from a tree he was trimming. A broken foot and tendon injuries set Lee back in 2020. And a world pandemic that affected her personally – taking the lives of an aunt and uncle Lee was close to – and professionally, ending competition for the rest of the season.
But the uneven performances at the start of 2021 all disappeared by the time she competed that summer at the Nationals, thrilling fans with her power and skill on the uneven bars and scoring second place on the balance beam and finishing second behind Biles in the all-around competition. Suni qualified for the 2022 Tokyo Olympics. Despite some uncharacteristic performances, it should’ve been the cumulation of all her dreams. But suddenly the 18-year-old was thrust into a bigger spotlight than expected: Biles was out – the team superstar withdrew from competition after the first rotation to focus on her mental health. It left the all-star team with a gaping hole. From the group of 23 athletes, Lee was tapped to step up and fill it.
It never fazed her. The Minnesota teen switched off any doubts in her head. Second place was no longer an option. She replaced Biles on the floor exercise and tied the highest mark of the competition. Her laser focus during the all-around final was only on winning: she hit all four of her routines to win the gold medal – the sixth American behind Biles and Mary Lou Retton and the first Asian Olympics gymnastics champion.
The Twin Cities went wild - Governor Tim Walz declared Friday July 30, 2021 “Sunisa Lee Day”. The country was captivated with her once she placed fifth on Dancing with the Stars a few months after the Olympics. But Lee’s monumental win was the source of hope and pride for the Hmong community – the millions of people caught between warring Vietnamese factions in a Secret War the US backed in the 1970’s. It drove Lee’s family from their homes and across the world as refugees - Her mother arrived in Minnesota as a child with very little to call her own. But she was able to provide Suni with all the passion and determination needed to become an American Hero for a new generation.
The 19-year-old is currently a member of the fifth-ranked Auburn University Tigers gymnastics team. She’s a pre-business major focusing on marketing.