Karyn Ridgeway's Story: In the Zone
Karyn Ridgeway, Physician
I remember it clearly: I was 10, sitting in the back of our car. It was a hot day and I had my face pressed against the window. I was watching my eight-year-old brother try out for Little League and I was jumping out of my skin. It was killing me that I couldn’t try out. I could throw and catch pretty well ... and I was fast. Suddenly, my mom left the car and walked right up to one of the coaches. I watched as she talked, gesturing back at me. She ran back and opened the car door: “Okay, Karyn, you’re on!” Within seconds I was on the field with the boys. I was in my element. I played well and made the team. It still is one of the happiest moments of my life. On the ride home my brother looked awfully glum. Oh, he’d made the team, too—but now his big sister would be the only girl.
I never thought about being the “only girl” on the team. I loved practice and the competition. We won a lot of games and I held up my end. So after a while, the boys—even my brother—didn’t think about the only girl. I’ve never forgotten the moxie it took for my mom to get me that chance. It was a great summer.
A couple of years later my family moved from Salt Lake City to Montana. I was disappointed to find out that there were all-girls teams at my new school. I had loved playing with the boys. Most of the girls' teams lacked the organization and rigor I had gotten used to. But girls basketball was an established sport in Montana and I quickly joined. During those harsh Montana winters—when there wasn’t much else to do—towns literally shut down on girls game night. The gym would steam up and smell of farms and tractors. Parents packed the bleachers and watched their teenage daughters play full out. The entire town showed up and cheered. I was part of a special community.
For me, basketball has always been a pure, total experience. In the heat of an intense game, my body felt like it was on fire, almost numb. Muscle memory took over and I was on autopilot. I was a hundred percent engaged to the exclusion of everything else. I was in the zone. I defined myself in basketball terms and my self-worth depended on it. I’d be sky-high if my team won and I had contributed to the win. If I missed a crucial free throw, or played poorly, and we lost, I’d be devastated.
Most of all I liked the equality of sport. It was – literally – a level playing field. I enjoyed that test, I loved the pressure. But it was hard not to notice that the boys’ teams were frequently given the better equipment, facilities and schedules. Parents and coaches—who believed that girls should be given a fair shot—held spirited town hall meetings to discuss the situation. My mom and I attended these gatherings. The commitment of some parents and coaches to improve the opportunities for girls inspired me. At one meeting, a moderator asked for volunteers to become plaintiffs in an early legal case that would challenge the inferior athletic opportunities routinely given to girls. I immediately volunteered and at 18 I became one of three plaintiffs in the case. When part of the case settled a year later, we were promised equal equipment, facilities and field space. Athletic seasons for both girls and boys would now be the same length. Coaches would get equal pay for equal work.
In my sophomore year at the University of Montana, I made the basketball team. I spent a lot of time on the bench that first season. That was the hardest thing. Every cell in my body was screaming to get into the game. But sport is humbling. I had to face the fact that I just wasn’t ready to be out on the floor yet. So I trained harder. The next year, I set the single-game assist record. The year after I started as point guard. Our team—The Lady Grizzlies—went 29-2 that season, and lost in overtime in the NCAA tournament to Stanford.
After college I began to teach science half time. I was always drawn to science. I had a bachelor’s of science degree in microbiology and a master’s in plant pathology. But I couldn’t give up basketball. It was in my blood. So I became a coach. As I got better coaching jobs I taught less and less science and devoted almost all my time to coaching. I couldn’t let it go… there was just too much adrenaline, too much risk-reward.
Then at 40 I turned my life upside down. I decided to apply to medical school. But would I have the stamina, patience and determination to undertake a grueling schedule, lasting several years, to keep pace with classmates almost half my age? I found myself in the back seat of a car once again, face pressed against the glass, wanting to jump into a completely new challenge.
My instincts were right. I’m a third-year resident in emergency medicine at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. The ER is fast-paced and stressful—high stakes every day. So I need to be in the zone and my concentration must be complete. Basketball prepared me for this. It’s like being at the free throw line, needing to make a shot in a crucial game. I feel that same responsibility and pressure in the ER. As a basketball player I trusted that my long hours of practice would pay off ... that the shot would go in. Today, I trust that I’ll be ready when a critical case bursts through the door. And I am ready. Despite fatigue, my senses are heightened and I’m aware of each colleague in the room, what they’re doing, and what I need to do. I can see my mom opening the car door and saying, “Okay, Karyn, you’re on!”
In 1982, Karyn Ridgeway was one of three plaintiffs in Ridgeway v. Montana High School Association, one of the first Title IX athletics cases in the country. The case, brought by the ACLU in Montana, alleged discrimination against girls in virtually every aspect of their athletics programs—including quality of coaching, uniforms, practice schedules, number of sports offered, transportation to games and school assemblies. The case was successfully settled and ultimately forced every school in Montana to provide equity in sports to girls. Karyn Ridgeway has relocated to the Boston area where she works as an Emergency Physician at Quincy Medical Center.