Former coxswain gets Notre Dame letter jacket 50 years later


It took more than 50 years, but Diane Johnson Speck was finally recognized for her contributions to University of Notre Dame athletics. 

Speck, a Carmel resident, served as the coxswain on the men’s heavyweight 8 boat for the Notre Dame rowing team for three years. The coxswain steers the boat. Speck was recognized as part of a Title IX ceremony at Notre Dame’s Oct. 22 home football game with UNLV. Title IX was enacted in 1972, prohibiting sex-based discrimination at universities that receive federal funding. That opened up the door for more women’s athletics programs across the United States.

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Diane Johnson Speck, far left, as the Notre Dame heavyweight 8 coxswain in approximately 1972. (Photo courtesy of Diane Johnson Speck)

“They presented us with letter jackets,” Speck said of the ceremony. “It’s cool, but what does a 69-year-old woman do with a monogram jacket? We got the same ceremony as any other athlete. It was nice, even 50 years later to acknowledge this.”

Speck, a 1975 Saint Mary’s College graduate, said nearly half of those honored were Saint Mary’s graduates (1972-1977). 

Speck was a freshman at St. Mary’s in the fall of 1971. Notre Dame didn’t admit females until the fall of 1972.

“Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame were supposed to merge and that merger didn’t happen,” she said. “The females that entered Saint Mary’s in 1971 were told they were going to be the first Notre Dame graduates. Our class got to take classes at both Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame.”

Speck said Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame president, said if it wasn’t for the women from Saint Mary’s filling in athletic programs from 1972-77, it would have been hard to build the women’s programs.

“There was a minimum number of women admitted to Notre Dame,” Speck said. 

Speck said the Notre Dame team rowed on the Harlem River in New York and the large lake in Madison, Wis. 

“University of Wisconsin had a top-notch rowing program in the ’70s. They had an indoor tank for the men’s rowing team,” Speck said. “We were out on the St. Joe river in snow, rain and ice. It was a very different experience, but it was fun.”

She missed most of her final season because of surgery.

Busy with her career as a nurse, Speck didn’t compete in rowing much after college.

“A few years back, I went to Eagle Creek because there are adults that do pick-up rowing there, and I went out on a boat a few times with them,” Speck said. “My eyes aren’t as good now. You have to have good distance vision.”

A Notre Dame football fan, Speck was offered the opportunity to buy football season tickets in 2012 as a former athlete. So she bought the tickets.

Speck worked as a nurse in St. Louis, Worcester, Mass.; Washington, D.C.; and Pittsburgh. Speck, who grew up in Evansville, moved to Carmel in 2007 and worked at St. Vincent Heart Center in Carmel. She retired from that position in 2017, but subbed as an Ascension Health nurse in the Carmel and Zionsville school systems when needed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked on the Ascension Health hotline to answer questions. Speck had to give up her position as a school nurse sub when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021. She concluded chemotherapy a year ago.