Kentucky Wildcats outside hitter Alli Stumler (17) runs onto the court during introductions before the UK vs. Ole Miss volleyball game on Friday, March 12, 2021, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 3-0. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

When athletes started arriving in the bubble for the NCAA basketball tournament, no one was really surprised to find glaring discrepancies between the accommodations for the women’s teams and the men’s.

In viral social media posts, basketball stars like Oregon’s Sedona Prince showed side by sides of the world-class weight room installed for the male players and the singular set of dumb bells provided for all the female players to share.

Such an obvious difference brought swift recrimination upon the NCAA. And though the weight room problem was fixed, the discrepancy soon became emblematic of the NCAA’s failure to treat female athletes the same as males, straight down to who is allowed to use the March Madness moniker – even though it’s trademarked for all of college basketball.

“That is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed,” UK senior guard Chastity Patterson said of the discrepancies during a press conference. “Seeing that as a female athlete it is disturbing. As an athlete, we want to have equality and have the same opportunities as the men.”

UK’s female athletes say the equality and opportunities are there are Kentucky. An environment of equal expectations and equitable resources, cultivated by athletics director Mitch Barnhart, gives female athletes at UK something many college players don’t have – a fighting chance.

In 2021, UK’s women’s sports took that chance and ran with it. Kentucky was the only Division 1 school to be nationally ranked in women’s basketball, track and field, swim and dive, softball and volleyball. As of April 1, eight of Kentucky’s women’s sports were in the top 25, with rifle back at no. 1.

Women’s swim & dive claimed their first SEC title, and volleyball their fourth in a row. Tennis doubles pair Akvilė Paražinskaitė and Fiona Arrese sit at no. 1 in the country with a 19-1 record in the regular season, while rifle competitor Mary Tucker just took home the gold medal at the international rifle championships.

These successes are striking because they are happening across the board among women’s sports at Kentucky this year – UK’s female athletes are consistently, universally, kicking ass. But these victories are not a surprise to their programs; instead, they are the product of years of groundwork and grit.

“The success that these other was teams have had, it doesn’t come easily, especially when you’re in the SEC – nothing comes easily,” said swimmer Lauren Poole. “And I think the results the winning teams have gotten, it’s just – it has to be determination and strong women and a lot of it is us coming together, especially this year.”

Lauren Johnson, a junior infielder for the softball team, said part of softball’s success this year – including the best program start in history – is due to great chemistry.

“You need everyone on the team, whether you’re a starter or not, just to really get along and everyone know their role, which I think has really helped our team succeed,” Johnson said. Softball coach Rachel Lawson credited the players for putting in the work when they were away from campus due to COVID-19.

“They had to find a field or a gym or a friend of a friend of a friend who has a warehouse that they could set up a hitting situation, they had to run, they had to lift and all of those things are a lot easier when you have someone around you like your team,” Lawson said.

In the experiences of UK’s female athletes, sports and gender can’t be separated. Especially during Women’s History Month, UK’s female athletes have taken notice of other teams’ success this year.

“It’s like created almost a more exciting atmosphere and everyone gets so excited for each other and are so proud of each other, that’s pretty cool,” said junior Josie Angeny, a gymnast just named All-SEC on the back of her hard work in the offseason.

“It is bomb,” said Maddie Berezowitz of the success of UK’s female athletes this year. Berezowitz is a sophomore and libero for UK volleyball. Volleyball won 38 sets in a row this season and won the SEC championship in March before heading into the NCAA tournament as the no. 2 seed.

Berezowitz said volleyball’s success this year is due to the high level of play within the team that’s “unbelievable in practice.” She said dropping their set streak was good for the team because it kept them from becoming complacent.

The accolades don’t end with wins (though those wins pushed UK rifle back into no. 1 and netted them another national championship). Athletes are setting personal and collegiate records, like track and field star Abby Steiner tying the collegiate record for the 200-meter dash.

But success should not be a prerequisite to equality. And even historically successful programs face the same kind of gender biases that men’s programs do not. Win, lose or draw, UK’s female athletes say that female athletes are not respected or recognized with the same dignity that male athletes are and that female athletes face active patterns of gender discrimination. From comments from the media on body image, condescending attitudes towards ‘little girls’ and constant belittling of their achievements, to be a female athlete in college is to bear the weight of gender bias.


Comments on Josie Angeny’s body started when she was in the fifth grade. She wore a tank top to school, which caught the attention of the substitute teacher.

“Gymnasts have very broad shoulders, which isn’t a super feminine characteristic and my arms have always been way bigger and muscular than regular girls, or what people think they should look like,” Angeny said. “Our substitute walked in and literally just looked straight at me and said, ‘Oh, someone’s got muscles.”

Angeny was embarrassed to be singled out. But comments on her body are par for the course as a female gymnast, and just one of the ways that female athletes are treated differently than males from a young age.

“We’re always supposed to be perfect, especially in gymnastics, that’s the whole goal. We’re supposed to be as perfect as possible, and men’s sports aren’t really like that,” Angeny said. The pressure to be perfect would trail her through gymnastics up until college.

Like many gymnasts, Angeny chose cyber school to accommodate her training schedule. Being separated from peers meant most people only knew as her ‘the gymnast,’ never anything else.

“Gymnastics is pretty feminine, which kind of kept me a little bit on that side,” Angeny said. But even her friends would comment on her strength, something most people found weird.

But what’s weird to society is often normal for athletes; second guessing themselves is a product of other peoples’ expectations imposed on athletes, not their inherent insecurities.

Angeny never thought twice about having calluses, but people always ask what’s wrong with her hands.

“Everything you see on TV and everywhere else is girls having pretty long fingers, all this stuff that is so feminine and so pretty, or perfect or whatever you want to call it. And then we have these calluses all of our wrists and all of our hands from bars, and that’s something that like I’ve always had people point out…but I just thought I was normal,” Angeny said.

People also point out bruises, which comes from falling a lot – a normal part of gymnastics, but something most associate with football.

“Even our nails people will comment on all the time, just because apparently gymnasts aren’t supposed to have long nails…I think there’s three things that really stood out to me that I’ve never thought twice about, and then other people point them out,” Angeny said.

Like Angeny detailed, outsiders project their ideas of gender onto sports, and female athletes usually bear the brunt of stereotypes.

Softball player Lauren Johnson said she feels like all female athletes are stereotyped as not as good as male athletes. Her sport is often compared to baseball.

“Everyone tries to make comparisons between the two whenever really, they have their similarities but they’re very different,” Johnson said. “There’s so many different aspects to it that whenever you try to compare it, there’s really no comparison that can be made.”

Even so, some believe that women’s sports aren’t real sports. Mary Tucker, a sophomore who competes in rifle for UK, battles this idea on two fronts.

“People kind of view male athletes as real athletes. We get told a lot that our sport isn’t a real sport,” Tucker said. “But then being a female, people are always like, ‘Oh, that solidifies that it’s not a real sport, because girls can do it.’’

Rifle is unique because gender distribution is equal, and women actually tend to score higher than men, leading to more respect within the sport. But outside of the rifle world, the fact that women are successful in competition leads people to devalue the sport.

“I can walk around campus and I have two championship rings and I have the Olympic rings tattooed on my arm and people are still like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not real, like what you’re doing is not a real sport,’” Tucker said.

Rifle is real enough for the Olympics – Tucker is one of two UK athletes headed to Tokyo 2021 this summer to compete for Team USA. Finishing in first place in the second round of Olympic qualifiers is one of Tucker’s proudest moments.

“Especially being as young as I am, because I know there’s a lot of other athletes who are much more experienced than me, and some of them kind of freaked out a little bit that I was able to just do what I was supposed to do,” Tucker said.

Age is not as much as factor in discrimination in rifle because people care more about when a person starts shooting. Tucker, who started later than most at 16 while in military school, is underestimated by many people who doubt her drive or discredit her success.

“I get a lot of people saying you’re going to burn out because you got really good really fast, and you’re not going to be able to keep doing it,” Tucker said. “Or there’s a lot of people who look at my scores and are just kind of like ‘you shouldn’t be here.’ Like, we’ve been working at this for 10 more years than [Tucker].

But age is another layer of discrimination for female athletes in other sports. In swimming, Lauren Poole said male athletes devalue the accomplishments of their female counterparts because the times aren’t as fast, which is just a quirk of the sport.

Poole has experienced this belittlement herself; she made the Olympic trials’ qualifying times in 2016 (and again in 2020), but the boys on her club team said it wasn’t a real qualification because she’s a girl.

“People act like it’s easier [for girls] to be better in rankings than boys because boys mature later and they get stronger later on,” Poole said. ”I definitely had some club teammates in high school who acted like my accomplishments weren’t as amazing because, ‘oh, a lot of teenage girls do that,’ which is kind of annoying because I know teenage boys who have gotten trials’ cuts – but not the ones I swam with.”

Being young and female leads some people to condescend to female athletes.

“On social media or doing interviews, that gets mentioned,” Tucker said. “A lot of people are just like, ‘oh, you’re just a little girl’ and it’s like ‘okay, well, I’m actually a very high-performing athlete.’

Angeny recently experienced a situation like this at UK gymnastics. A staff member spoke down to her like she was ‘12’ and at first Angeny didn’t think anything of it, only wanting to correct the problem.

“But then the other staff member that was nice to me looked at me and she was like, ‘How do they expect you to act like an adult when they treat you like a 12-year-old, and I was like, yeah,” Angeny said. She thought about how she doesn’t see the same condescending tone used on male athletes even when their teams have the same issues, but that kind of treatment is common for girls in gymnastics.

“I don’t even think about it until someone says something because especially in my sport, the way that we come up in it, it’s so regular for us to be brought down because it’s so easy for them,” Angeny said of authorities in gymnastics.

Gymnastics in college, and at UK in particular, are a world removed from the kind of toxic environment Angeny described. She recounted having shoes thrown at her and water spit at her when she was younger.

“I never thought anything of it I thought, it was funny at the time, a little bit because I didn’t know how to handle those situations,” Angeny said. Like other gymnasts, she didn’t tell her parents or other coaches because she didn’t want to upset anyone.

“We feel like we’re just not supposed to say anything because, even with me, I know some coaches would treat me a certain way, and I felt like I couldn’t tell the higher up coach because then they would get mad,” Angeny said. She even tried to hide an injury after she broke her ankle four times in the ninth grade.

“Every time I would roll it, I was so terrified to tell my coach because they would get so angry and mad it just puts you in such a – you feel so little,” Angeny said. Those feelings are isolated by the nature of gymnastics. Athletes are isolated and under-socialized because they are not in school, then pushed together in high pressure environments for six hours a day.

“You’re striving to be perfect all day long, so it’s very hard on younger girls where some people don’t really process it until later, where I kind of realized everything that was happening as I grew up,” Angeny said.

Those negative environments went away when Angeny became a college athlete, something gymnasts wait for in their younger careers. But even relief from toxic training would not stop gender discrimination; like other college athletes, Angeny found that societal expectations would affect her relationship with her body.

UNDAUNTED, a series by Kentucky Kernel editor-in-chief Natalie Parks, explores the intersection of gender and athletics with testimony from eight UK athletes and coaches. Series installments will discuss body image pressures, unequal access, representation, mentorship and double standards between men’s and women’s sports.