Maria Bell, M.D., is a Sanford Health gynecologic oncologist who is in the Augustana University Hall of Fame for her excellence as a tennis player.
The Title IX legislation celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer revolutionized sports in the United States for girls and women. About 10 years after it began making its mark on our culture, Dr. Bell was making her mark in athletics as a pre-med college student at Augustana in the early 1980s.
Tennis and surgery
Dr. Bell can speak generally about the great life lessons she has learned in the process of becoming a good college tennis player. She can also get pretty specific about how her opportunity to compete at a high level has made her better at what she does now.
“It really helped me develop confidence,” said Dr. Bell, who grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota. “Tennis is an individual sport so the buck stops here, right? Developing that mentality plays well into being a physician and especially a surgeon.”
Surgeons and tennis players are both familiar with tense situations. While the stakes are much higher at the hospital than they are on the tennis court, there remain similarities that have helped Dr. Bell as she has advanced in her profession.
“In tennis I learned breathing techniques I still use,” she said. “When you’re in a clutch situation, you know, like a tie-breaker, it’s about getting your mind to settle down. You learn to focus and calm your nerves. These are the same techniques that I use when it gets a little scary in the operating room.”
Jayne Gust is Sanford Health’s director of community relations in the Fargo, North Dakota, region who was one of the greatest basketball players ever at O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls. She repeated those “greatest ever” achievements at North Dakota State, where the list of national awards she received fill up paragraphs of her Bison Athletic Hall of Fame bio.
She is also the married mother of four children and can be seen on the sidelines at her children’s sporting events on an almost nightly basis.
The Bison were national title contenders during her time at NDSU, attracting a level of fan interest in Fargo that was distinctive in the world of women’s college basketball at the time. That loyal following represented a great victory for those who worked to make Title IX a reality.
“When you go through experiences like that I always tell people it’s like an elevated leadership position,” Gust said. “To an extent it’s kind of like a job. As basketball players we had the opportunity to volunteer and become ambassadors for our program because we had coaches who believed in that. People knew us and they still do. I’ll be at the grocery store now and somebody will come up to me and say ‘Hey, how about those Bison?’ I love that.”
As community relations director, Gust seeks out ways Sanford can help nonprofit organizations to strengthen the health, social and economic well-being of those living in the region. That effort can be part of a long-term venture or an event with day-to-day responsibilities. Either way, it’s always going to come down to a few basics that Gust can connect to a past commitment to basketball.
“With every job, there are times when you ask yourself: Do you quit or do you keep going?” Gust said. “What am I willing to put into this? That’s what we have to do in the work world. It can be challenging. At Sanford we have a very robust organization. There is constant change.”
Supporting youth sports
Gust can draw on her experience as an athlete in summoning the perseverance to do her job well. That background also comes into play in appreciating and working to sustain Sanford’s role in providing opportunities for young athletes.
As the nation enters its second half-century with Title IX principles a part of the culture, there will continue to be ways to improve the sports environment.
“I’m very proud of Sanford’s support of kids,” Gust said. “A lot of people see our bigger contributions at the collegiate level, which of course we have because of the business we are in with sports medicine and orthopedics. But beyond that, we have invested in youth athletics.”
Though not based on gender to the degree it would have been 50 years ago, accessibility to sports remains a cultural challenge. Opportunities for Gust and others will continue to present themselves.
“We believe every kid should have a chance to play,” she said. “If that involves providing a scholarship so a kid can get a pool pass, girl or boy, that’s great. There shouldn’t be a barrier for why kids get involved. I’m so thankful that we work for an organization where I get to have some of those conversations to make sure that we’re out there doing the right thing for our communities.”
In the late 1970s, when Dr. Bell was deciding where she would go to college, her options were limited by her family’s ability to pay for it. Interest rates were preposterously high at the time so getting a big college loan was impractical, if not impossible.
“If I was going to leave Aberdeen for school I was going to have to get a scholarship,” Dr. Bell said. “So tennis did that. It allowed me to get a great education that I might not have been able to get otherwise.”
‘Go for it’
Dr. Bell’s youth at the tennis courts was filled with stories that had sort of a pre-Title IX vibe to them. She was very competitive at a time when that characteristic was not greeted with universal acceptance — especially by the boys who were losing to her. Her father would joke years later she should have lost more often.
It wasn’t just tennis, either. In med school she took up racquetball and quickly became good enough at it to enter a men’s tournament. While sitting in the women’s locker room she could hear the conversations of the players in the men’s locker room. Turns out they were not big fans.
“It was like ‘OK, you gotta beat her,’ and then they were talking about the kinds of shots they thought they should hit to do that,” Dr. Bell said. “Every time I’d beat somebody I’d go back to the women’s locker room and hear the same thing. They were strategizing about how they were going to beat me.”
When a kid didn’t show up for the driveway pickup games at Gust’s home growing up she’d get the nod to play against the boys.
“Eventually they realized I could compete some,” Gust said. “I think it’s important as a parent to make sure kids know that they’re not limited. My husband and I strongly encourage attitude and effort because regardless of where you’re coming from — regardless of what gender you are or what talent level you are — you should show up and do your best. For girls especially, they should know they can compete against the boys if they want. When you get your chance, put your name in there and go for it.”
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