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Local women recall the changing landscape for female athletes

Westwood’s Maura Casey O’Brien said few coaches worked with female divers in the 1970s.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Westwood’s Maura Casey O’Brien said few coaches worked with female divers in the 1970s.

It was a historic breakthrough four decades ago that would reshape school athletics across the nation.

The federal gender equity legislation Title IX was passed in 1972, and during the 1975-76 academic year, the Globe began recognizing MIAA female athletes as all-scholastics for their individual accomplishments.

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The honorees included high school athletes who excelled in swimming, field hockey, basketball, softball, tennis and track. By the end of the 1976 calendar year, 83 athletes had been honored.

“It was incredible to me that I could be recognized for something that I loved to do myself,” recalled Maura Casey O’Brien, then a senior diver on the Westwood High School swimming team. “It was incredibly rewarding . . . a great experience. Something I was in awe of . . . I couldn’t believe it. I was almost shocked that somebody would consider me that good.”

“For me, it was a really big deal,” said Elizabeth Hammond Errico, who as a senior field hockey player at Duxbury High School was one of the inaugural honorees. “Just to get recognized for something I did.”

While that sense of disbelief among all-scholastics honorees has lessened as female athletes have received increased media exposure over the years, the accolade remains a symbolic reminder of how much the athletic landscape has changed since Title IX became law.

“I think it’s amazing how far women have come in athletics, because there are so many opportunities now that I don’t think were around,” said Hannah Murphy of Duxbury. “The whole guys versus girls thing in athletics is almost fading away. Girls are just as good, I think. And we’re really starting to get the recognition nowadays, and I think that’s amazing.”

During the 2012-13 school year, Murphy, then a senior, was selected an all-scholastic in field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse for the Green Dragons. She established herself as arguably the state’s most accomplished high school athlete, a concept that would have been unfathomable in the early 1970s.

In addition to Murphy, 271 other female athletes in 16 sports were named Globe All-Scholastics.

But putting the numbers aside reveals a more important development: Chance is no longer the determining factor in the path of a high school female athlete. Where options used to be limited, competition scarce and female coaching at a premium, there are now a bevy of outlets for girls looking to pursue sports.

South of Boston, high schools in Canton, Hingham, and Westwood, among others, have more sports played by girls than boys.

O’Brien, who still lives in Westwood with her husband and six children, developed into an accomplished diver as a high school student under the tutelage of former Harvard University and Radcliffe College diving coach John Walker.

Irina Chiulli, a Globe All-Scholastic, is now a freshman diver at the University of Richmond.

Roy Chiulli

Irina Chiulli, a Globe All-Scholastic, is now a freshman diver at the University of Richmond.

In the 1970s, “I think that there were fewer choices,” O’Brien said. “I was fortunate . . . there were some people [I knew] that were familiar with John Walker at Harvard. But if [they] had not [known about Walker] that opportunity would not have been available to me. There may have [only] been one person out there versus now there could be 10 groups out there to choose from.”

Working with Walker year-round and traveling to diving competitions along the East Coast, O’Brien blossomed. She was eventually recruited by Penn State and Syracuse University before accepting a scholarship to Boston College, where she graduated in 1981. Her diving career, however, ended prematurely because of injury, something that, even today, has done little to lessen her enthusiasm for diving.

This past season, Westwood featured another all-scholastic diver in Irina Chiulli. O’Brien, whose daughter, Aimee, was a junior on the team, found herself watching and rooting for Chiulli, while reflecting on her own experience.

“I always loved watching [Irina],” O’Brien said. “I tried to get to every meet so I could watch her. [Diving] is my favorite part. I think she’s been Globe All-Scholastic all four years. But I certainly remember last year when they did a spread on her. I felt like, ‘Wow, that happened to me. That’s incredible!’

“You forget, but you think it’s such a big deal for that young girl. And then I was that young girl at one time. It’s pretty exciting and it is definitely a kinship.”

Chiulli is now a freshman diver at the University of Richmond, where she accepted a scholarship after receiving interest from James Madison University, Rutgers, and the University of Connecticut. Her path to success began when she started with Boston Area Diving before her freshman year at Westwood High.

“When my Dad was talking to me about [Title IX] the other day,” Chiulli admitted, “I vaguely remembered hearing about it in my past.”

Roy Chiulli

“When my Dad was talking to me about [Title IX] the other day,” Chiulli admitted, “I vaguely remembered hearing about it in my past.”

The 35-year-old club program — well-known in the local swimming community — offered participants year-round, two-hour practices five days a week and the opportunity to travel and compete throughout the United States. It provided Chiulli an outlet to develop and eventually showcase her abilities.

“The coaches know a lot,” Chiulli said. “They knew how to get me into the swing of diving. They basically taught me everything. And a lot of my teammates helped me because you have to memorize the numbers of dives for competitions [along with] the degree of difficulty.”

Diving also gave Chiulli control over her college selection. She contacted coaches before her junior season, and narrowed her choices a year later.

“When my Dad was talking to me about [Title IX] the other day,” Chiulli admitted, “I vaguely remembered hearing about it in my past. But I never really thought about it too much, like how my life would be so different if I didn’t have a sport to rely on.”

Duxbury’s Murphy experienced a similar realization.

The three-sport star — who picked up field hockey as a high school freshman, played town and club ice hockey and lacrosse before and during high school, and dabbled in soccer — is grateful she had the chance to try multiple sports.

“I didn’t see the point in just picking a sport, one sport,’’ Murphy said. “I liked them all and I liked to switch it up now and then . . . I think playing a bunch made me a better athlete.”

While Errico, a 1977 Duxbury graduate, who now lives in Kennebunk, Maine, participated in gymnastics, tennis, and softball in addition to field hockey, which she started playing in sixth grade, she never had the chance to compete against other teams before high school.

Despite not being recruited, Errico continued playing field hockey at the University of Mary Washington, where she also picked up lacrosse and ended up playing at a varsity level.

Still, Errico’s athletic options couldn’t compare with those available to her 19-year-old daughter, Lauren, who began playing sports, including ice hockey, at a young age.

“My daughter played hockey, and I think that’s something I wish I could have played,” Errico said. But “Duxbury hadn’t started [its] team yet.”

Today, athletics remain an integral component of Errico’s life. Each week, the graphic designer plays tennis and paddle tennis, and bikes. It’s an outlet she has come to appreciate; activities that satisfy her fiery competitiveness.

And, like present and future female all-scholastics who reap the benefits of Title IX, Errico has greater control over her athletic pursuits.

Paul Lazdowski can be reached at pmlazdowski@gmail.com.
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