Celebrating Title IX’s Legacy with UTRGV’s First Women’s Athletic Scholarship Recipient, Jeanny Trahan

RIO GRANDE VALLEY – “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Those 37 words have had an immeasurable impact on countless lives since President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 into effect 50 years ago.

One beneficiary was Jeanny (Neilson) Trahan. In January 1975, Trahan, a sophomore diver for legacy institution Pan American University, received the first women’s athletic scholarship in The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley history. The scholarship was gifted by the West Hidalgo Chapter of Zonta International, a service organization of executive and professional women.

“I did not think Title IX would impact at a small university like Pan American. That’s why the scholarship was such a surprise to me,” Trahan said. “It really didn’t receive major recognition. It wasn’t spread all over the newspapers. I was just very grateful to have been selected for that scholarship. That meant a great deal.”

“Coach Jeanette Hawkins was the one that told me. She was very nonchalant about it. I’m not the kind of person that takes myself too seriously, so maybe that’s why, but she just said, ‘There’s going to be a ceremony I’d like for you to attend. You’re going to be the first female athlete to receive this scholarship.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so nice, I can’t believe it. They awarded it to me during halftime at a men’s basketball game.”

Trahan grew up in McAllen and was “a hyperactive child” involved in many extracurricular activities. Initially a self-taught diver, she was discovered by Cascade Swim Club coach Russell Young when she was 11 years old at the city’s municipal swimming pool. To help with her precision, Trahan took extensive dance classes at Melba Huber’s Dance School, learning tap, ballet, jazz and acrobatics.

“After my first year of dance, you could tell that I had smoothed out my approach on the diving board,” Trahan said. “My movements were more rhythmic and less jerky. The acrobatics helped develop my kinesthetic sense, which is a fancy way of saying you know where your body is at any given point during whatever activity you’re engaged in. It helped me know when to kick out of a dive and enter the water smoothly, with very little splash.”

Dance also led Trahan to Hawkins, PAU’s swim/dive, gymnastics and cheer coach who saw the young athlete’s potential during a recital at the McAllen Convention Center. Trahan got involved with gymnastics under Hawkins, who was on the US Olympic Committee, and the coach guided Trahan to an offer from The University of Texas to be the Longhorns’ first female gymnast to receive an athletic scholarship.

But her heart wasn’t with gymnastics, so Trahan made the difficult decision to turn it down. She enrolled at Pan Am to continue training under Hawkins.

“Coach Hawkins mentored me from junior high and on, basically. I felt like she invested a lot of her time and energy in me and we had a very good coach-athlete relationship, so I didn’t consider going anywhere else,” Trahan said.

Jeanny (Neilson) Trahan, bottom left and diving on right, received the first women’s athletic scholarship in UTRGV history as a sophomore diver for Pan American University in 1975.

Trahan competed in swimming & diving and volleyball for PAU from 1973-75. There were only seven women on the swim/dive team, and she was the only diver. She did the 1- and 3-meter dives, the 1,650-meter swim, the 50-meter and 100-meter butterfly, the 100-meter individual medley, and was the anchor on the freestyle relay and butterflier for the medley relay.

She was the team’s shining star, earning bronze in the 1-meter dive at the 1974 Texas Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (TAIAW) state championship meet, hosted by PAU in its first year of state competition.

“Being able to finish first and to qualify for state championships, that was big. It’s points for your team and your hard effort is finally paying off,” Trahan said.

PAU didn’t offer the classes Trahan needed to pursue her specialty of exercise physiology, so she transferred to Texas A&M University and got a master’s degree in Health and Physical Education, Recreation and Safety. She continued diving for the Aggies and became the program’s first female diver to qualify for the national championship meet.

After graduation, Trahan taught at Tulane University from 1979-84 and worked in the human performance lab. She was the head diving coach, leading a diver to nationals, and the synchronized swim team coach. Trahan’s connection to her with Hawkins guided her own success to her on the sidelines.

“All that training that I got from Coach Hawkins spilled over to my own coaching career. It makes you realize what an impact a coach can have on student-athletes. Those values ​​carry with you throughout your life,” Trahan said.

Trahan, now living in Florida, embarked on a career in medicine after her stint at Tulane. Being away from athletics hasn’t stopped her from being awarded by Title IX’s legacy de ella with women’s sports – surpassing anything she could’ve imagined as a young female athlete.

“I look back and we did not have the training, the equipment, that we needed to really excel. Back then, the men’s sports got everything. We girls got nothing. In fact, we didn’t even have a team bathing suit, so I went out and selected material and we had our bathing suits made so we looked like a team,” she said.

“People kind of poo-poo’d Title IX and said, ‘That’s not going to go anywhere.’ But it has made a tremendous impact for women. It’s bringing us more equal to the men. We’ve certainly come a long way. And it needed to be done. It really needed to be done.”

Trahan was excited to learn that swimming & diving returns to UTRGV in 2024. With a new state-of-the-art natatorium in Pharr to compete in, she believes good things are in store for the aquatics program at UTRGV and the sport’s “hidden talent” in the Valley.

For young female student-athletes striving to take advantage of the opportunities Title IX has provided in the last 50 years, and to push the momentum in the next 50, she offered three keys that influenced her outstanding life:

“First, maintain a strong faith in God. When you’re nervous and your adrenaline’s running, praying really does help. Secondly, work hard and be disciplined because that’s what it’s going to take for someone to succeed. Third, never lose sight of your goals. It’s easy to be disheartened, disappointed and you want to give up. But don’t lose focus. Just hang in there and keep plugging and success will be yours.”

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