Many people know that Nancy Marshall, Associate Vice President for People & Culture at Corban University, is a woman of strength and insight, and that she has dedicated these qualities to serving Corban’s community in a variety of capacities. What many don’t know is that Nancy also possesses strength of another kind: the strength that shapes athletes into competitors, and competitors into Olympians. Although it’s been years since Nancy has completed a back aerial on a balance beam or pirouetted on the uneven bars, the grit, determination, and grace that led her to the 1972 Olympics and a record-breaking 34 event titles at University of Illinois are evident in everything she does.
This past September, Nancy Marshall’s athletic accomplishments were remembered and honored when she was officially inducted into the University of Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame. But despite our attempts to pull Nancy into the spotlight and celebrate her achievements, she is quick to draw others into the spotlight with her and credit her success to her family, mentors, encouragers, and community.
The spirit of collaboration and teamwork Nancy emphasizes couldn’t be better illustrated by what happened in May of 1973 at the Madison Square Garden when Nancy competed in a gymnastics meet between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. “Nobody remembers who won that meet,” Nancy says, “but they do remember the girl from Urbana whose music didn’t work and how the Chinese came to the rescue.”
Nancy Thies Marshall was up next for the floor routine. Hair pulled into a tight bun, she paced back and forth off to the side of the mat. Her movements were light and sure, but a worrying hand kept migrating toward her forehead. A murmur ran through the crowd: “What’s the matter? Why isn’t she going on?” “I heard her music isn’t working!” The tape cassette that was supposed to house the track accompanying her routine (the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey), was only sending out garbled static, and Nancy wasn’t sure what she was going to do.
Meanwhile, across the mat, her coach Muriel Grossfeld was in hurried discussion with a translator who, in turn, was relaying her desperate request to the Chinese pianist who’d been accompanying the Chinese team’s routines: Can you accompany Nancy? She didn’t have any sheet music; the best they could hope for was to have something, anything, whether improvised or from memory, for Nancy to compete with. The pianist, Jhou Jiasheng, agreed.
He began to play as Nancy strode onto the mat. Any evidence of worry or uncertainty was gone the moment her toes touched the blue surface. Jhou Jiasheng watched as she spun, leapt, and glided with that control that makes quick movements look effortless and slow movements look like art, his fingers matching her routine on the piano keys: a light dancing melody when she was airborne, lower notes when she landed and paused.
The applause that erupted at the end of the routine was the loudest the Madison Square Garden had seen all night, and for a moment, the post-Cold-War tension between the two nations was forgotten in the spirit of collaboration, improvisation, and talent.
But the 1973 meet is only one of many extraordinary moments in Nancy’s career as an athlete. The previous year, at age 15, she had been the youngest member of the American women’s gymnastics team at the Olympics in Munich. Together they had placed fourth, the highest women’s gymnastics had finished since 1948. This, all before Nancy finished high school.
She went on to compete for the University of Illinois, where she was recognized as a Big Ten Gymnast of the Year for two consecutive years (1976 and 1977), as well as an AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) All-American in 1976. She was also U of I’s first female Athlete of the Year.
What made Nancy such an impressive athlete? Some would undoubtedly point to the beauty and grace she brought to her routines on the floor and the uneven bars. Others would point out that she performed the first back aerial on a balance beam in Olympic history. But Nancy would resist the idea that her own talent was the driving force behind her success. Rather, she credits the mentors who believed in her and the role models who inspired her, the women and administrators who advocated for Title IX legislation to give women an even playing field in athletics, the aunts and uncles who instilled in her a sense of Illini lore that said anything is possible!
In an open letter to the Champaign-Urbana community, Nancy writes, “I am a native daughter of this community, raised in a south Urbana neighborhood where on warm August evenings, I could literally hear (and sometimes feel) the drumbeats of the Marching Illini practicing in the distance. My story is woven into a rich narrative of generations of hardworking Midwesterners—whose support of athletic competition and the pursuit of life-long learning opened doors and invited me in.”
This same community recognized Nancy Marshall’s contribution to gymnastics this past September when she was officially inducted into the U of I Athletics Hall of Fame. Seven years previously, she had been inducted into the World Acrobatic Society Hall of Fame, but with both honors, Nancy insists that the people around her are the true recipients of these awards. Speaking to her family, role models, mentors, and the Illinois community, Nancy says, “I accept the honor on your behalf.”
Nancy remained active in the world of athletics long after retiring from competition after her sophomore year at U of I. After finishing her degree in History and Journalism, Nancy served as a sports commentator with NBC. Meanwhile, in the wake of Title IX legislation, she traveled across the country with two other female Olympians to advocate for women’s athletics and encourage young women to compete. After 12 years of involvement with the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors, she was elected vice-chair for women, in which role she worked with the board to address athletes’ struggles with disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis (known as the “female athlete triad” for their occurrence in combination). Nancy played a crucial role in developing the Athlete Wellness Program and served as its director. She is also an author and journalist, having co-authored Women Who Compete among other books and countless articles. In 2001, Nancy stepped away from the gymnastics world to settle with her family in Salem, Ore., where she served several non-profits in the areas of staff and program development before taking on the role of Director of Human Resources at Corban University. She has since been promoted to Associate Vice President of People & Culture at the University, serving that community with the same compassion and strength that guided her career in the world of gymnastics.