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Wisconsin’s place in Badminton and Billiards

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The sports may be dropped but the banners can still hang.

Students at Wisconsin University playing Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Our last time out, we looked at Wisconsin’s place in the history of women’s soccer, from its Title IX-related start to Badgers representing their country at the World Cup. Now, we look at a sport no longer sponsored by Wisconsin, and another that never was.

Wait, Badminton? Like, Gym-Class Staple Badminton?

Yes, we’re talking about the high-net sport played with a racket and shuttlecock. According to the record book, from fall of 1972 to spring of 1983 the University of Wisconsin Badgers fielded a women’s badminton team. Hey, 1972, that’s the year Title IX started! I wonder if it’s a coincidence that a sport many high school girls might have already played started that same year, or if “holy crap there’s federal legislation we need to comply ASAP quick come up with something cheap to field” was part of why. Either way, the Badgers badminton program is exactly what you think of when building a program from scratch - steady progress until competing on the national stage.

Now, full disclosure: this is a sport that the NCAA never sponsored, taking place well before the Internet documented everything, where even finding out that Wisconsin played this sport is tough to discover. There’s going to be more conjecture than I like putting into these articles, because there is not much information out there. I did my due diligence and searched all other Big 10 members for ‘badminton’ and after tossing out student profiles mentioning playing badminton in high school, here’s what I found.

Big 10 Schools and Badminton

School Badminton Legacy?
School Badminton Legacy?
Illinois None
Indiana None
Iowa None
Maryland None
Michigan None
Michigan State None
Minnesota Maybe?
Nebraska None
Northwestern None
Ohio State None
Penn State Judith Sweet - I'll explain
Purdue None
Rutgers None
A preposterous amount of shuttlecock.

Out of 14 schools, Wisconsin is the only one that has records of badminton being played. Minnesota has a multi-sport athlete in their Block “M” Club that associates with badminton, but Judith Gerke renounced her sports the next year. Penn State’s mention of Judith Sweet will be explained later.

WWIAC Years

In the first seven years of formalized existence, the Badgers competed in the Wisconsin Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics Conference. The literal sister to the WIAC, the WWIAC membership included Marquette and UW-Madison along with the current WIAC roster. They merged in 1997 when Marquette and Madison joined DI leagues.

How did the Badgers do? The 1978-79 and 1979-80 WWIAC Badminton titles are in a storage closet somewhere on campus, celebrations of finally knocking off former powerhouse UW-Lacrosse. This also started Wisconsin making strong showings at the national competitions. Which is good, because they stopped playing WWIAC tournaments in 1980.

Press Preview Of The Space Adventure Exhibition In Turin
It’s a space shuttle cockpit.
Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

AIWA-NIBC Years

Ann French led the Badgers to five consecutive years of athletic success in badminton. Her freshman year, she was an All-American and won something called the Broderick Award while leading the team to a sixth place finish at the Association for Intercollegiate Women’s Athletics badminton tournament. Sophomore year was another All-American award and a fifth place at the national tournament. In her junior and senior years, she’d pair with Claire Allison to take the doubles title and finish third and second respectively.

Then she became the coach. Claire Allison wins the singles and doubles (with Sandy Colby) titles, and Wisconsin takes the National Intercollegiate Badminton Association championship in 1983.

Then Wisconsin dropped the sport.

Nationally the best program is Arizona State. Combining all sponsoring organizations as well as the men’s, women’s and mixed team titles, the Sun Devils have 40 team championships. They swept all three classifications from 1984 to 1993, and then dropped the sport entirely. That’s just what you do in collegiate badminton, I guess.

I love college athletics so impossibly much.

Judith Sweet

When checking every Big 10 athletic department’s website for any mention of badminton, I found a really weird one. Penn State had an old press release of the top 100 most important people in college athletics. (How old? Paterno’s on it.) What’s weirder is the college associated with badminton is the University of Wisconsin, and a player by the name of Judith Sweet.

Judith is not mentioned in the UW’s history of badminton. She graduated in 1969. She was one of the hundreds of thousands of athletes that go pro in something other than sports - in her case, athletics director at UC-San Diego. Her work equalizing the men’s and women’s budgets and available opportunities led to being nominated to serve on NCAA committees in the 80’s, and in 1991 started a two-year term as the NCAA Membership President.

I’m throwing a lot of weird links at you, but that last one is worth it because otherwise you won’t believe that her Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame plaque was presented in part by MillerCoors.

And Now, A Brief Mention of Billiards

In addition to the WWIAC, the AIAW, and the NIBC, there’s an Association of College Unions International. Representing recreational student life, the ACUI sponsors intercollegiate events like poetry slams, air hockey and 9-ball. The University of Wisconsin, as home to the best college union in existence, has a total of three titles in men’s billiards and five in women’s. John O’Miller repped the Badgers in victory in 1937 and 1940, and the thought of being at the old-school Memorial Union drinking nickle beers and just absolutely getting worked by a champion pool shark while wearing a blazer and hat fills me with an insane amount of joy.