Missouri Mom Protests High School Rules that Promote Mediocrity in High School Sports

The following is a statement by Kathy Waller, provided during testimony at the Missouri legislature on the first hearing of HB 631. — Phil Whitten

By Kathy Waller

WHILE my husband and I are the very proud parents of two teenage daughters, under normal circumstances we try not to be too boastful in public. However, I am here to ask for your help and in doing so I must speak from the heart.

Our oldest daughter, Courtney, will graduate from Liberty (Missouri) High School in May and plans to attend the University of Missouri in Columbia. Courtney has taken dance lessons for 15 years has danced in recitals and competitions, performed in the Starlight Theater production of “Grease,” choreographed numbers and performed in high school productions, and is a member of the award-winning Liberty High School pom pon squad. She has been encouraged to learn and grow with her talents both inside and outside of the public school system. Courtney has NEVER been forced by a rule or a law to stop practicing or performing.

Our younger daughter, Rachael, is a sophomore at Liberty High School and swimming is her passion. Unlike our daughter who dances, our daughter who swims has been told by the MSHSAA (the Missouri State High School Activities Association, the state-wide body governing high school sports in Missouri) for the last two years that she must make a choice: either stop trying to improve by practicing with a coach on your own time, or do not swim for your school.

Dancers and musicians are pushed to take lessons and told to “practice, practice, practice” outside of school, yet they are also still allowed to participate in these activities within their schools – and rightfully so. However, our young athletes are not being given this same opportunity.

Almost seven years ago, my family was fortunate enough to attend the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Watching Muhammad Ali light the torch in the Opening Ceremonies, seeing Amy Van Dyken swim and Andre Agassi serve, cheering for the “Dream Team” in basketball and the unbelievable women's gymnastics team are memories many people can also appreciate.

But something we will never forget is also something no one outside our family even saw. Our Rachael had never been on any type of swim team, and back at the hotel pool one evening, apparently inspired by Tom Dolan's performance, she asked us to watch her and proceeded to do her own version of the butterfly. I am happy to say that stroke has come a long way since then!

One month later and still never having done a flip turn, she was on a USA Swimming swim team practicing two times per week just 10 minutes from our house; one month after that she was asking her coach if she could add a third time each week.

One year later, as a fifth grader, she had increased to five practices each week and was begging us to also go in the morning (which we managed to put off for one more year). When she heard someone talk about the upcoming girls' state high school meet, she told her coach she hoped someday SHE would qualify for state. He told her she had already earned the times in more than one event . Dhe was then in the seventh grade.

Her next goal was to qualify for a meet “too far away to drive to” and a few months later we were on a plane headed to a competition.

Rachael had now reached a point where it was time to move on to another level of training and we said a tearful goodbye to her coach, who understood and supported her decision. She joined the Kansas City Blazers, a team which is uncompromising in its dedication and pursuit of excellence. The Blazers are consistently ranked as one of the top five teams in the nation, not simply for their speed but for the overall quality of the program.

As more and more of her time became devoted to swimming, by junior high Rachael had made many difficult choices. Soccer was the first thing to go, followed by basketball. Later she gave up tennis and then decided not to try out for cheerleading. Each time she had to decide between swimming and something else, she chose swimming.

It was about this time when we first heard about the restrictive Missouri State High School Activities Association rules and we truly believed the person who told us MUST have been mistaken. When we realized he was correct, we began trying to work within the system to change what we and countless others perceived to be an unfair policy. Because we were – and still are – one of only a handful of states in the country with this type of rule, we thought Missouri was just behind the times and felt certain things would change before Rachael entered high school.

To help with this process, I represented the Kansas City area in a petition effort that required a school administrator's signature verifying he or she believed the issue should be brought to a vote at the state level. Every school administrator, athletic director and coach with whom I spoke in our part of the state, regardless of school size, supported this cause. Many asked if there was anything more they could do. All held high hopes for this democratic process.

Once the petition drive was complete, the MSHSAA not only dismissed the request for a vote by its member schools, it went on to say this was NOT, in fact, what the schools wanted and continues to misrepresent this fact even today.

The signatures on those petitions prove what our state educators really want, yet the MSHSAA continually rallies a few dissenters and then claims they are the majority. There are numerous examples to the contrary, such as Liberty High School principal, Dr. Martin Jacobs and Athletic Director Steve Butler, who, with their coaches' blessings, have gone out of their way to HELP athletes try to work within the system.

Swimmers are not the only athletes being harmed by Section 235. Adam Perkins, one of our state's most gifted and hard-working student-athletes has gone through a rigorous process in an attempt to pursue his running career. Adam was asked to be here to share his story, but he could not miss school on this day. However, I will submit an article on his behalf which outlines the problems he also encountered with the MSHSAA while trying to work within their system. I urge you to read it as it accurately documents the disrespectful and frivolous way these athletes' lives are treated by the very organization that professes to have their best interests at heart.

As a lifelong Missourian, the behavior of this organization embarrasses me; as a parent I am offended by the countless examples of its total disregard for its mission statement which claims that it: “… promotes the value of participation, sportsmanship, team play and personal excellence to develop citizens who make positive contributions to their community and support the democratic principals of our state and nation.”

Not only does the the MSHSSA fail to “promote”? personal excellence, it actively fights against it and against allowing ALL students to benefit from the “value of participation” in high school athletics.

The MSHSSA's lack of understanding of the democratic process it professes to support in its mission statement is evident in its failure even to consider. the petition requesting a vote on changes to Section 235.

As a result, when my daughter became a freshman, she was faced with a nearly impossible decision: she was forced to choose between swimming and swimming.

How could she choose between representing her high school and her community versus continuing to learn and practice with one of the most respected and accomplished coaches in the United States?

Unlike those athletes we know of who simply defy the rules and continue to train with outside coaches while setting state high school records, we have stayed true to the rule. As a result, Rachael has thus far missed out on the high school athletic experience.

During the school year, including her commuting time, Rachael is gone from home 35 hours each week for training. This is in addition to maintaining a 3.8 GPA, being involved in student government and PTSA, actively participating in Assisteens, (a community service organization) and still somehow managing to have a social life.

During the summer, she leaves the house at 4:00 a.m. to travel 45 minutes EACH way and then makes a second trip every afternoon. By the end of the week, she has put in 60 hours training for her sport. Just as we should not tell anyone they HAVE to do this, we should not tell someone they cannot.

One of her teachers once asked me how we handled those days when she just really doesn't want to go to practice. I stopped to think for a minute then said, “Well, it's never happened. There's never been a day when she said, “I don't want to go to practice.”

The Liberty High School swim coaches say this type of dedication would be an inspiration to the team and that Rachael would be a great leader both in and out of the pool; they say she could practice at her level and others would practice at theirs and that her presence would encourage many teammates to reach their potential. They believe high school athletics should be about not only encouraging students to try new things, but about helping them further develop existing talents.

They DO NOT believe it should be about making rules designed specifically to keep the most accomplished off the team.

Liberty's head swimming coach, Chris Murphy, has provided a statement which I will also submit at this time.

My daughter's USA coach, Peter Malone, has had someone from the Blazers represent the United States on FOUR different Olympic teams. His high school athletes repeatedly not only graduate in the top of their classes, they go on to compete at powerhouse swimming schools such as Florida, Stanford, Georgia, and Texas. Those who live on the Kansas side of the state line routinely swim for their high schools; those who live on the Missouri side do not.

Pete says we can ALL be part of the Olympic dream and that you don't have to be ON an Olympic team to be part of that dream because every parent who drives their child to practice is part of it, every person who cheers at a competition is part of it, every athlete who races or scores or defends a goal is not only pushing themselves to do better but, by their mere presence, pushes those around them to improve as well. That is how athletes become the best they can be and how we all play a part in helping them achieve those goals. Without this process, there would be no Olympians. We may not all walk in the athletes' parade, but we can all be part of the dream.

Jenny Thompson has won more Olympic gold medals than any other American woman in history and Rachael watched her win one of them in 1996. In 2002, while Rachael was getting ready to warm up at the Phillips 66 National Championships in Ft. Lauderdale, someone nicely said to her, “Do you mind if I jump in here and do a little something real quick?” Rachael said,
“Sure, go ahead,” and stepped aside as Jenny Thompson said, “Thanks!” and jumped into the pool in front of her.

This time, they were both there to compete. I'm not here to say my daughter will someday be in the Olympics, but I will say it is part of her dream and even at 16, she knows a little something about dreams.

Our nation was founded by dreamers and by those who wanted something better for themselves and their families. They wanted the OPPORTUNITY to try to do their best and to support others in their efforts to do the same. Not only is this attitude in our hearts and our souls, it is in our United States Constitution and our Bill of Rights. We may boast about being a diplomatic and fair society; we may say we do not believe in discrimination of any kind for any reason; we may profess to encourage excellence in all endeavors; yet, in the state of Missouri, if you dream of an Olympic medal and you follow the rules, you are prevented from also dreaming of a letter jacket or of setting a school record.

Most other states are NOT like ours in this respect, and I am amazed that our MSHSAA board routinely states otherwise.

I have been in situations more times than I can count where we were laughed at by people in other states who always asked some version of the following: “Why do you have that rule? What purpose does it serve? Isn't this supposed to be about the kids?”

Sadly, I, too, have to ask these questions. I also ask one more: What is MSHAA so afraid of? That some of the best athletes in the nation will be representing Missouri High Schools? Do they think high school sports will end if these athletes are allowed to participate? It hasn't happened in 40-something other states so I seriously doubt it will happen in ours.

Our state has held back far too many students for far too many years and this practice must not be allowed to continue. I urge you not only to act, but to act quickly. It is too late for the class of 2003 and all who came before them, but it is NOT too late for my child and it does not have to be too late for others.

Please do not let one more athlete graduate after being told for four years, “You can't play for a high school in our state because you want to work too hard.”

Please give our student athletes the opportunity to represent their schools WITHOUT having to give up the rest of their dreams.

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