Wayne State landscape highlights a landmark moment in NCAA women’s athletics
Story by Kyle Stefan
There’s no disputing that women’s athletics has exploded onto the national landscape in a relatively short amount of time. From household collegiate names, professionals and Olympians, and legendary collegiate programs, NCAA women’s sports now garner significant attention and respect across the country.
It’s also well-documented that was hardly the case 40 years ago.
Shortly after the passing of Title IX in 1972, landmark reform requiring gender-equity in higher education, the NCAA rescinded an archaic ban barring women from competing in post-season championships.
Before there were dynasties on the hardwood at Tennessee or Connecticut, before powerhouse programs across all sports regularly started producing Olympians and professionals, and before participation rates could soar to all-time highs throughout all Divisions, there was a recently-immigrated, immensely talented woman attending Wayne State University – Dacia Schileru – taking advantage of an opportunity to compete at her childhood passion.
Schileru set the stage for women’s athletics – at least on the NCAA level – by becoming the first woman to compete in an NCAA Championship on March 15, 1973.
Now, nearing the 40th Anniversary of that landmark event, looking back at the evolution of women’s sports from that moment can be equally humbling and inspiring.
“I’ve always said that when Dacia takes that dive off the three-meter board,” WSU Athletic Director Rob Forunier noted, “the ripple that she spread through the waters transcends women’s athletics.”
Schileru, a native of Romania, began diving in her homeland at age 13, and captured the Romanian national championship at 16. That win earned her a chance to compete among the world’s best at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, which she would decline.
There was political unrest at home, and Schileru’s father secured passage out of the country for the whole family – first, in Turkey, then, to Canada, and finally – the United States, settling in Detroit.
She continued to dive during the worldwide travels, but stopped once she reached the United States for fear of injury. She had no formal coach in the U.S., and according to an NCAA News article published in 2006, was unaware of any championship opportunities in the country.
Wayne State would become a place for Schileru to rekindle her competitive spirit.
It took former Wayne State swim coach Peter Roberts convince her to join the men’s team, spotting her during an open swim period at the University pool. WSU had no diving team, or diving coach, but Schileru agreed to join the squad – becoming the first woman to compete on a men’s varsity team in Wayne State history.
“I just happened to notice her on the board,” Roberts said. “I think she came over to the pool that day to get away from the academics, to relieve some of the stress. At the time, I thought, ‘This is someone who really should be diving for us.’ She was very talented.
“I approached her, and asked if she would like to try out. I didn’t see why she couldn’t dive for the team. The only thing, I told her, was that she would have to dive against men. I don’t think she really understood that – she was really just interested in diving.”
There was little precedent for a woman athlete succeeding on the intercollegiate level. There was certainly no championship history, as the NCAA did not sponsor women’s championships for the first 75 years of its existence. There were no NCAA women’s championships in 1973, and the first wouldn’t be held until the fall of 1980. The rule barring women from competing in men’s events was still on the books.
Organized championships in the fledgling Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women were similarly scarce. The AIAW saw the NCAA as male-dominated, and fought for total control as a governing body. But as the NCAA reformed itself through the 1970s, the AIAW slowly faded away.
However, one year after Title IX was enacted, under the advice of its legal counsel, the NCAA rescinded its rule prohibiting women from competing for a national championship in 1973.
Coach Roberts could identify talent, and Schileru stood out at Wayne State. Her power, grace, and sheer talent on display at that open swim session carried Schileru through the season. She participated in dual meets with the men throughout the 1972-73 season, and posted scores good enough to merit consideration for the national championship meet.
Wayne State was hosting that meet, and Roberts – with the help of former WSU Athletic Director Vern Gale – pushed Schileru’s entry through the NCAA.
“She competed all year against the men, and won her fair share,” Roberts said. “I was on the committee, and asked ‘Can Dacia dive?’ I had no idea about the significance or history – I was just trying to give her the opportunity to compete in a meet that she qualified for.”
The NCAA’s revocation of its 75-year-old rule paved the way for Schileru to become the first woman to compete in an NCAA Championship.
“I’m sure when Dacia stepped on that platform, she was thinking about making a great dive,” Forunier said. “But Dacia’s contribution is more than Wayne State athletics. Someone had to be the first to knock on the door and move in.”
She qualified for both the one- and three-meter events during the March 15-17, 1973 championships. Though she did not make it through the preliminary rounds of the one-meter event, she just missed earning a spot in the three-meter final round of 12 by placing 13th of 50 divers.
Schileru, who in her thick Romanian accent politely declined to be interviewed for this story, told the NCAA News in 2006 she didn’t view the moment, at the time, as much more than competition.
Roberts agreed, while acknowledging that 40 years has changed perspective for everyone.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it in a heart beat,” he said. “I’d say the same thing if I saw her back in 1972 – you should be on our team. Is this going to be a major thing in NCAA history? I wasn’t thinking that. I want you to do your thing for Wayne State University and for yourself, and I’ll try to provide the opportunity.
“I was lucky to be there while she was bouncing on that board. We had good times, and she won her fair share while competing against the men. The rest is history, so to speak.”
Schileru returned to the WSU squad for the 1973-74 season and lettered a second year. There was more post-season success with a return to the championship meet.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd, where she appeared on February 18, 1974, Dacia and Traian Schileru became the first sister-brother combination to qualify for an NCAA championship, the 1974 Division II event at Long Beach, California.
Dacia again qualified for the three-meter event in 1974, on the heels of her 13th place showing in 1973, while her younger brother Traian – a freshman and the team's leading scorer – qualified at both one and three meters.
After the family originally moved to Detroit, her father completed his residency work, and Schileru was motivated to head down the same career path in medicine. For a time, her athletic career and landmark moment fell into relative obscurity.
Her accomplishments were first lauded with a spot in WSU Athletics Hall of Fame. Inducted in 2000, Schileru is recognized for her championship appearance, her pair of varsity letters, the 1972-73 Wayne State Swimming Coaches Award, and her trio of degrees – two in biology, one in medicine – from the University.
But the championship feat – which was underpublicized for some time – later earned significant notoriety when named to the NCAA’s 25 Defining Moments List in 2006 – a collection of 25 events that shaped the NCAA’s 100-year history.
“It really came to fruition then,” WSU associate athletic director Jason Clark said. “Being named to that list really brought it full circle.”
The list includes an impressive blend of competitive and societal feats. Included is the 1906 NCAA reform required by president Theodore Roosevelt, the 1963 basketball game between Loyola and Mississippi State that brought down racial barriers, along with UCLA’s seven consecutive basketball championships and Iowa State wrestler Cael Sanderson’s undefeated career.
Wayne State was one of only two Michigan schools to have a moment included on this list – the other being Michigan State’s memorable 1979 basketball showdown with Indiana State.
This defines the pro-active approach of coach Roberts and Gale, the perseverance of Schileru, and ultimately, the events of the 1973 Swimming and Diving Championship that provided a dramatic precedent just before the NCAA began establishing its women’s championships in the mid-1970s.
“It’s always nice to look backwards and look at how we got here,” Fournier said. “I’m sure if we wait another 100 years, the progress will be significant, because this whole phenomenon is a very recent phenomenon. To look at what it has evolved to today, it takes those pioneers – and Dacia certainly was one of them.
“She competed during a time where women’s athletics really didn’t have much. It was not like it is today. Credit not just Dacia, but all the student-athletes. Despite every reason for them to stop, every reason telling them to give up their dreams, they kept going.”