In remembering the 50th anniversary of women’s championships in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), it’s clear that Oshkosh resident Helen Briwa got the ball rolling for women’s athletics at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Briwa served as the first and only women’s director of athletics at UW Oshkosh, playing a key role in the growth of women’s programs on campus—and beyond.
“Helen was indeed a pioneer. She means everything to the foundation of women’s athletics at UW Oshkosh,” said Kennan Timm, UWO’s sports information director since the 1985-86 academic year. “Helen was involved in so many aspects, both as an administrator and coach during her tenure at UWO and was on the first step of the department’s building process a few weeks after arriving on this campus in the late 1960s.”
Briwa, a five-sport head coach and member of the UWO Hall of Fame, was women’s director of athletics from 1971 to 1988—all this after growing up in a time when the concept of women’s collegiate sports was simply a dream. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Briwa and other pioneers dedicated their lives to creating opportunities for women in athletics.
Career options were limited in those days and many women aspired to be teachers or nurses.
“My sophomore year in high school we were assigned a paper on ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I went to the library and talked to my mother’s friend who was in physical education,” Briwa recalled.
She said teaching in a classroom didn’t interest her, but being able to play and coach all of her life did.
Briwa remembers her decision to come to Oshkosh, after working a number of years at Colorado State University. The Hudson, New York native was hoping to move a little closer to the east coast. Bright sun sparkled during her two-day visit to Oshkosh and the campus, and she chose the job over an opportunity at another university.
The warm blue skies that beckoned her didn’t last for long.
“The weather in Colorado was beautiful, very mild,” she said. “Oshkosh was not that mild. In 1968, we had so much snow! You couldn’t see who was coming at the intersections and people had to have little orange balls attached to their car antennas (visible over the snow banks).”
Briwa graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College in New York, a master’s degree from Smith College in Massachusetts and a doctorate degree from the Ohio State University.
She participated at the highest level available to women in the 1950s for women’s field hockey, lacrosse, basketball, softball and tennis.
She arrived at UWO in 1968 and became involved in forming the Wisconsin Women’s Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WWIAC). She became women’s athletic director in 1971, as well as associate professor in the physical education department and head coach of five sports: women’s badminton, field hockey, softball, track and field and volleyball.
As field hockey coach, she had a knack for taking beginners under her wing—Danielle Bauer, Sharon Butz, Darla Deville, Linda Hobbs, Ellen Krabbe, Janet Mueller and Faye Salisbury among them—and turning them into national players. Briwa coached several players to individual honors in both the College North Field Hockey Association and WWIAC.
“People (in Oshkosh) didn’t know what field hockey was,” she said. “There was no feeder program―no way to recruit.”
Briwa taught the sport in her physical education classes and was able to secure some players.
Paving the way
Elaine Coll and her husband, retired UWO journalism professor Gary Coll, are good friends of Briwa. Elaine, a former physical education teacher and coach at UWO (1969-72) and Ripon College (1973-90), is grateful Briwa took her under her wing and mentored her at UWO. Both of their careers were impacted by the 1972 passage of Title IX federal law, requiring that women be given equal opportunity in education, including sports.
Coll remembers how good Briwa was in field hockey and in badminton: “She could beat anybody in badminton.”
Coll said Briwa started a Sunday league for a women’s field hockey club. The idea appealed to students from the east coast who were familiar with the game and other female students who wanted to learn.
“I remember some of my volleyball players (at Ripon) would go to Oshkosh on Sundays,” Coll said. “They were easterners and they would go on Sunday and loved it.”
Over her 14 years as head coach, Briwa developed a number of standout athletes in field hockey. In 1981, she was selected as WWIAC field hockey coach of the year.
Deb Vercauteren, retired cross country and track and field coach at UWO who coached numerous individual and team champions, said Helen was a strong believer in women being coached by women.
“This provided mentorship with the idea to mold the student athletes into strong independent women―women that would become leaders with knowledge, confidence, and assertiveness,” she said.
During her 17 years as UWO women’s athletic director, teams earned four national titles and 18 WWIAC titles. Upon her retirement, she was honored by WWIAC and was named Woman of the Year by the Oshkosh Business Women’s Club.
“Every decision Helen made helped pave the way for more women faculty, staff, administrators and student-athletes to be involved,” Timm said. “She fought tirelessly for gender equality and ultimately impacted change that continues to benefit the 200-plus women who compete for the Titans on an annual basis.”
Briwa, who enjoys following the Packers and Brewers, has remained involved with the UWO athletic community and currently serves as a member of the hall of fame committee.
She has raised and showed long-haired dachshunds for years and is involved with the American Kennel Club. She said she enjoys the Oshkosh community and the friends she’s made while still owning property in Hudson, New York, where her sister and nephew reside.
Briwa admits things have come a long way since her start at UWO.
“Girls today can do anything they want to do,” she said.