Part 5 of a 6 part series on South Carolina's first female scholarship student-athletes.
Click here for the full First 18 Digital Presentation with new stories appearing each day this week.
Although she had already been playing tennis at South Carolina for a year, Sue (Smith) Ham enjoyed a life-changing event when she became one of the “First 18” the following year. After the implementation of Title IX, South Carolina made 18 scholarships available for female student-athletes for the first time in school history in 1975, with three going to each of the six sports.
“I would like to think I was a good player,” Ham said. “My first year of playing I played either the number one or number two position and I was winning a lot. So I guess I must have impressed somebody. It was life-changing for me. It gave me so much confidence in myself then and after I graduated. It exposed me to other things that were going on the in the world, and that I could pursue a career in tennis. With the scholarship, I thought I must be pretty decent at this game, so I was able to teach a lot and coach. I’m no longer coaching now, but I do have a tennis greeting card line, it’s called ‘Suzy’s tennis cards.’ They’re fairly humorous and they relate to some of my experiences on the tennis court. I get a lot of enjoyment out of that.”
The Greenville, South Carolina, native now lives in Hilton Head, and while back issues prevent her from playing as much as she would like, she commutes to Alpharetta, Georgia, to play in a league there.
“I get worse and worse every year, but they still want me,” Ham said.
Transitioning women’s sports into the university’s athletics department was smooth according to Ham, and administrators and students were supportive. As one of the select few to receive a scholarship in 1975, Ham wasn’t overwhelmed with pressure to perform.
“Maybe a little, but I guess it’s the cockiness I had already,” Ham said. “I wasn’t worried about it. I went out and had fun and did my thing. There was no negativity whatsoever. They thought it was well-deserved and they supported us.”
It’s just a privilege to have been here and been one of the 18 .... It’s always good to look back and see what the people did before us and paved the way.Sue (Smith) Ham
With a scholarship that covered tuition only, there wasn’t much left in the budget back then for what would now be considered basic necessities of a varsity athletics program.
“The first year I played here, we had nothing,” Ham said. When we were offered scholarships, they came out with a tennis dress that had the logo on it, but as far as supplying us with balls to practice with, that wasn’t offered. No shoes either. We had a tennis dress to wear to the match and I remember the day when they came through and we actually got warmups. We were so excited about that. They were so good looking. We were doing cartwheels. It was the coolest thing. We were thrilled with it at the time.
“We paid for our own rackets and stringing. We had to bring our own tennis balls to practice. We had no equipment. We basically just went out to the courts and hit. That was how we’d practice.”
There wasn’t much of a budget for travel in 1975, but the team made the best of it and piled into a van to get to their next match.
“It looked like a plumber’s van if you look at it today,” Ham laughed. “Those were good times. That’s how we got to know each other.”
While that may seem like a hardship to today’s student-athletes, that was not the case for Ham.
“I didn’t see it as a challenge,” Ham said. “I enjoyed every minute being out there. I was just doing what I’ve always done – going out and playing tennis. I got the opportunity to play in matches; let me at it. None of it was a challenge for me. Now, if I didn’t have to go to class, I would have liked that!”
There wasn’t much fan support for home matches either on the non-descript courts downtown. Friends, roommates, and perhaps a professor or two would be counted as the regulars to watch. It didn’t take long for the program to become a powerhouse as the women’s team was ranked sixth nationally just a few years later in 1979. Times have certainly changed, and today the winning continues. The South Carolina women’s tennis program is nationally ranked and competes at the new Carolina Tennis Center, which opened in 2012 next to the Rice Athletics Center on campus. With all of the changes, Ham is proud to have been one of the First 18 and hopes the student-athletes of today recognize how far women’s athletics have come.
“They need to know just how lucky they are to have the opportunities that they have, know how great they have it right now, and how far athletics has come over the many years.” Ham said. “I loved my days, but they’ve got so much more assistance and guidance and help. I just would hope they would appreciate what they have as much as I appreciated what I had back when, and I didn’t have half of what they have.”
Looking back, Ham credits her experience at South Carolina with helping guide her life after her playing days were over.
“Just being here and playing tennis was a dream come true to me,” Ham said. “I never thought I’d be able to have this opportunity and it opened doors for me. It opened my world. When I arrived here I was so naïve, and did not know the world. It opened many many things for me.”
Ham’s visit to campus for the First 18 celebration isn’t her first trip back to her old stomping grounds. She attended a football game last year as well, and felt like she was a student all over again.
“I was blown away,” Ham said. “I have not been to a football game since my days here. What an atmosphere. I’m very good at ‘Sandstorm.’ Just give me a towel, and I will do ‘Sandstorm’ all day.”
While she may not have thought of herself as a pioneer at the time, Ham recognizes the First 18’s place in school history and is glad it is being remembered.
“It’s just a privilege to have been here and been one of the 18,” Ham said. “I’m so impressed and so proud of my school. I’m just proud to say that I went here and played to represent South Carolina. I feel very blessed that we are celebrating. It makes me think about the people before me and our group of athletes and where we are today. It’s always good to look back and see what the people did before us and paved the way.”