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Janice Stevens is a women's sports pioneer

A talented athlete, she just loved to play sports

Published: Sunday, July 24 2011 11:24 p.m. MDT

Janice Stevens tees off as she golfs at Nibley Park, Wednesday, July 20, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY— The names were hurtful and embarrassing. The teasing was relentless and discouraging. But Janice Stevens just couldn't help herself.

She loved to play sports.

Today, she'd be a super star. A multi-sport athlete who would have undoubtedly earned a free college education, Stevens would probably have made a living playing basketball or tennis.

"She was, without a doubt, in my mind, the best female tennis player during my time of playing in Utah," said Linn Rockwood, a member of the Utah Tennis Hall of Fame, who was No. 1 in the Intermountain region nine times in men's singles between 1948 and 1963. "She was a terrific player."

But Stevens, born in 1936, didn't grow up in an era that allowed women to capitalize on their athletic abilities.

While it wasn't the dark ages, it certainly could be considered the dawn of women's opportunities in athletics - especially thanks to trailblazers like Stevens, who muscled their way into what sometimes remains a man's world.

"She was tall and thin and could run like a gazelle," said Rockwood. "If she'd have played nationally, she would have been one of the top players in the country. But she got married and had a family…She was a great all-around athlete, it's just that she specialized in tennis. If I'd had her physique, I'd have been a lot better off."

It was as if Janice Romney Stevens was designed for sports.

The daughter of BYU All-American basketball player Elwood Romney, she grew up yearning to play anything and everything.

"I played them all," said Stevens, now 75. "I used to run a lot, but I played football, basketball, baseball, just everything because we lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and there was nothing to do."

In fact, she says neighborhood and recreation games kept her out of trouble.

"Most of my friends didn't make it through high school," she said shaking her head. 'We moved to Utah in seventh grade."

She went to the Deseret Gym because she enjoyed swimming, but there wasn't much in the way of organized sports.

Her parents founded a club softball team, The Shamrocks, which she played on in seventh and eighth grade. But she endured tormenting and name-calling that only exacerbated how out of place she felt playing among older girls.

"It kept me from excelling and doing my best," she said. "I just loved sports. They were fun, and it just seemed natural to me."

So she continued to try and find a way to play. She joined an LDS Church basketball league and was ostracized because she was too good.

"I was called a Tomboy because I was good," she said. "The stigma of women playing sports was really strong. You weren't lady like."

In fact, women who wanted to be accepted by the opposite sex, chose other extracurricular activities.

But Stevens just couldn't resist the lure of competition.

"Women who were active in sports seemed to be looked down on a little," she said. "I was called every name in the book by guys. They couldn't accept a girl who played sports."

The exception, she found upon graduation, was tennis.

"It seemed to be a little different," she said.

Not only did women play tennis, men seemed to be accepting, even admiring of women who could play well.

Despite her athleticism, she struggled to pick up the game at first.

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