Marjo Rankin: The water skier who ‘would be lost without sports’

This is the seventh story in the SLR Original series on Title IX  (See previous)


Marjo and sister
Marjo Rankin (left) wearing her childhood football uniform in her family’s home while playing a game with her sister in 1967. (MARJO RANKIN)

In my years at the Charlotte Observer, I’ve run into many characters, but few have the presence of Marjo Rankin.

I was 5’11” at age 14, and people on the shorter end of the spectrum still sometimes make me feel like I am looming over them. But though she’s 5’2”, that’s not the case with Rankin.

She is a champion water-skiier and copy editor with whom I have worked for more than a decade and credits her participation in sport as one of the sources of her discipline, ability to follow rules, and confidence.

As a kid in the 1960s, Rankin rode her silver spider bike with her younger brother and local boys in a neighborhood where the sisters didn’t come out to play.

But in fifth grade, she got a football uniform for Christmas.

“I’m not sure how painful that was for my mom, but it was my dream,” she said. “I wanted to start a women’s football league when I grew up.”

She was relegated to Booster Bombers cheerleader for her brother’s team, when she really wanted to be quarterback or receiver. 

“My girls league dream extended to three school friends and we ‘practiced’ some on the school ball field, but it didn’t go any further.”

She has the uniform in its original box, which included a helmet with Lou Groza’s autograph. The red cotton jersey, unnumbered, with white shoulder trim, still fits.

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Rankin’s county had a rich basketball tradition, so she remembers being treated “well,” although she believes that the boys’ team ate out much more often than the girls team did, “complements of the Booster Club.” 

After years at a high school with no volleyball, swimming, or soccer teams for girls, she watched in 1977, during her freshman year at Wingate College, as the athletics department was “scrambling to comply” with Title IX. 

The basketball coach, Bill Connell, was nearing retirement, and Rankin said “after the rigors of playing for (McDowell coach) Mike Silver, coach Connell was … sweet. We began to feel like he didn’t know how to coach women, and was afraid to be too demanding lest he risk damaging our child-bearing parts. 

“At one point, we asked him to make us run suicide sprint drills because we were not in good playing shape.”

In Rankin’s two years at Wingate, there was only one overnight basketball trip — to Chowan, in North Carolina’s northeast corner. They rode in the “Blue Goose,” a hand-me-down bus from the 1950s. 

“That in itself was an adventure,” she said. “I felt like I had stepped back into the earliest days of ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ but the ‘Old Goose’ was reliable.”

Rankin was on a Trustees Scholarship at Wingate, which paid most of her way, so she didn’t apply for a portion of the single scholarship allocated for the team, which the school formed the year before she arrived. Without the impetus from Title IX, the team may not have existed by the time she got there.

Her brief college career on the court led to athletic success of a different kind. Rankin transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill as a junior and helped start a club-level water skiing team. She’d been involved in the sport since her father taught her as a kid, and at the collegiate level, as attitudes were changing about women in sports, she could finally do the sport she was “hooked” on.

Rankin is still a tournament slalom water skier and holds the NC slalom records for women ages 53-59 and women 60-64. She won the Southern Region Championships in 2002 and 2012.

Marjo skiing

“I would be lost without sports,” she said. “I am a level-headed person. I follow rules. I finish what I start and do my best to finish it the right way. I have a strong work ethic; I’m sure it can be attributed to good role models in my parents, and sports.”

Read the next part of our series on Title IX: Angie Elwood