Musings on girls + women in sport

Feb 2, 2011 | Fitness & Nutrition, Racing

while a plump groundhog in Punsxutawney, PA is making news by seeing or not seeing his shadow today, there’s another February 2nd milestone that’s just as worthy of media attention. today is National Girls + Women in Sports Day. woo hoo, says me!

of course, just the fact that we need a national day to recognize something like the privilege (and right) of girls and women to participate equally in any activity starts the wheels in my head turning.

many of the athletes I work with are too young to remember Title IX. oh yeah, it’s a hip women’s activewear company, right? um, no, it’s federal law that was enacted in 1972 that prohibited discrimination in education (at least in federally-funded institutions). best known for it’s impact on athletics, by providing supposedly equal opportunities for men and women in scholastic sports, it also applied to other educational programs (such as vocational education). and while critics complained that Title IX reduced opportunities for male athletes, women applauded the fact that they were now considered equal in the eyes of the federal government.

yeah, I was only 7, so what do I know? what I do remember about the date (June 23rd, 1972) is that my sister Susan was supposed to graduate high school. graduation was cancelled due to the devastating flood caused by Hurricane Agnes. our house was spared (by about 1/2 mile of Chemung River flooding to the north and 1/2 mile of Seeley Creek flooding to the south). we were ready to evacuate. my father helped sandbag the river. and I vividly remember walking around in the days post-flood, seeing half washed away homes (that looked like doll houses), inches of stinky mud and muck on all the streets and in the stores, and houses (and cows) floating down the river. the five bridges that separated one half of my hometown of Elmira from the other half were washed out. my father couldn’t get to work (on the other side of the bridges). and high school graduation was cancelled. Hurricane Agnes proved to be a blessing in disguise, because my poor little town of Elmira, NY underwent a HUGE transformation due to the economic recovery.

so I guess I missed the news about Title IX.

a few years later I signed up for my first softball team. I was younger than all the other girls and we had a winning team, so the coach never let me play. I guess he hadn’t heard about Title IX either. ball sports weren’t really my thing anyways, so there! I will admit, however, that I was a pretty darn good bowler, but I never really considered bowling a sport.

I was a tall girl — 5′ 10″ since 4th grade. yeah, I was tall. tall and skinny and gawky. not graceful at all, even though I’d been studying dance since I was five and twirling baton since I was 2. I was not an athlete. then again, were any girls my age considered athletes? they were tomboys. we didn’t click. I climbed trees and built forts and rode bikes, but the girls who played sports with balls were just weird.

in junior high school, the basketball coach tried to recruit me to play for the school team, but I was involved with CCD after school. by high school, I’d missed my opportunity. it was too late. all the girls who had been playing for the past two years were athletes. I was not an athlete. so I stuck to what I knew — books and music.

I finally gave in and joined the track team my senior year because I thought it would be good for my college applications — you know, make me look well-rounded or something. it took me a month of daily training before I could run a whole mile without stopping. the coach declared me a sprinter. I ran a half marathon to defy him (he said I couldn’t do it). I couldn’t walk for days afterward. in the spring, I was recruited for high jump and long jump (because I was tall). I earned a couple of varsity letters, won a few trophies and some award for being outstanding in field events. but I was not an athlete — I was simply doing it for my college applications (and the boys on the track bus were a nice bonus).

I missed my opportunity with sports. I went away to college, did college things, thought about rowing crew, changed my mind about rowing crew when I found out the team had to run to the boathouse (in Ithaca winters) down the big hill at 5:00am. yeah, I was definitely not an athlete.

post-college I dabbled with step aerobics and bought a bike but I was too focused on advancing my career to really spend any time being healthy. it wasn’t until my late 20s that I quit smoking, started inline skating, skiing, and playing volleyball. but I still wasn’t an athlete — I was simply doing these sports for the social aspect (meeting boys in the ski club).

before I knew it, I was 30 years old and moved to sunny California, where everyone was an athlete. what was I doing here? I sure didn’t fit in. I wasn’t an athlete. but then something happened. I started riding a bicycle again, after more than a decade of not riding a bike. I liked it. it stuck. I was an athlete!

in many ways I regret the fact that if I had any athletic potential at all, I missed my opportunities as a child and young adult. I wish that I’d been one of those sporty girls from the sporty families that did sporty things. that was not my family. and our schools, at the time, didn’t encourage female athletes.

I look at the difference between my youth and that of my nieces — now all in their 20s. they grew up playing soccer and softball and basketball. they swam and dove. they could basically play any sport they wanted to play. the opportunities were there for them in their schools and in their communities. they were athletes, thanks to Title IX. they had the opportunity to participate in sports that weren’t part of school sport programs when I was a girl. they could compete. and excel. and grow as individuals because of their experience in team and individual sports. they learned life lessons. they learned how to be competitors. they learned how to be team players. they learned how to win and how to lose. and they are healthier, well-rounded individuals because of these opportunities.

so, if you’ve followed along with my ramblings all the way down here, I’ll ask you to celebrate the opportunities provided by Title IX. encourage a girl (or woman) to be fit and active and participate in sport. volunteer with a program for youth. mentor that young cyclist. give a shout out to the youth sailing in the lagoon. nudge your wife or girlfriend to join in that group ride or run or dance class. be thankful that the youth of today have the opportunity to develop as athletes, and more importantly, as individuals because of Title IX.