Born: December 3, 1951
There weren’t many opportunities for sports-minded young girls growing up in Missouri in the 1960s. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn Mary Phyl Dwight couldn’t quite help herself once she arrived on Missouri State University’s campus in the fall of 1970.
A graduate of Raytown South High School, Dwight grew up yearning for more athletically. The once-a-month “Sport Days” provided by the local Girls Athletics Association just didn’t cut it. Neither did growing up as a bat girl for her brother’s baseball team or watching her dad coach football and referee basketball. She loved being supportive, including watching and cheering her male friends at their high school events. Her opportunities, however, were limited. Incredibly limited.
But once she arrived in Springfield, that all changed. With athletic scholarships not yet available for women, Dwight had the freedom to participate as she pleased. And did she ever, playing volleyball, basketball and softball as a freshman. She joined the cross country and track & field teams the next year, becoming a five-sport athlete.
After a stellar collegiate career, Dwight eventually found her way to a decade-long stint with USA Team Handball, and a trip to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It’s the entire scope of her pioneering athletic career that makes the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proud to induct Mary Phyl Dwight as part of its Class of 2023.
Her journey is remarkable.
“When I graduated from high school in 1970, I was disappointed there hadn’t been opportunities to participate in girls high school varsity sports,” Dwight said.
Upon arriving in Springfield that fall, Dwight suddenly had more opportunities than she could have ever imagined. With no scholarships for women to limit her interests, the athletic landscape was hers.
“In today’s women’s college sports, where scholarships can be earned in all the sports I played, I would’ve been forced to make a sport scholarship choice,” Dwight said. “But with no scholarships available in my college days, you have to understand how excited I was to have the opportunities to play varsity sports.”
Once the cross country and track programs were added the next year, Dwight suddenly became a five-sport athlete.
“I took advantage of those opportunities also,” she said. “I loved to run.”
Her collegiate resume would make most athletes jealous. Dwight helped lead Missouri State to a runner-up finish at the AIAW Softball World Series; she qualified for the AIAW national track meet three times in middle distance and mile relay, finishing third in 1973; and MSU reached the national tournament twice in volleyball. Not to mention the multiple conference championships she helped engineer.
“I had so many great teammates in all those sports, and I still enjoy a lifetime friendship with many of them,” Dwight said.
After graduation, Dwight accepted a graduate assistant position at Kansas State, where she taught physical education courses and served as a basketball assistant coach. It was during her time in Manhattan that she first heard about team handball. She went to a tryout, and the rest is history.
“I found out from a friend about a tryout for this new sport, team handball, that had been added to the Olympics for women,” Dwight said. “Playing in the Olympics had always been a childhood dream of mine, so I traveled to Iowa State University for a tryout.”
Team handball is wildly popular in Europe and has been an Olympic sport for women since 1976. Dwight was easily hooked.
She eventually reached national-team level and spent 10 years with USA Handball, playing in over 100 international games, including the 1984 Summer Olympics, where she scored a pair of goals and led Team USA to a fourth-place finish.
“It was a dream come true,” she said. “I had imagined many times walking into the Olympic stadium during the Opening Ceremonies. I wasn’t sure it was real when I actually walked into Los Angeles Coliseum.”
Dwight coached at both Kansas State and Iowa before joining Team USA. She also had a long-time relationship with the Special Olympics, receiving special recognition from founder Eunice Kennedy-Shriver for her work as the director of team handball competition for Special Olympics International.
Dwight also served as a physical education instructor for more than 25 years at Missouri-Kansas City before retiring a few years ago.
“It’s such an honor to be inducted,” she said. “I’m joining Missouri Sports Hall of Fame members that inspired me as Missouri State coaches, teammates, teachers and friends. I so appreciate the people that have supported me: parents, brothers, coaches, teachers, teammates and many friends that made my induction to the Missouri Sports Hall of fame a possibility and a celebration.”