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A Carleton sports tradition: the overlooked history of the ‘banana sweats’

It’s difficult to ignore the presence of the “banana sweats” on campus — the bright yellow sweatshirts frequently donned by Carleton’s women athletes on their way to class or practice. However, what is often overlooked is that the sweatshirts represent much more than a fashion statement; behind the bright yellow cotton fabric and blue letters lies the story of two trailblazers in women’s physical education and the struggle for gender equity in athletics.

Enter Pat Lamb and Ele Hansen: two life partners who became the indomitable force behind the banana sweats and the broader push for gender equity in sports throughout the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Due in large part to their courageous efforts, Carleton established itself at the leading edge of colleges providing a wide range of P.E classes and athletic resources for female students.

Remembered by the Carleton Sesquicentennial as a “sharp, feisty and fierce advocate for women’s sports,” Hansen was hired as chair of the Women’s Physical Education Department in 1952 by President Larry Gould. Hansen didn’t have to look further than the fact that there were no women’s varsity athletic programs at Carleton to understand that there was plenty of work to be done.

Pat Lamb, left, and Ele Hansen, right, pictured outside of Cowling Gymnasium.

Soon enough, Hansen was recruiting women athletes from previously existing club programs to participate in varsity softball and cross-country, the two sports Hansen launched and coached at Carleton. She  not only coched these sports but also taught an array of P.E classes, until she retired in 1986.

Hansen left an everlasting mark on campus. In 1965, she pushed strongly for the creation of “The Women’s Gym” (now Cowling Recreation Center), which in addition to providing much needed space for co-ed and women’s P.E. classes, solidified itself as the center of an emerging feminist movement on campus. 

According to Associate Athletic Director Heidi Jaynes, Hansen recalled to her how when Carleton women’s athletics quickly outgrew the space at Cowling, she became tired of filing the location for volleyball matches under the name “Carleton Men’s Gym.” When Hansen approached the President to have the gym’s name changed, he supposedly asked her what she would prefer it to be called. “Well it’s on the west side of campus, so how about we call it West Gym?” Hansen cleverly said in response. Sure enough, the name stuck and remains to this day.

Carleton hired Pat Lamb, Hansen’s life partner of 52 years, in 1962 as a physical education instructor. In 1970, Lamb was promoted to Carleton’s first Director of Women’s Athletics, a position she held until 1985. During those 15 years Lamb played a key role in the development of 12 varsity athletic programs for women, coaching many of them herself. Tennis, however, was Lamb’s true passion, and in 1987 she was named Division III coach of the year. 

“Coach Pat Lamb of @CarletonCollege always gave 100% to everything she did. She was a pioneer and a game changer for women’s athletics, and a loyal friend. We will miss her…” tweeted Billie Jean King, former World No. 1 Tennis Champion, after Lamb passed away in 2018. 

In 1970, Hansen and Lamb began to purchase the bright yellow sweatshirts, which were later coined by Track and Field Coach Donna Ricks as the “banana sweats.” The conspicuous yellow color, according to Lamb, was a deliberate choice “to make a statement, to create an identity, to initiate a sense of pride in being an athlete, and to be different than the men.” That said, Carleton women were initially wary of the attention the sweatshirts would attract. “They wished the sweats were navy blue without lettering,” said Lamb, as quoted in a document distributed to current female athletes detailing the history of the banana sweats. 

However as time progressed, Carleton women began to embrace the banana sweats, which began to symbolize confidence. “It did not take long before the banana sweats were worn with pride,” said Lamb, according to the document. “Before and after contests, to practice, even to the library and the dining halls. When the male athletes started to steal or borrow the yellow sweats, then we all knew that a milestone had been reached.” 

“As the years went on, I found myself designing remarks around the symbolism of the changing attitudes towards the yellow sweats… what a great avenue for describing the progress in self-realization that took place in young women who participated in competitive sports at Carleton,” continued  Lamb in the document.

In addition to support provided from individuals such as Hansen and Lamb, female athletes drew confidence from national progress in the discussion on gender equality in athletics and education. In 1972, Title IX was signed into law by United States President Richard Nixon, prompting an explosion of female participation in scholastic athletics and higher education. According to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, between 1972 and 2010 female participation in athletics grew by 1057 percent and 614 percent at the high school and college levels respectively.

To this day, the banana sweats serve an important symbol, and reminder, for Carleton’s female student-athletes. “The sweatshirt is very bright so people always notice its presence,” said sophomore tennis player Sydney Bell. “When I put it on I am reminded of the fact that I am part of a larger community of female athletes as well as athletes that were not always given many opportunities.” 

Perhaps more importantly, the sweatshirts are a source of unity across women’s athletics at Carleton: a bright representation of solidarity between programs.“There’s a deep tradition of women’s teams supporting each other at Carleton,” said cross country captain Emma Greenlee. “For example, the volleyball team always goes out of their way to write us notes before our MIAC Championship race. Things like that are part of why women’s sports here are so awesome.” 

“Pat and Ele held these bright yellow sweats dear to their hearts, it represented the journey, the challenges, the success of all the coaches and athletes involved in creating a fair and equal, competitive environment,” said cross country coach Donna Ricks. “After Pat and Ele retired, they followed the Carleton women’s teams closely and were often seen attending varsity competitions. They beamed with pride when they saw that the tradition of the banana sweats lived on.” 

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