Star-Bulletin Sports

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

W A H I N E _ V O L L E Y B A L L

Thompson a
Wahine pioneer

The former Hawaii women's
AD steered program in
the right direction

By Cindy Luis


This is the 14th in a weekly series featuring the 1979 University of Hawaii women's volleyball team, the Wahine's first national championship.

IT is sadly ironic that a woman of such great vision is now legally blind.

Yet, such is the case of Dr. Donnis Thompson, the University of Hawaii's first full-time women's athletic director and fairy godmother of Wahine sports.

The 66-year-old Thompson is currently living in Palm Desert, Calif., recuperating from another eye surgery that has partially restored sight to her one "good'' eye. Her only complaint?

"I can't putt as well as I used to,'' said the former Hawaii superintendent of schools, an avid golfer.

The Wahine golf team pays tribute to Thompson annually with a tournament named in her honor. The larger tribute is paid almost daily by the thousands of fans who come to watch Wahine sports, particularly the volleyball team, the only program in the country to draw 100,000 in a season.

Some twenty years ago, there was a fuss raised when Thompson wanted to charge admission for women's volleyball. Then she said she wanted to put matches in the HIC (since renamed Blaisdell Arena).

Star-Bulletin file photo
Donnis Thompson had a vision that people
would pay to see women's volleyball.

"People said, 'You've got to be kidding,' because no one else was paying to go watch women's volleyball,'' she said. "But we realized this was one sport that could be pushed, that this was the sport that would produce revenue.''

It has more than paid off. Hawaii will host its second NCAA Tournament final four two weeks from now, selling out this year's event two months ago.

The Wahine are the most popular women's volleyball program in the country. Even in its infancy, it was one of the best.

In its first five years of existence, the team never finished lower than third at the national tournament. Thompson remembers thinking the team was headed for another runner-up trophy when facing Utah State in the AIAW national final in Carbondale, Ill.

"I think everyone watching was despondent,'' said Thompson. "We were down two games and Utah seemed to be playing perfect ball. We were missing an outstanding player in Rocky (all-American setter Elias).

"But then Dave (coach Shoji) seemed to say the magic words. He said that if we started playing our game, we'd pull it out.

"When the players started believing in themselves, it started happening.''

Hawaii rallied to win, 8-15, 7-15, 15-9, 16-14, 15-12.

" I was darn glad we won the third and the fourth,'' said Thompson. "I prayed through the fifth game.

"What I remember is Bonnie Gouveia, who always plays consistently, but that night she played like a tiger. She was determined that no one was going to prevent them from winning.

"With Rocky out, Diana (McInerny) played a brilliant game at setter and Waynette (Mitchell) served brilliantly. At the end, our players were the ones who played perfectly.''

It had been a hard-fought match that mirrored the battle that Thompson had waged to get funding and recognition for women's athletics, nationally and locally. She had hoped to help the AIAW with its direction in the new fight for equity and equality.

She lost the 1977 election to be president of the national organization by 13 votes. Four years later, the AIAW dissolved when the NCAA took over running women's athletics, in addition to the men's programs.

"At that time (in the 1970s), the AIAW was vacillating between treating women like real athletes and taking away scholarships,'' said Thompson. "We were fortunate that our legislature and the university believed in women's athletics. People like Eve Anderson helped raise money that allowed the women's athletic department to get the staff it needed.''

Thompson said freeing up money for travel took a "little magic'' to stretch the thin budget, estimated at $42,000 for seven sports and administrative costs. The teams also took pineapples to mainland matches as gifts for opposing teams.

"It was a little P.R. thing but it got attention,'' said Thompson. "Dave used to say to me, 'Damn, Donnis, we can't carry all those boxes.' But it helped the visibility.

"Hawaii initiated a lot of things and the gift exchange was something very positive. Schools began calling us, asking how we did things.''

Thompson has continued her fight for change. Her impressive resume after leaving UH in 1981 includes superintendent of schools, chair of the Hawaii Women's Political Caucus, Hawaii delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention, chair of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, professor emeritus.

She is currently one of 34 appointed members on the National Legislative Committee for the American Association of Retired Persons.

The success of Wahine athletics continues to be a source of pride.

"Twenty years ago, we knew the fans would come watch a quality product,'' she said. "We knew they would come to watch women's athletics if the team was successful. We fought for the (on-campus) arena.

"And Shoji with his 700 victories. How beautiful ... I knew he would stick around if they paid him. We were paying him peanuts and he was still having to move the bleachers before games. One of the best moves made was to hire Dave Shoji full-time.''

The other was to have Thompson, who had the vision and could see the possibilities.
Ka Leo O Hawaii

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