Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

‘My sports saved me’: Three women describe their experiences as athletes at Brown, beyond

Brown Athletics alum describe competing, working in male-dominated fields

Siri Lindley ‘91  walked on to the ice hockey team her senior year. 
“I can’t imagine graduating from here and not having played ice hockey,” she said.
Siri Lindley ‘91 walked on to the ice hockey team her senior year. “I can’t imagine graduating from here and not having played ice hockey,” she said.

The implementation of Title IX on June 23, 1972 marked the first time women athletes had access to an even playing field with their male counterparts. Despite this, discrimination and doubts about the validity of female athletics persisted.

The Herald spoke with three female alumni who were athletes at the University when Title IX was enacted. These women discussed perseverance in the face of adversity, how athletics empowered them and the ways their experiences at Brown impacted their lives beyond College Hill.

Pioneering women’s athletics: Nancy Fuld Neff ’76

Nancy Fuld Neff ’76 is the daughter of two collegiate tennis players. In high school, she played girls’ basketball and volleyball. But her school did not offer girls’ tennis, so Neff played on the boys’ team. 

The boys and coaches on Neff’s high school tennis team were supportive of her, even advocating for her to be considered for the boys’ scholar-athlete award after she had already won the accolade for girl athletes. With no locker rooms for female tennis players at her school, Neff’s male teammates would hold up towels to give her privacy to change after practices. Neff and her father even attended the father-son dinner every year. 

Opposing teams were less than receptive to Neff's position on the boy’s team. One coach — who initially refused to play the match because Neff was on the team — later berated his players for “losing to a girl,” Neff recalled. 

Neff was interested in continuing athletics in college, but because Title IX had not yet been introduced, funding for women’s sports was limited. “You didn’t really pick a school based on the sports opportunities,” Neff said.

Neff chose to attend Brown because of its liberal environment. Her arrival on campus coincided with the introduction of Title IX in 1972. Between her enrollment and her graduation, women’s sports opportunities on campus grew from four to thirteen programs, she explained.

After Title IX, women’s sports “changed completely overnight,” Neff said.

Neff played on Brown’s women’s tennis team and posted 44 victories in the 50 matches she played, captaining the team her junior and senior years. She also joined the women’s basketball team when it was established in 1973 and was the team’s second highest scorer her senior year, averaging 12 points per game.

Though opportunities for women’s athletics on campus improved, Neff and her teammates were still responsible for raising their training and travel funds, she said.

In her freshman year, Neff approached Arlene Gorton, the women’s athletic director at the University, and protested the state of women's athletics. Neff recalled telling Gorton, “This is a woeful program here — not just Brown but everywhere.”

Neff and Gorton developed a friendship over the years. “I was very grateful because she really pushed for Brown women’s athletics more than anyone I know, at least in those years,” Neff said.

Neff carried the lessons that she learned playing sports at Brown into her professional business career. “You learn in sports not to take things personally,” Neff said. “It’s helpful not to take things quite so personally but to listen to the constructive criticism and then move on.”

After graduating from Brown with a degree in political science, Neff attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and then entered investment banking. 

As an investment banker, Neff found herself in a field dominated by single men. She faced numerous challenges at her company, being denied adequate maternity leave and having to draft her own leave policy. She eventually left investment banking after eight years to devote more time to raising her three children.

Neff has served on Brown’s Athletic Advisory Council, which supports the athletic director and advocates for athletics with University leadership. She is also a member of the Women’s Leadership Council and is co-chair of the Council on the College, which examines various academic priorities for undergraduates. Neff also serves on the Board of Trustees for Randall’s Island Park Alliance in New York. 

In her spare time, Neff still plays tennis at Randall’s Island Park.

Get The Herald delivered to your inbox daily.

A leader in athletics and medicine: Jo Hannafin ’77

Jo Hannafin ’77 grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. She and her siblings were the first in their family to attend college. Hannafin chose to explore her academic interests — particularly biology — at Brown, drawn to the newly established Open Curriculum. 

While Hannafin participated in swimming and basketball in high school, she entered Brown uninvolved in athletics. A first-year hallmate who was a recruited varsity swimmer convinced Hannafin to walk onto the JV swim team, though she soon found that swimming was not the right fit for her. 

In the fall of 1973, one year after Title IX was introduced, one of Hannafin’s classmates convinced Gorton to establish a women’s rowing team.

Hannafin had no experience in rowing when Brown’s program launched. Prospective rowers used the fall semester to learn the sport before commencing official training in the spring.

Hannafin was recruited to the program by Lynda Calkins, who had been Hannafin’s swimming coach and was the first head coach for the rowing team. 

When the first female rowers at Brown began training, they did so under crude conditions, Hannafin said. “They had the old tanks in those days where you would sit in a room and push water around in a circle.”

Hannafin and her teammates were stuck training in these tanks for almost three weeks because the men’s head rowing coach would not permit a woman to take a launch boat out on the water, according to Hannafin.

The men’s coach ultimately hired Peter Amram, who would coach Hannafin for the duration of her career at Brown along with Calkins. “When we had a male coach who was allowed to drive the launch,” Hannafin said, “that’s when we finally made it out on the water.”

Bouncing back and forth from JV to Varsity throughout her college career, Hannafin’s performances on Brown women’s crew were solid, but not indicative of what she could achieve at her peak. “I was not a superstar (at Brown) at all,” Hannafin said, “but I knew that I loved” rowing.

After graduating, Hannafin moved to Dartmouth, where she worked as a research assistant for two years while completing required classes for medical school. At Dartmouth, she continued rowing at an even higher level, training with Darmouth's head women's rowing coach and other former Olympians. This sparked the beginning of Hannafin’s journey of competing at an international level.

“I learned to train at a level that I had never experienced before in terms of intensity,” Hannafin said. “We trained thirteen times a week.” 

Hannafin then went to attend Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, where she completed an MD-PhD.

Hannafin juggled her intense training schedule with that of medical school. “I didn’t really talk about it, I just did it,” Hannafin said. “Those were the two things that were most important to me.”

Hannafin, who wanted to pursue rowing beyond her educational career, was denied entry to the New York Athletic Club, a boathouse near the Bronx, without the company of a man.

But Hannafin persevered. She teamed up with another woman, acquired boats and rowed on Long Island Sound daily. After witnessing their commitment, the New York Athletic Club changed its mind and offered the two women a temporary place at their boathouse.

A male coach at the club saw potential in Hannafin and recruited her to train with a group of men. Competing with and against elite male athletes who had international rowing experience challenged Hannafin in a unique way, she said. “That’s what launched me to winning some national championships.”

Hannafin’s highest rowing achievement was finishing second at the World Championships in 1984. 

The following year, she started her residency and had to reduce her level of competition to devote more time to her medical career. 

Though initially intending to become a pediatrician, Hannafin decided to pursue orthopedic surgery. Inspired by the work she did alongside a surgeon who treated her knee injury, Hannifan decided to work with athletes.

Hannafin specialized in sports medicine and was the National Team doctor for the U.S. Rowing Team for 27 years. “It was my way of giving back to a sport that had really helped make me who I am,” Hannafin said.

“I was used to being around intense, competitive men and learned in years at the boathouse how to fit in with that group of people,” Hannafin said. “I held my own by being good at what I did and working hard and being accountable.”

Hannafin started her orthopedic surgery career at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City as a fellow in 1990 as one of two women on the staff. She and the other female doctor recognized that they were seeing numerous female patients who sought them out for second or third opinions after not being treated with respect by male doctors.

In the mid-nineties, Hannafin and her colleague founded the Hospital for Special Surgery Women’s Sports Medicine Center, the first women’s sports medicine center in the country, which has grown to have five surgeons, five primary care doctors and a rehab medicine physician. Hannafin and her team’s doctors have cared for Olympic Women’s rowing, basketball, track and field, skiing and snowboarding teams.

Hannafin retired from her practice in June 2021, but she said that the institution continues to thrive. She is now the vice chair of the Institutional Review Board for the Hospital for Special Surgery, for which she oversees orthopedic work and evaluates patient outcomes. 

Hannafin continues to enjoy being on the water. During her free time, she and her husband enjoy rowing on the lake outside their house in Connecticut.

“Gratitude was a bridge from despair to hope”: Siri Lindley ’91

Siri Lindley ’91 originally committed to attend Princeton due to pressure from her family, but she ultimately rescinded her acceptance so she could attend Brown. “My heart was saying ‘I want to go to Brown, Brown’s the school for me,’” Lindley said. “I was so happy (with my final decision) because Brown just fit me like a glove.” 

Lindley was a member of three varsity teams at Brown — field hockey, women’s ice hockey and women’s lacrosse. Despite her athletic prowess and academic success, she battled anxiety during her college years. Her internal struggle with mental health led her to major in psychology. 

“On the outside, people thought I had it made,” Lindley said.“But on the inside, I was really struggling, so I wanted to study psychology to try and figure out ‘what’s wrong with me?’”

Lindley used her athletics and her studies as an escape from the mental turmoil she endured. “My sports saved me,” Lindley said. “My classes that I loved saved me.”

Over time, she learned to shift her perspective and overcame her mental health difficulties. “I started focusing on what I had,” Lindley recalled, “what I loved and what I wanted to create in my life.” 

Lindley’s field hockey coach at Brown, who was also the lacrosse coach, initially discouraged her from playing ice hockey because the seasons overlapped. For her first three years, Lindley refrained from playing ice hockey — what she considers her best sport of the three — to avoid having to sacrifice the other two.

Her senior year, Lindley decided to defy expectations and tried out for the women’s ice hockey team. Lindley remembers thinking, “I can’t imagine graduating from here and not having played ice hockey,” she said. 

“That was one of the main reasons I refused Princeton — to play ice hockey” at Brown, she added.

Lindley walked onto the women’s ice hockey team during her final year at the University and continued playing the other two sports she loved. “It was my favorite year out of all four years because I was able to fully engage in the things that made me feel so alive,” Lindley said.

Playing three sports her senior year proved to Lindley that she could push herself beyond her perceived limits. Lindley remembers thinking, “I want to decide what story I want to live in this life, and I want to say that anything is possible,’” she said. Playing a third sport was “a defining step in my life.”

Seeing a friend race in a triathlon inspired Lindley to pursue this new sport that combines swimming, biking and running. She began participating in triathlons upon graduating in 1991. Lindley sought refuge in the competition after being rejected by her father after coming out as gay.

“At that time, I really needed a vehicle through which I could find a love for myself,” Lindley said, “a worthiness from within, a trust in myself.”

Competing in triathlons was entirely new to Lindley, yet she embraced the challenge of mastering new skills. “I didn’t know how to swim, never really rode a bike before and (my skills in) running consisted of chasing after a ball on the field hockey or lacrosse field,” Lindley said.

When Lindley finished last place in her first race, she decided she was going “to be the best in the world,” Lindley said.

Eight years after setting this goal, Lindley became the World Champion in 2001. “That was the impossible dream coming true,” Lindley said. “When I achieved that goal, I think for the first time in my entire life, I felt a love for myself … that I had been searching for for a lifetime.” 

Lindley retired in 2002 as the No. 1 ranked triathlete in the world — a ranking she maintained until April 2003 despite no longer competing. She then began coaching elite-level triathletes.

As a female athlete at Brown in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Lindley and her teammates were still fighting for equal opportunities in sports. While this challenge continued in her coaching career — as the sport was male dominated — Lindley looked at her role as a female coach as an opportunity.

“I’m so happy that after my time (at Brown) there were people … who took on that fight and made it a lot more equal now,” Lindley said.

With Title IX, Lindley recalled feeling supported as a female athlete. “It felt really special to be a female athlete at Brown,” she said. “It felt like we were celebrated, supported. We were taken care of.”

In addition to coaching athletes, Lindley is a life coach who emphasizes the power of women. 

Though Lindley has faced plenty of adversity in her athletic and professional careers, she said her greatest challenge came two years ago, when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. After receiving a bone marrow transplant and undergoing a clinical trial, Lindley overcame the disease.

“Gratitude was the bridge from despair to hope,” Lindley said. In the face of her illness, she focused on the support from her family and friends, doctors who were treating her and donors who were saving her life.

“My story was not going to be this tragedy where I die of leukemia,” Lindley said. “My story was going to be that this was my most beautiful triumph.”

“Life’s not happening to you,” Lindley added. “Most of the time, life is happening for you, and you get to create every single experience and how that plays out.”

Today, Lindley speaks publicly around the country for prominent author and fellow life coach Tony Robbins. She runs the Siriusly Authentic Squad through which she offers individuals life coaching.

Lindley is married to Rebekah Keat, an Ironman Champion, and the couple operate two nonprofit organizations that rescue horses from slaughter.

Lindley attributes her athletic success, matched by professional and personal triumphs, to her experience at Brown.

“It’s because I went to Brown,” Lindley said. “Who you start becoming at Brown truly is laying the foundation for all the greatness, all the magic you bring into this world in the future.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jo Hannafin ’77 received her MD-PhD at Dartmouth. In fact, she worked as a research assistant at Dartmouth for two years while completing required classes for medical school, and received her MD-PhD at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The Herald regrets the error.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Siri Lindsey ’91. The Herald regrets the error.



Popular



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2022 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.