During Women’s History Month, we are profiling current and past student-athletes, coaches and staff who have helped build and carry on the culture, tradition and success that make the Wolverines Leaders and Best.
Since first stepping onto the sidelines at Michigan Stadium in the 1970s as one of the University of Michigan’s first female cheerleaders, Pam St. John (front center in lead photo) has spent many a fall Saturday at the Big House. After graduating from U-M in 1976 with a B.S. in dental hygiene, St. John took over as head coach of Michigan’s cheer team in the 1978-79 school year and has held the post ever since, making this past fall her 43rd as the program’s leader.
Over that tenure, she has seen — and helped create — a dramatic increase in opportunities and support for women in athletics, and she has witnessed first-hand the resulting benefits derived from those experiences. She has traveled the country while accompanying her team to some of the biggest athletic events in the school’s history, and she has taken trips to support causes in which she believes.
St. John has guided her teams to National Cheerleading Association national championships in five of the last seven events, including titles in Division 1A Game Day and Division 1A Coed Intermediate competitions in 2019. And she still gets a thrill out of going down the Michigan Stadium tunnel and emerging before a packed house on game day.
By Pam St. John
Many of the most exciting memories I have come from my competing or participating in sports, but more importantly, sports have profoundly shaped the person I am today.
Sports have taught me about myself — how I react to the world, where I need to grow, where I need to improve my critical thinking skills, and where and when I can use my rational mind vs. my emotional self. Sports have exposed to me my strengths and weakness, and shown me my limitations on what I can do by myself and what I can only accomplish with the help of others.
I have learned most of my life lessons skills through sports (either as an athlete or as a coach): discipline, time management, patience, how to cope with criticism, how to cope with loss, that joy is best shared with others, and that the weight of disappointment is lessened when others help you carry it.
Sports have taught me that the journey is the prize, and that life and sports are not all about winning and losing.
St. John (far right) and the cheer team celebrate Michigan’s 2013-14 Big Ten Conference men’s basketball championship.
I was “recruited” to the University of Michigan by Red Simmons as a 440-yard dash athlete in the fall of 1972 to run for the Michigammes, which was the Ann Arbor Women’s Track Club started by Red and his wife Betty.
I use the term recruited loosely as women’s track and field was not a varsity sport at Michigan at that time. Recruitment consisted of Red approaching me at an AAU meet sometime during my high school track career and asking me if I would consider coming to Michigan to run for the Michigammes.
St. John (fourth from left) with cheer teammates (from left) Debbie Early, Clare Canham-Eaton, Marlene Ayers, Rhonda Busbee and Leslie Hainrihar Chretien.
My father graduated from the University of Michigan Dental School, and my mother had been in the nursing program at Michigan. So, from a young age, graduating from Michigan was my dream. Incidentally, my mother was dismissed from the nursing program upon her marriage to my father; nursing students were not permitted to be married.
In June prior to beginning my freshman year, I was in a car accident in which I received a knee injury. Nowadays, surgery would repair the damage, and I would have returned to running. However, at that time the recommendation was that my track career was over.
Upon arriving on campus in the fall of 1972, I stumbled on information about cheerleading tryouts for basketball season. I had participated in Cheer in high school, so I decided to give it a try and made the cheer team.
There are several figures in sport who were my heroes/heroines and who profoundly shaped my beliefs. Billie Jean King was my idol while I was growing up. She was a fierce competitor and a fierce advocate for gender equality and social justice.
In 1973 at age 29, Billie Jean played 55-year-old Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. Riggs had claimed that the women’s game was so inferior to the men’s game that even a 55-year-old like himself could beat the current top female players. He had already challenged and defeated Margaret Court, 6-2, 6-1.
King had rejected challenges from Riggs, but after the Riggs vs. Court match, she accepted a lucrative financial offer to play him for $100,000, winner-take-all. I watched it live and for the duration of the match screamed, jumped, mimicked returns and eventually sobbed in joy as Billie Jean beat him, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Billie Jean King did not stop advancing the cause of women’s athletics when she stopped competing. She went on to become the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation.
The other major event that impacted me was the 1968 Olympics. It is well known that Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the courageous choice to take their places on the podium for the 200-meter medal ceremony wearing human rights badges and defiantly raised a black-gloved fist as the “Star Spangled Banner” was played, in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement in the United States.
Lesser known is that in the gymnastics competition, while standing on the medal podium after the balance beam event final, in which Natalia Kuchinskaya of the Soviet Union had controversially taken the gold, Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Čáslavská quietly turned her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem. Her protest was repeated when she accepted her medal for her floor exercise routine when the judges changed the preliminary scores of the Soviet Larisa Petrik to allow her to tie with Čáslavská for the gold.
All of these athletes impressed upon me the power of athletics in society and of the catalyst that one person can become for change. Their courage to put their beliefs into action has been a lifelong beacon to follow.
I was directly impacted by Title IX when in 1974 the U-M Athletic Department decided to create an all-female “pom-pon” team to give women equal opportunity to participate on the sideline at football games. I was fortunate to be selected to that first group of women to be on the field! Prior to that time, only male cheerleaders were permitted on the sidelines in Michigan Stadium.
Title IX was used to establish that the sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime. In my time at Michigan I have seen tremendous progress in this area to identify and address these issues, to educate our community, and to develop strategies to protect our students and staff.
On the sports level, I believe that Title IX has significantly increased the opportunities for girls and women, and has given recognition to some sports that were traditionally considered a predominantly female activity. This certainly is reflected in the world of Cheer, where currently there are two sports that are derivatives of Cheer (STUNT and Acrobatics & Tumbling) that have acquired emerging sport status by the NCAA. Further, Cheer has been given Olympic provisional status.
The first Women’s March, in 2017, was the single most influential event I have ever been at. I attended all of the Women’s Marches, and my son Carter attended the first one in Washington, D.C., with me. We wanted to march because we believed that the rights of women, immigrants, minorities and LGBTQ were being threatened.
It motivated me to become an activist for candidates I believed in, and it compelled me to become a poll worker and to work on voter registration and “get out the vote” drives.
I was most heartened to see so many women who marched alongside their children. It gave me hope to see passionate young people who will become the movers for social change and social justice in our country’s future.
St. John congratulates her son Drake Johnson after he rushed for 122 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns in Michigan’s 34-10 win over Indiana on Nov. 1, 2014. (Michigan Photography)
I have a few favorite memories from my Michigan career. One experience was cheering at the NCAA men’s basketball national championship in 1976. Michigan played Indiana, and it was the first time two teams from one conference had played in the final. It was also the year of our nation’s bicentennial and of my graduation from Michigan. It was a magical year for me in every way.
My happiest moment in Michigan Stadium was seeing my son Drake Johnson score his first touchdown as a Michigan running back. That moment was eclipsed only by seeing him walk across the stage and receive his Bachelor of Science degree as a graduate of the University of Michigan. Gratitude to Coach Fred Jackson for recruiting Drake to Michigan.
The first time I ran out of the tunnel for pregame at Michigan Stadium and came onto the field, I was stunned by the enormity of the crowd. It was overwhelming, and I momentarily forgot what I was supposed to be doing! It still gives me a thrill when we run out of the tunnel.
This is also my favorite Michigan memory as a coach. It is special to re-experience this thrill each year through the eyes of our new student-athletes as they run out onto the field behind the Michigan Marching Band to the home sideline and lead the crowd in “The Victors.”
After all of these years, it never gets old. This is our tradition.