New York — For female sports stars looking for new worlds to conquer, broadcast journalism is becoming a popular choice as a second career. Opportunities in broadcasting have generally been slow in coming, but women sports figures - among them former tennis champ Virginia Wade, former long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, and former gymnast Cathy Rigby - are now not only taking positions behind mikes and television cameras as commentators of sports events, but they are also working behind the scenes as production assistants, producers, and directors of sports programs.
When these women appear on camera before wide television audiences, they speak with the authority of their own accomplishments behind them. They have earned their credibility by their own top-flight careers in sports.
As Donna deVarona, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, comments, ''We have all been there. We have experienced that long road to the top and we know what it takes to get there.'' Miss deVarona is now assistant to the president of sports of the American Broadcasting Company, an executive position that involves her in management and planning as well as in regular on-camera coverage of swimming and other sports events.
Miss deVarona discovered in 1965, at age 17, that her success as an athlete could indeed be the starting point for a unique second career in television. It was then that she became the first woman on network television (ABC) in the sports broadcasting field. What she earned for her commentary on local California swimming events helped finance her study of political science at UCLA in Los Angeles.
As her broadcast career developed later in New York, she covered three summer Olympics and various national championships, then did a five-year stint for NBC Sports. In the fall of 1983 she rejoined ABC in time to work on the extensive coverage of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
''There was a time when I couldn't bear the idea of not being around a swimming pool,'' says the former swimming star, ''but there comes a point at which you have accomplished all that you can in competitive sports and you have to move on.''
Miss deVarona believes she is the first woman to make the jump from athlete commentator as a swimming expert, to across-the-board on-camera sports coverage, to the breakthrough into management as well. ''I think it is only fair to give women the chance to get up to bat, and I've been given it,'' she says. ''I see broadcast television as my own future, though I still note no remarkable gain for women sports figures on camera or on the air. The field is a novelty still for women. ... It is still very difficult.''
Asked about the qualifications required to make the transition from active sports to the communications field, she says, ''A pleasing voice, a command of the language of all the sports covered, and the ability to research and write. I know that having been an Olympic participant has helped me bridge over to other sports people and to win their confidence and cooperation. I would also have to list hustle, for hustle is what it takes to keep the features coming and to sometimes almost work the clock around in their pursuit.''
Perceptions of what women sports commentators can do are changing (although not rapidly enough), says Miss deVarona, and women are no longer just covering women but are being allowed to cover sports across the board.
''It took me years to make the transition from the pool deck to other sports. I joined NBC in 1978 because that network promised me growth in the field of broadcasting and allowed me to be anchor/reporter at many of the games I covered , including men's skiing and swimming competitions on network television and other men's sports on local programs.''
One star commentator who is content to keep to her own field is former figure-skating star Peggy Fleming, who has been under contract to ABC for the past four years.
She is today a familiar face when it comes to televised figure-skating events. She travels all over the world to cover skating competitions; last winter she spent three weeks in Yugoslavia covering the many skating events of the Winter Olympics.
Her agent, Lee Mims, comments, ''As an Olympic gold medalist, Peggy Fleming is a believable expert in the world of figure skating. She believes in approaching her network broadcasts with a great deal of professionalism, and I think people enjoy watching her because she brings such expert knowledge of what she is describing.''
A network executive says, ''Peggy Fleming is strong and firm, but she has great sensitivity to and compassion for the young athletes whose lives and feats she is describing. I guess empathy is the right word. She has never lost touch with what it takes to be a competitor for such high stakes.''
Charlsie Cantey, who terms herself ''first and foremost a horse person and a horse lover,'' is managing to move smoothly into many fields of sports coverage. Miss Cantey began her career at CBS as a specialist doing features about horses, horse people, and racing events. But in the last year she has branched out to cover the National Basketball Association Playoffs, the America's Cup boat races , and features on football.
''I've had to do a lot of boning up and research to maintain my credibility in the different sports fields I now sometimes cover,'' Miss Cantey admits, ''but so far it is working out. The people I interview seem to find it easy to relate to me.''
She says she sometimes has to do the kind of fast ''cramming'' that students do before examinations, but her interest in people and curiosity about them have always carried her through. She has also learned to be extremely flexible in scheduling her time. She is always ready to jump on a plane and fly off to far places on short notice, and at times to make do with little sleep and meals on the run.
''A broadcast career can be hectic and demanding, but the excitement and fun are always there, too. I think I love every minute of it,'' she asserts.
Ted Shaker, an executive producer at CBS, says of Miss Cantey, ''She has great on-air presence and an inquisitive mind. Her interviewing techniques have both depth and flexibility.''
Despite her own success, Miss Cantey thinks sportscasting is ''a very limited field'' for women. ''I don't see many being hired right now, but I hope it is going to be a trend. I don't really see that many more women in broadcasting myself,'' she concludes.
Jeff Ruhe, ABC's coordinating producer for the 1984 Olympic Games, confirms a viewpoint that women aspiring to be sports commentators on the air won't have an easy time.
''The opportunity exists. The field is there. Some, like Donna deVarona, Kathleen Sullivan, Charlsie Cantey, Peggy Fleming, Phyllis George, and others as well, have been very successful at what they have done. But it is a tough field, and most of these women would probably admit it has been an uphill struggle,'' he says.
But Mr. Ruhe also notes that two out of the five hosts during the summer Olympic Games, which will run through Aug. 12, will be women. They are Donna deVarona and Kathleen Sullivan.
For her part, Miss deVarona thinks that broadcast journalism is opening up to women sports stars, but that real progress is only just beginning.