Rolling Through the Years

The evolution of hooprolling reveals what has changed at Wellesley over the years and what has endured.

A photo of two 1945 alums holding up their hoops after the race. The winner has a bridal veil attached to her mortar board.


Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

Courtesy of Wellesley College Archives

Early on a dewy Saturday morning in late April, a few bundled-up, bleary-eyed students emerged from a tent on Tupelo Lane. As one unwrapped a mini peanut butter cup, they discussed, huddled over a phone, how they could get coffee and bagel bites delivered to them. The day was starting to brighten and warm, but the night had been cold.

One of the campers, Sarah Quinan ’23, had arrived at 4 p.m. the day before with other members of Shakespeare Society. By morning, she was “tired, but excited and hopeful,” she said.

Hopeful that in a couple of hours, securing their seniors’ prime starting spots for the Wellesley 2022 Hooprolling race would have been worth the ordeal. As long as their seniors actually woke up on time.

Speed, drama, loyalty, pride, camaraderie—Hooprolling has it all. In its nearly 130-year history, the race has become, as President Paula Johnson put it, iconic. It marks the transition of seniors out of the College and serves as a physical representation of the Wellesley siblinghood sticking together, no matter the twists and turns their own journeys may take.

Hooprolling has also become a window into how the College and its students have evolved over the years. Over the past two years, Hooprolling took on an even deeper meaning for students in a women’s and gender studies capstone course that interrogated the tradition’s place in the Wellesley community and feminism more broadly.

A Race Returns

Zoe Owens ’22, a house president in Tower Court, was the first senior to arrive at the starting line. “I literally started practicing the day I got my hoop because I was so excited …” she said. “I’m going to get some training in. I’m very competitive, and I love Wellesley traditions.”

Seniors soon filled Tupelo Lane, giving their little siblings enthusiastic hugs for having endured the elements and secured their spots.

President Johnson hyped up the crowd, thrilled to have Hooprolling back in its full form after two atypical years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s always a lot of energy,” she said, “but I think today is very special.”

At precisely 9 a.m, the seniors sped off, followed by chaos as they chased their hoops down the path. About a minute later, Sophia Peña ’22 won and was carried off to the lake by her classmates.

One foot still in Lake Waban, she tried to keep her balance as she put a sopping wet sock back on the other. “I’m feeling cold,” she said, adding that she was grateful to her little sibling from her karate club, who had arrived at 4:30 a.m. “I don’t think anybody gets there by themselves,” she said.

Competitive Spirit

Almost 130 years ago, the class of ’95—that’s 1895—decided that “the Wellesley tendency was to take one-self too seriously.” As documented in Traditions of Wellesley, the class of ’95 “was always trying to put some pep into things and try to find the humor in every situation.” One student in the class wrote that they procured hoops in Boston and “electrified the College by rolling hoops in our Caps and Gowns.”

Into the early 1900s, Hooprolling on campus was a carefree part of May Day celebrations and senior events—with no declared winner.

By 1907, a competitive spirit started to seep in. The Wellesley News wrote: “staid and dignified in their caps and gowns, they struck the first whack, and then tore breathlessly down the hill in a vain attempt to catch up to their hoops, or to make them roll in the way they should go.”

In 1939, the race drew a national spotlight after an imposter—Harvard student Edward Read—infamously posed as a Wellesley student and won Hooprolling. As the Boston Traveler recounted, “Instantly came from the crowd a shout: ‘She’s a boy!’ … Above the shrieks rose a command: ‘Throw him in the lake! Throw him in the lake! Imposter! Imposter!’ … A hundred girls were pulling at Read. They ripped off his wig and gown, clawed at his limbs as he tried to pry himself loose. … ‘I think you made history this morning,’ then-College President Mildred McAfee said of Read. ‘Never before have Wellesley women been banded together for such a purpose.’”

Interrogating a Tradition

Hooprolling, says Elena Creef, professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley, has been a “perfect case study” for her women’s and gender studies capstone seminar because it is a “window into a slice of Wellesley College’s history—past, present, and future.” In spring 2022, Creef co-taught the course with Rosanna Hertz, the Class of 1919 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Creef wanted the capstone to focus on the College because Wellesley’s history, she says, “has not been interrogated by our field or our department.” Their students interviewed about 25 alums who had won the race and dove into the College’s archives, combining sociological and interdisciplinary approaches.

The seminar also studied the hoop itself and all it represents as it is passed between big and little siblings and through College organizations. “That’s been a real thrill,” Hertz says, “to have students engage both with a material object, but then to understand how this is a milestone in the transition between being an undergraduate and entering the world, [and] how this event and other graduation events connect our students with the past group of alums or the future.”

Students were also able to contextualize the tradition over the years “in terms of the gendered expectations that our culture has for women at various different historical moments,” Hertz says.

At first, winners were said to be the first to be married. Some students who were already married pushed baby carriages during the event at least into the 1950s. “If you tried to imagine the class of 2022 doing that … there’s no way!” says Emma Chang-Rabley ’22, who took the capstone seminar this spring.

Over the years, the “prize” changed, and the winner was said to be the first to become a CEO. For now, the winner will be the first to achieve success, however the winner defines it. Hertz says the tradition itself had to change in order for it to continue.

There has also long been an outside gaze on Hooprolling, and on Wellesley students more broadly, the professors say. “Wellesley represents for the U.S. this sort of cultural expectation about educating elite women,” Hertz says. Hooprolling was a lens through which to discuss the purpose of Wellesley College, and how thinking around what educated women do after they graduate has evolved.

Chang-Rabley said that through the capstone, they also learned more about academic methodologies like feminist interviewing, ethnography, and coding interviews. They especially enjoyed learning about the “scenery behind” Hooprolling and how, over the years, students have taken more ownership of the tradition and helped it evolve.

Ahead of their own Hooprolling race, Chang-Rabley said they “will probably try to show up on time … and I’ll try my best.” In the end, they came in a “respectable fourth”—proud of not having injured any ankles.

“The way that people get through Wellesley is as part of a community, always, always.”

A Race Changes

When Amalya Kearse ’59 won the race, she was given a bridal bouquet. As the New York Times noted in a story about her win, “she said that she does not have plans to wed soon.” Her plans included starting law school at the University of Michigan. She went on to become a distinguished Wall Street litigator and later a judge—she became the first woman and second Black person to serve on the second circuit court of appeals and is a national bridge champion.

Diana Chapman Walsh ’66, president emerita of Wellesley, won her own Hooprolling race. In an interview for this article, she remembered practicing in the Beebe hallway as a student. In 1966, tradition still dictated that the winner would be the first to be married. Walsh actually was already engaged to Christopher Walsh, whom she’d met at a Leverett House mixer at Harvard, and they were married two weeks after graduation.

In 1969, as the Vietnam War raged, students put peace symbols on their hoops and used the opportunity to educate outside visitors, including reporters and parents, about the war.

Nan Overholser Keohane ’61 described her class’s race as having an earnest sense of competition—“it was verboten to pick up your hoop and walk with it,” she says. By the time she returned to the College as president in 1981, the “prize” had changed from being the first to get married to being the first to become CEO—really showing, she says, the impact of second-wave feminism in the 1970s.

When Walsh became College president in 1993, she was delighted to find herself handing out flowers to the winners. She also recalls the hoop symbolizing the weight of her new responsibilities—the student speaker at her inauguration handed her a hoop and said, “We’re counting on you.”

For as long as Alex Poon ’14 can remember, Hooprolling was a family sport. His mother, the late Helen Mar Poon ’82, won her race, and his older sister came in second. He and his older sisters grew up racing with plastic hula hoops in his backyard. So by the time he got to Wellesley, he was ready.

He practiced the week before the race on the actual course, timing his runs. As his race started, he turned his hoop so his mom’s name was out front, and then it was a complete free-for-all—people throwing their hoops, running, and shoving. He told himself to stay low and keep going, and he won.

Poon says students still love Hooprolling because it retains a vintage quality after all these years. “It’s fun,” he says, “to have a little bit of an old-timey, analog, very analog, wooden game.”

Poon also became part of Hooprolling’s modern history as the College’s first transgender winner. He knew that if he won, he’d attract more attention than usual, having to tell reporters his pronouns. He says his win helped bring a lot of awareness to conversations around gender at Wellesley, what it means to be trans at the College, and how the College can support trans students.

One year later, Sophia Garcia ’15 won the race using her Wellesley “family” hoop, which has been named the “Ring of Fire.” Garcia says proudly that it’s a Latina hoop, mostly a queer Latina hoop, that was passed down to her and has since been passed on. “I’m keeping an eye on it,” she says. She hasn’t personally met all the owners of the hoop, but she keeps tabs on who has it and where it’s going next.

It would be understandable if some students—especially students of color who don’t see themselves reflected in Wellesley’s early traditions—did not feel strongly about keeping those traditions alive. The vast majority of winners have indeed been white, reflecting the majority of the student body for much of Wellesley’s history.

But for Garcia, finding her place as a proud Latina at Wellesley gave her a reason to participate. The College’s environment and coursework really tested her, she says. But she made it through by finding her confidence and her community, and leaning on her friends. Hooprolling, for her, was a way to celebrate and honor that accomplishment.

The tradition persisted even during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, students staged their own unofficial race on short notice, before the College moved to remote learning. In 2021, the College arranged a modified version—the race was run in heats, and there were 11 winners.

Walsh says Hooprolling is still so important to students because it is a symbol of Wellesley’s concept of and deep commitment to community. These days, as alumnae confront so many challenges in the world—from a war in Ukraine to climate change—she says she’s trying to stay focused on holding the shadows and the light together. “The only thing we have is each other,” she says. “The only thing we can do is come together in community and grieve together, and we need to come and laugh together and play together and support each other.”

The true meaning of Hooprolling, Creef says, is that nobody comes into Wellesley and makes it through alone. “The way that people get through Wellesley,” she says, “is as part of a community, always, always.”

Amita Parashar Kelly ’06 is a supervising booking producer at NBC News. She was delighted to see her own name on the hoop of the first senior to arrive at the 2022 Hooprolling race.

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Chris Bicknell Marden '90 (Bicknell) ’90
I loved this article! My little sister, Teresa Pazdral '91, saved me an amazing spot at the front of the line for my race. I was grateful to her and busy imagining my victory...until the race began and I got trampled in the first 30 seconds. Ah well. I passed on my "sister" hoop of course, but bought myself one to take with me. I brought it with me to my 25th reunion and all of those present signed it. It makes me happy every time I look at it. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.
Gigi Simeone (Simeone) ’74
I was disappointed that this article omitted my own Wellesley hooprolling experience in 1974, when my friend Kathleen Johnson and I streaked it as a protest against the "first to marry" tradition. Nearly 50 years later, those fleeting seconds still stand as the most memorable, meaningful and fun I experienced at the college. We made the papers all across the country, so clearly someone considered it a newsworthy event.

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