March was Women’s History Month. It exists because the achievements of women have often been overlooked. That is even more true in the sports world. This post recognizes some of the superb female athletes who have called Route 66 home over the last century.
From dynastic girls basketball programs to record-breaking college athletes to Olympic Gold Medalists, the Mother Road has been home to several outstanding female athletes. The most accomplished of which is Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
The East St. Louis native was recognized by Sports Illustrated as the greatest female athlete of the 20th Century. Between 1984 and 1996, Joyner-Kersee won six Olympic medals, half of those golds, and set multiple world records. Her world record in the heptathlon at the 1988 Seoul Games still stands. Joyrner-Kersee was awarded a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the Delmar Loop in 2000 and her legacy lives on in East St. Louis with the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Community Center. The multi-field sports complex includes a gymnasium and hosts a variety of youth sports leagues and after-school programs.
Joyner-Kersee isn’t the only Olympic Gold Medalist to come out of East St. Louis with Dawn Harper-Nelson leaving East St. Louis High School as a six-time high school state champion before capturing a Gold Medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Another Jackie achieved fame on the basketball court in Springfield, Missouri. Jackie Stiles is the all-time leading scorer for the Missouri State University women’s basketball program. She was the first NCAA Division I women’s player with more than 1,000 points in a season when she scored 1,062 in the 2000-2001 campaign. She led Missouri State to a Final Four appearance in St. Louis that season. Her 3,393 career points were an NCAA record until 2017. A giant banner for Stiles and her 2016 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement hangs from the rafters above the basketball court at JQH Arena and she is honored with a statue outside of Springfield’s Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
Just east of Springfield are the small towns of Marshfield and Strafford, where girls sports reign supreme. Marshfield’s girls basketball team won seven state championships between 1988 and 1999 while Strafford won five straight state titles from 2016-20. When the rival schools play each other, it is a standing-room-only event.
Marshfield and Strafford also have a combined three state softball championships. Softball fans will definitely want to stop at the National Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The museum is operated by USA Softball and offers free admission. The Hall, which opened in 1976, honors standout players, coaches, commissioners, and even umpires. Notable enshrinees include 2004 Olympic Gold Medalists Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza.
The Hall complex includes OGE Energy Field, which has hosted the Women’s College World Series every year since 1997. OGE Energy Field, which opened in 1987, also holds the Big 12 Conference softball tournament and hosted the World Cup of Softball ten times between 2005 and 2017. The stadium underwent multiple renovation projects between 2013 and 2019 that raised the capacity from 4,000 to 7,300.
A few miles north of Oklahoma City is the city of Edmond, where Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller began her trek toward a Gold Medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Four years earlier, Miller won five medals at the Barcelona Games. A section of Interstate 35 through Edmond was renamed Shannon Miller Parkway in 1998.
One of the most iconic moments is women’s sports has been forever immortalized outside of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The Rose Bowl may be home to the UCLA football team, but it has hosted five Super Bowls, three World Cups, and two Olympic games with another on the way in 2028. One of those World Cups was the 1999 women’s tournament. The championship match between the United States and China went to penalty kicks with Brandi Chastain famously booting the winning goal. She then spontaneously ripped off her shirt and slid on her knees to set off an exuberant celebration. A photo of Chastain on her knees, shouting with her fists clenched in the air, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and numerous newspaper front pages. The moment is also captured with a statue of Chastain outside of the Rose Bowl.
This post is just a snapshot of the sports glory the women of Route 66 have achieved over the years. More details are provided in A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66, which will be released on August 3.