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Nancy Thies Marshall

Nancy Thies Marshall

1972 Olympic gymnast | Illini Athletics HOF | Class of 1977

What follows is a love letter to Champaign-Urbana, from Nancy Thies Marshall, which she shared with us (and you) prior to her induction into the Illini Athletics Hall of Fame.

(That’s Marshall, now the HR director at Oregon’s Corban University, in a Sept. 28, 2017 photo, with sophomore Olivia Rosenstein at Urbana High, the star gymnast’s alma mater).

She picks it up from here ...

“Several months ago, Josh Whitman called to inform me that I was included in the first class of inductees for the University of Illinois Athletic Hall of Fame. In June, my husband and I traveled from our home in Oregon to Chicago and the magnificent Field Museum, to participate — along with 13 of the inductees and their families, several faithful team and classmates, over 600 additional Illini fans, two prehistoric elephants and one dinosaur — in the Hall of Fame Introduction Gala.

"Sue the T-Rex and her two sidekick pachyderms standing watch in that great hall ... were humbling reminders of how quickly one’s achievements become museum furniture. 

“However, I digress.

“During that initial call with Josh, he asked what the honor meant to me. Three major themes emerge as I reflect on his question.

“The first begins with the address of my family home of 53 years on Boudreau Drive, Urbana, which happens to run parallel to Grange Drive. As my brothers and sisters and I would walk to Yankee Ridge Elementary School, we would wind toward school on George Huff Drive, passing the house of a friend of mine who lived on Zuppke Drive and often riding bikes on Cureton, Pond and Burleson, among others. The narrative around my athletic hopes and dreams literally began in a place where I was surrounded by Illini lore. 

"And because my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles attended this university, there was no shortage of historical knowledge shared around the dinner table about the legacies these people forged in college and beyond. Their names were spoken often. Their contributions were legendary. And their stories made an awkward 11-year-old girl dare to believe — when her coach told her he thought she could go to the Olympics — that it could actually happen.  

“The next theme begins with four names: Jane Fauntz, Linda Metheny, Colleen Mulvihill and Diane Bolin. Names you may or may not have heard before, but to the best of my knowledge, they are the four female U.S. Olympians who graduated with degrees from the University of Illinois prior to me. Linda, Colleen and Diane were role models and heroes as Olympians and as personal teammates of mine. Frankly, my natural talent paled in comparison to theirs and others. These women and countless others did not have the option to compete for the Fighting Illini because that opportunity did not exist during their tenure as U of I students.        

“However, because the opportunity existed for me, my name was one of nearly 1,000 eligible to be considered for this prestigious honor. Thus, I cannot accept the Hall of Fame accolade without recognizing the pioneering spirit of those who championed Title IX legislation; the visionary administrators and advocates like Karol Kahrs; my Olympic team coach, Muriel Grossfeld; my NBC Sports colleague, Donna DeVarona; and many others — all of whom brought a dogged determination to provide competitive opportunities at the collegiate level for women. Their efforts paved the way for a young woman from Urbana to compete for the school whose traditions, history and reputation provided a narrative worth stepping in to.  

“Which takes me to the final theme framing the context of this honor. After competing in the Olympic Games, I chose to attend the University of Illinois because my roots go deep here and the Urbana-Champaign community made a significant investment in me. I realize many reading this piece were not around in the early ’70s. But for those who were — coaches at the McKinley YMCA, teachers at Urbana Middle and High schools, community leaders, service club members, family and friends — and all who have invested in the youth of this community since, my name on the list of inductees reflects your investments.

"If my inclusion in this first class represents anything — it underscores the role one multi-city community can play in daring its youth to dream big. The greater C-U area, filled with educators, coaches, mentors and fans whose efforts in the classroom, the sidelines, the bleachers and balconies cheer on generation after generation of young people, is the treasure I hold as one of the most valuable gifts of my athletic pursuits. 

“I am a native daughter of this community, raised in a south Urbana neighborhood where on warm August evenings, I could literally hear — and sometimes feel — the drumbeats of the Marching Illini practicing in the distance. My story is woven into a rich narrative of generations of hard-working Midwesterners — whose support of athletic competition and the pursuit of lifelong learning opened doors and invited me in. Once I crossed the threshold, I found myself in a story far more meaningful than my own.

"To all the characters in this best-seller called Illini Nation, I am most grateful for the recognition. I accept the honor on your behalf.”

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