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Peg Brenden was good enough at tennis to hit with the boys at St. Cloud Technical High School. Likewise, Toni St. Pierre could keep up with the male athletes who participated in track and cross-country at Hopkins Eisenhower High School.

But it was 1972 — and girls weren't allowed to compete on the boys' teams under Minnesota State High School League rules. If they did, their teams faced sanctions.

So the girls sued in federal court. And won.

Now a half-century later, a book chronicles how Brenden and St. Pierre challenged the status quo and won the landmark case that was one of the first in the nation to deal with the issue of equal rights for girls in high school sports.

The book, "Break Point: Two Minnesota Athletes and the Road to Title IX," was written by Peg's younger sister, Sheri Brenden. It was published by the University of Minnesota Press.

"I knew my sister had accomplished something important in women's sport, and somehow I really didn't understand the whole story, and I didn't feel like the rest of the world had really taken note," said Sheri, 63, of Minnetonka. "In the sports media world, the male voice is pretty dominant and the male accomplishments are always heralded.

"The female athletes, especially of the past, are kind of left in the margins."

Peg Brenden, 69, lives in St. Paul. She retired from her career as a workers' compensation judge in 2016. St. Pierre died from a rare cancer in 2013 at age 58. Up until her diagnosis, she worked as an obstetrical nurse and still ran competitively.

Although Sheri Brenden was unable to interview St. Pierre for the book, she was able to chat with her children and other family members, as well as her former coach and teammates.

Toni St. Pierre
Toni St. Pierre

Family photo

"She was the most passionate person I've ever known," said St. Pierre's daughter Jessica Heisel, 45, of Hanover.

After winning the lawsuit as a junior, St. Pierre joined the boys' cross-country, track and Nordic ski teams. During her senior year, she became state champion in the mile and half-mile, and her half-mile time of 2:18.3 set a national record.

While a student at the College of St. Benedict, she ran with the men's cross-country team at St. John's University. And throughout her life, she continued to run triathlons and marathons.

St. Pierre's children — Heisel, as well as 43-year-old Alicia Jack of Minnetonka and 41-year-old Tim Heisel of Roseville — remember attending their mom's races as kids, sometimes spraying water at runners with a hose on hot days.

All three kids also inherited the love of running and have competed in marathons.

Boys moved on

Peg Brenden grew up on the south side of St. Cloud playing pickup games of Wiffle ball or kickball with the neighborhood boys. That changed around fifth grade, when the boys started playing organized sports — something Peg couldn't do.

Peg's older sister introduced her to tennis. And by her senior year in high school — when Peg knew she could compete with the top-performing boys on the tennis team — the only opportunities available for girls were through the Girls Athletic Association, which sponsored "play days" a few times a year for girls to try basketball and other sports.

Peg's older sister suggested she write a letter to the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. Around the same time, St. Pierre's mother called the organization. In April 1972, the union filed a suit in federal court alleging sex discrimination against both girls in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act.

Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, left, chatted with Peg Brenden and Sheri Brenden at a Jan. 24 book launch at Hopkins High School. Sheri Brenden’s new book is called “Break Point:...
Nicole LaVoi, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, left, chatted with Peg Brenden and Sheri Brenden at a Jan. 24 book launch at Hopkins High School. Sheri Brenden’s new book is called “Break Point:...

Phil Eckhert

The case went to trial before U.S. District Judge Miles Lord, who ruled in favor of the girls.

Brenden was able to compete for part of the spring season in the third singles slot and set Minnesota High School League precedent by being the first girl to compete in a boys' tennis match. She also became the first girl in the state to earn a letter for participating in a boys' athletic match.

The ruling came a few months ahead of federal legislation known as Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in programs and activities at schools receiving federal funds.

After that, things changed quickly.

"There were no girls' sports when I graduated from high school in 1972. There were seven different opportunities for girls in sports the very next year," Peg Brenden said. "Different schools did it at different paces, but the impetus was there because of Judge Lord's decision. Schools realized if they didn't offer girls opportunities pretty quick, they would face lawsuits — and they would lose."

A whole new world

Sheri Brenden said her high school experience differed greatly from her sister's. She tried track, softball and tennis, and became captain of her basketball team. Then in college, she attended the national tournament with her field hockey team.

Sheri said she hopes the book inspires others to keep pushing for equity, especially when it comes to girls and women in sport.

Jack, one of St. Pierre's daughters, said her mom's story makes her realize it really wasn't that long ago when women couldn't compete. She's proud that her mom advocated for her right to run with the boys.

Said Jack, "Just because people say progress is coming doesn't mean that sometimes it doesn't need a little nudge."