The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Over 100 years ago, women were finally able to don the Red and Blue and partake in varsity sports. To celebrate National Girls & Women in Sports Day, let's go over 103 years of women’s sports at Penn and honor the careers of 10 of the best Quakers to ever grace campus, as well as the woman who helped make it all possible.  

Margaret Majer Kelly

It would be remiss to ignore the woman who helped kickstart women’s sports at Penn.

In 1921, Majer led the charge to create proper grounds for women to exercise and compete athletically. Long before the establishment of Penn Park and the like, women had to trek to 49th Street and Chester Avenue to use the facilities at Kingsessing. Through Majer's campaigning efforts, the University transformed the empty lot at 34th and Walnut streets to tennis courts that served as the stomping grounds for women’s athletics under her direction.

Majer holds the title as the first head coach of a women’s team at the University. She coached basketball and organized matches against nearby schools such as Bryn Mawr College, Temple University, and Drexel University. Soon after, gymnastics, softball, swimming, and tennis teams were in the works.

Fun Fact: Majer is the mother of famed actress Grace Kelly, who won Best Lead Actress at the Oscars in 1955 for her role in "The Country Girl" and became princess consort of Monaco after her marriage to Prince Rainier III.

Anne Townsend, Class of 1927 (Field Hockey and Basketball)

Most of Townsend’s greatest sports accomplishments came after her graduation from Penn. A dual-sport athlete, she prioritized field hockey after graduation, which led to her captaining the United States field hockey team from 1924-38 and then again in 1947. While on the national team, she played in two World Cups.

“Miss Townsend, long considered the best woman player in the United States, turned in her usual fine performance in backing up the all-American forward wall,” the New York Times wrote about her after a win on Dec. 3, 1933. “Her passing was largely responsible for the attack launched by her team in the second half which accounted for the victory.”

At the administrative level, she helped begin the U.S. Field Hockey Association and was president of the Philadelphia Field Hockey Association.

While at Penn, Townsend helped to create the Women’s Athletic Association. The organization, upon its inception, regulated 10 sports teams. The organization has since had a resurgence in recent years, focusing its efforts on supporting fellow women sports teams while also providing a platform for leadership and philanthropy.

Fun Fact: Townsend is the first woman to be inducted in the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

Betsy Crothers Hawthorne, Class of 1946 (Field Hockey, Basketball, Tennis, and Lacrosse)

A four-sport athlete, it is hard not to understate the success of Crothers. She is most known for her field hockey exploits, including leading the team to its first undefeated season with a 5-0-1 record in her senior season. She captained the field hockey, basketball, and tennis teams twice each. In lacrosse, she was named an All-American for four years.

Off the courts and fields, Crothers was truly a leader. She was part of the first class of women to utilize Weightman Hall, formerly an all-male space. She also helped ensure that basketball, softball, badminton, swimming, hockey, tennis, bowling, and lacrosse became varsity sports. She served as the president of the WAA in her senior year and served as charter member of Athlon, an athletic honor society for women at Penn.

Fun Fact: Crothers was part of Mortar senior society, the first and only Penn senior society open to women until 1971.

Julia Ann Staver, Class of 1974 (Field Hockey and Lacrosse)

Staver is not the only woman to be a dual-sport athlete proficient in both field hockey and lacrosse, but to this day, she is still honored as the best to do it at Penn. She was an All-American in both sports, and earned the honor twice as a lacrosse player.

Her greatest accomplishments came after her graduation when she played for Team USA, competing in two field hockey World Cups and two Olympic teams. She also joined the rest of Team USA in the 1980 boycott.

Four years later and two years after her veterinary school graduation, she became a bronze medalist when the U.S. beat Australia. The game ended in a shootout where five women from each team shot two goals apiece. USA won the shootout 10-5, with Staver scoring the 10th and medal-winning goal.

To this day, the Staver Award is awarded to a top athlete that competes for both the field hockey and lacrosse teams.

Fun Fact: Staver’s 1984 team is the only team to ever medal for field hockey for the USA in the Olympics.

Alexa Hoover, Class of 2018 (Field Hockey)

In the long, storied history of Penn field hockey, only one player has been named to the Ivy League first-team all four years of their career: Alexa Hoover.

Hoover sits alone at the top of the field hockey record books, holding six records for herself. A historic scorer, Hoover tops the leaderboards in goals and points in the individual game, single season, and career record categories. Her record of 163 points in a career sits far ahead the rest of the pack; the second-highest total falls very short at 98 points by Liz Romig. For her accomplishments, she was awarded the Father’s Trophy in 2018.

She broke the record for all-time career goals — the previous record had been 44 — against Harvard on Oct 2., 2016 when her initial chip shot was deflected off the goalie’s knee pads and she was able to return the rebound into the net. Her record of 68 goals still stands today.

Fun Fact: Hoover’s signature game day attire included a neon green headband.

Alicia McConnell, Class of 1985 (Squash, Field Hockey, and Lacrosse)

McConnell is not just one of the greatest Penn squash players ever — she's one of the greatest American squash players ever.

She came to Penn with an already very impressive resume to boast: two-time national junior squash champion, three-time national 18-and-under national title winner, and four-time Canadian junior champion. In 1980, she won the World Juniors in Sweden.

In college, she was justifiably the No. 1 ranked women’s player in the country. She won three straight titles as the national singles champion in squash going from 1982-84. On the international stage, McConnell was on Team USA at five different World Team Championships and won a bronze medal at the 1995 Pan-American Games.

After playing squash professionally for a few years, McConnell went on to work with the U.S. Olympics Committee and now works in diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting in Ireland.

“My favorite memory, whether athletics or not athletics, [was] literally Franklin Field. I remember running around the track when it was pouring rain, there was something so calming about it,” McConnell said in an interview with Athletics Director Alanna Shanahan on a Power the Next 100 Podcasts episode. “[Also] there’s something about that walk by Ben Franklin, the first building built at UPenn. I never get tired walking past.”

Fun Fact: McConnell founded the Penn Club at Ireland.

Katy Cross, Class of 2005 (Soccer)

Cross sits alone as the only women's soccer player to be inducted in the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame. She also stands alone as the only women’s soccer player to four-peat as a first-team All-Ivy honoree.

As a freshman, she won the 2001 Ivy League Rookie of the Year award, becoming the first player in program history to do so. A year later, she was named Player of the Year. She is still one of only two Quakers to boast that honor.

Each of her four years, she led the team in goals scored and total points — she also led the team in assists three times. Those goals and points just kept accumulating such that her career totals sit far above the rest for goal-scoring and point totals with 54 goals and 133 points. 

“Her ability to beat people on the dribble was arguably the best in the Ivy League, there was nobody close to her,” former coach Darren Ambrose said in an article about her Hall of Fame induction.

Fun Fact: Cross currently is a neurologist at UCLA after receiving both her MD and PhD from the University.

Mary Jane O’Neill, Class of 1986 (Fencing)

O’Neill accomplished a lot of firsts as a women’s fencer at Penn.

A master of the foil, O’Neill brought four Ivy League titles back to Philadelphia — a streak spanning from 1983-86, including the team’s first-ever Ivy League Championship. She also captured success in the overall NCAA pantheon. In 1984 — just the third year of women’s competition in NCAA fencing — O’Neill became the first female individual champion for Penn at the NCAA Championships. Additionally, she and her team helped secure an NCAA team championship in 1986, becoming Penn’s first women’s team to do so.

After being a three-time first-team All-American, O’Neill moved on to the international stage. She is the first woman fencer from Penn to go to the Olympics. She first competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and then again in 1992 in Barcelona; the latter came in the middle of her medical school studies.

Fun Fact: O’Neill is immortalized as the fencer of the Lajos Csiszar Trophy — the trophy awarded annually to the Ivy League women’s champion team.

Diana Caramanico, Class of 2001 (Basketball)

There is no debate: Caramanico is the greatest women’s basketball player in Penn history.

In just 48 games, Caramanico crossed the 1,000-point threshold, which is still a record for the program. When she hung up her sneakers, she had 2,415 points to her name — a Big 5 and Ivy League record — and is the only player in either the men’s or women’s program to cross the 2,000-point threshold.

She is the program’s double-double leader with 65 total games, including a 23-point, 20-rebound game against Cornell in 2000. For her prolific scoring, Caramanico won the Ivy League Rookie of the year in 1997-98 — the first Penn player to do so. She then won Player of the Year for her last three seasons. Unsurprisingly, she is also a four-time first-team All-Ivy League selection, making her one of only seven players in Ivy history to do this. She is also the only player from Penn to be named to the first-team All-America.

Caramanico helped lead the team to its first-ever Ivy League Championship in her senior season with a 14-0 Ivy record. The championship came after starting 1-4 on the season and then going on a 21-game win streak.

“When I look back on the career that I was blessed to be a part of at Penn, I really think of it as having the privilege to play with my teammates, for the coaches,” Caramanico said in an interview. “I was really grateful and remain grateful and lucky to have fallen into this program.”

Fun Fact: Caramanico played professionally in France after graduation.

Nia Akins, Class of 2020 (Track & Field)

Akins has only fairly recently achieved alumna status, but it will not be long before she reaches Hall of Fame status.

Four years post graduation, Akins still holds eight Penn track records to her name across both indoor and outdoor events. In individual competition, she is the record holder for the outdoor and indoor 800 meters, outdoor 1500m, and indoor 1000m. A specialist for the 800m, two of her relay records are also for this distance. Akins went to both the NCAA Outdoor and Indoor Championships in 2019, finishing as the runner-up at both. Her indoor 800m time is the second-fastest in NCAA history.

After her collegiate career, Akins has gone from runner-up to champion. At the 2023 USATF Championships, Akins won both the indoor and outdoor 800m events. In the outdoors championship, Akins trailed as far back as sixth place in the opening 400m but on the curve into the latter half of the race, turned on the jets to move up into the second for a dominant comeback victory.

While now a professional, Akins returned to her roots when she competed in the 2022 Penn Relays.

Fun Fact: Akins writes and records her own music, available on most streaming platforms.

Ellie Daniel, Class of 1974 (Swimming)

Daniel was the very first swimmer inducted into the Penn Hall of Fame — an honor fitting for the only Penn alum in the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

A Philadelphia native, Daniel trained under the tutelage of Mary F. Kelly at both Penn and Vesper Boat Club Swimming Team with goals of winning internationally. She achieved these dreams multiple times throughout her career. She reached the pinnacle of the Olympics games twice: once in the 1968 Mexico City Games and again in the 1972 Munich Games. In Mexico City at age 18, she reached the podium three times: a bronze in the 200 meter butterfly, a silver in the 100m butterfly, and a gold in the 4x100m relay against Australia. When she returned in the Munich Games, she won bronze in the 200m butterfly. She won all of her Olympic medals before she graduated from Penn.  

Daniel’s favorite event was the butterfly. She set the world record for the 200m butterfly four times in her career and then another four times on medley teams for the event. Throughout her career, she at one point held 14 individual national records and eight world records.

Fun Fact: Daniel had once been coached by Mary F. Kelly, daughter-in-law of Margaret Majer Kelly.

Does Margaret Majer Kelly ring any bells?

Yep, the same woman who started varsity sports at Penn back in the 20s is the mother-in-law of a coach of Penn’s first female Olympic medal winner.