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

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.

"I didn't have any money to go get lessons," she said. "I entered a tournament my senior year and I played Annette Ward, who was 12 at the time. She beat me 6-0, 6-1."

Afterward, Stevens was humiliated and in tears.

"My mom said, 'Well, are you going to give it up?'" she said smiling. When Janice said no, her mother took her to Liberty Park where they watched players compete.

"Then I took eight group lessons at the old, old Salt Lake Tennis Club, which is now Forrest Dale Golf Course," she said.

She picked out players who were successful and tried to emulate them. Wayne Pearce, who coached tennis at BYU and is also in the Utah Tennis Hall of Fame, was one of those she tried to learn from.

"I really liked the way they played," said Janice.

Another was Leah Daly, who turned out to be as good a friend as she was a hitting partner.

"It wasn't easy that first year that I decided to take it up," said Stevens.

While the state's best tennis players worked on their games, she had to work to put herself through college. She was the pool director for the Salt Lake Swim and Tennis club, so she could practice what she watched others do on the court.

In 1963, she met and married her husband, Ron, and worked as a P.E. teacher.

While continuing to play competitively in Salt Lake County recreation programs, she began to raise her two children — a son and a daughter.

"My priorities were God, family, my responsibilities — like work, and my mom who had Alzheimer's, and then my sports and activities had to come after all of that," she said with a shrug. "I went 18 hours a day. I had to teach tennis to pay for tennis."

Stevens was inducted into the Utah Tennis Hall of Fame with this tribute:

"Between the years of 1957-1978 Janice Romney dominated the Women's Singles and Doubles Rankings in Utah. She ranked #1 in Utah for eight years in a row (1960-1968), and #1 in the Intermountain from 1964-1966 in Singles and Doubles. In 1972-74 she was ranked #1 in the Intermountain 35 Singles for three years in a row, and #1 in Doubles in 1974. Janice received a #5 national ranking in Women's 35 Singles and Doubles, and a #3 Nationally for Women's 40 Singles and Doubles. She served on the UTA Board, was the tennis pro at SCRC, a member of the Umpire's Association since 1956."

"Most of the people I played at national tournaments, that's all they did was play tennis," she said. "It was tough, but I loved the competition."

Even though women were more accepted in tennis, she said there were still some issues, like helping to organizing the umpire's association, that found her challenging the mostly-male establishment again.

"I had to challenge a lot of things for the women," she said. "And that was the worst thing I had to deal with. Most people were really helpful and supportive though."

Keep in mind she did all of that while raising two children, whose play benefited from having an athletically minded mother. Her daughter, Ruthann Allen, who is now an assistant tennis coach at the University of Utah, didn't lose a match in high school (72-straight wins), which earned her All-American honors.

Allen said sports were just part of growing up in the Stevens household.

"I played basketball on a boys team," said Allen, 41. "I played baseball on a boys team. I played soccer before it was a big deal and of course, I played tennis. Every day was jam-packed with sports. Now I realize it was special, but when I was a kid, I just thought that was the way it was."

Allen said she and her mother have discussed the roadblocks Stevens faced, which helped Allen understand why her mother has always been such a teacher and advocate for athletics.

"She is always encouraging people to play sports or just be active," she said. "I think just watching her teaching people, seeing the joy and all of the benefits that came from sports led me in the direction that I went."

Allen said it feels good to follow in her mother's footsteps.

"I have so much gratitude," said Allen. "It's been hard in the era that I have grown up with, so I can't even imagine what she dealt with. It's definitely different now…I know she put up with a lot."

Stevens laughs when she considers the opportunities and advantages that existed just a generation later.

"Softball, basketball, volleyball," she said waving her hands as if it is too overwhelming to consider. "Wouldn't it have been fun to have the training, the coaching that just my own children had? I had to pay my way through school."

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Remarkably, she isn't bitter or even jealous. Just ecstatic that times, attitudes and especially opportunities have changed for women.

"Sports teaches you a lot," said Stevens, who can no longer play tennis but recently took up golf.

And above all, Stevens is grateful she's been able to share what she's learned and what she loves with others.

"My greatest satisfaction has been teaching and helping others," she said smiling. "I taught a lot of people tennis in my lifetime. I made sure I hit balls with anyone who asked. But it's not what I've accomplished, it's helping others grow and develop that's meant a lot."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com