Del Bowyer of Largo remembers a time when girls were discouraged from playing sports. • "My mother used to say things like, 'Ladies don't run.' So when I felt like running, I'd make sure she couldn't see me before I took off,'' said Bowyer, 76. • Ethel Lehmann, also of Largo, remembers how in 1947, at the age of 17, she received the MVP trophy from her teammates on the Long Island Clovers, a fast-pitch women's softball team.
"It was exciting to be involved with that, but then at 21, I stopped playing because my mom expected me to retire from sports since I was a girl,'' said Lehmann, 82.
And although Jan Ellis of St. Petersburg excelled in softball in her youth, she says she didn't stand a chance of getting a scholarship for her athleticism. "A scholarship? No way. That was long before Title IX,'' said Ellis, 71, referring to the 1972 law that helped pave the way for women's athletic programs.
The three women and their teammates from Freedom Spirit of Florida, a 70-plus women's softball team, are winding down their 17th season of play. Started in 1994 as a 55-plus group, there are now nine players who are 75 or older on the team, which has 12 to 15 players depending on the time of year.
Sure, they could spend hours reflecting on how much easier female athletes have it in the 21st century compared with their youth in 1940s America, where they could only yearn for equal playing time on the athletic fields with their male counterparts.
However, there's no time for that. "Let's just say it's good to see how much has changed,'' said Lehmann, who has five children and nine grandchildren.
The only reflecting she has time for is "on the team's recent successes,'' she said.
Here are some of Freedom Spirit of Florida's stats:
• In September, the team placed third in its division at the Women's World Softball Tournament in Gallatin, Tenn. And on that trip, the team, which already had three National Senior Softball Hall of Famers — Lehmann, Bowyer and Ruth Fellmeth, a snowbird from New York — watched as two more teammates were inducted. They are Shirley Smith of St. Petersburg and Helen Boyd, who travels from her home in Micco, on Florida's east coast, to practice with the team.
•On Dec. 4, the team received first place after defeating the Golden Gals of the Villages in a best two-out-of-three contest at the Florida Senior State Games in Winter Haven.
• In 2010, Bowyer became the second woman to join the Kids and Kubs, the prestigious Three-Quarter Century Softball Club based in St. Petersburg. Who was the first woman to join? That would be Lehmann, who joined in 2004.
• • •
On a recent Tuesday, the team gathered at its practice field, Clearwater's Eddie C. Moore Complex.
The women started by s-l-o-w-l-y stretching together.
They lined up in pairs, pitching and catching for about 10 minutes, then took the field for a 45-minute batting practice.
"Remember, ladies, even if you don't want to, remember how important it is to keep running,'' said Bowyer, during a team huddle.
Lehmann nodded. "What happens is that when we run, it keeps your muscles loose,'' she added.
They ended the practice by running the bases, single-file.
Some women on the team, like Doris Taylor of Tampa, were shy about sharing their success as athletes. Taylor, 77, also competed in the table tennis competition during the state Winter Haven games. She won a bronze medal for her effort.
"Oh, I could do better on the softball field,'' said Taylor, a centerfielder. "I'm not as good as some of the women out there, but I do consider myself physically fit. I think if people want to keep playing sports as they get older, they need to keep active and make sure to watch their diet.''
Taylor also pointed out that safety is always a concern in senior sports. She appreciates that the team uses two bases instead of one at first base, for example. "This means that the woman playing first base knows that the runner will go to the outside base," she said. "That way, we avoid collisions. We definitely have to realize we are aging.''
Ellis, a former high school physical education teacher, agreed. "Life happens,'' she said.
Ellis had her leg amputated because of a blood clot in 2003. With a cane to help support her, she now keeps her love for sports alive by coaching the team, a duty she has had for about seven years.
"I think it surprises many people that a 70-and-up women's softball team exists at all,'' she said. "But this is an amazing group of ladies who have been involved with sports all of their lives.''
"And watch out," Ellis said. "They are the most extremely competitive bunch I've ever met.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected].com.