Women Athletes Talk of Hard Roads Traveled, Long Roads Ahead

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WOMEN athletes don't just compete against other women. They must also hurdle obstacles such as a lack of funding, inferior coaching, and low self-esteem as they head to the school pool or the 1994 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

With the assistance and cooperation of the Women's Sports Foundation, the Monitor moderated a roundtable discussion by six female athletes in conjunction with the foundation's recent awards dinner in New York. In a wide-ranging and sometime poignant discussion, they spoke of their role models, their disappointments and triumphs, and the future of women's sports.

Here are some excerpts:

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What has been the most difficult obstacle you had to face in your athletic career? How did you overcome it?

Donna de Varona: For me, it was finding a sport, because I really had a passion for baseball. I wound up on the Little League baseball team my brother was on as the batgirl.

I'll never forget the first season: We won the league championships, and we went to a banquet, and I saw all the guys go up there and get an award. I just knew I wasn't going to get one, because I wasn't important. And then I heard this guy who said "Now we want to give a special award to Lizzie the Loudmouthed Lizard...." I was so loud during the games, and my nickname was Liz, that they decided they'd better give me an award.

I put that on the end of my bed and I looked at it for a year. And when the coach called me back and said: "I want you to come out again and play," I said, "I can't. I can't bear to sit on the bench anymore. I can't stand the feeling. I want to know what it's like to hit, what it's like to fail. I want to be a part." And then it was the search for the right sport. [Girls were admitted to Little League in 1974.]

I really picked the perfect sport: I'm a swimmer.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee: There were two things, one being not taking winning for granted. When I was in high school, [our team was] very dominant. So one time they tallied up all the points [and] we took our victory lap, and then they came back and said they made a mistake, and we finished second.

From that point on, even in my career today, I make sure that they've tallied up the points correctly. It's hard for me to get excited. Even though I might be excited on the inside, I'm reluctant to show that because I'm afraid they're going to come back and say "We made a mistake."

And, the second one: being able to overcome the mental aspect of an injury - what happened to me in '84 Olympic Games as well as in '91 at the World Championship in Tokyo. You think you are very strong physically, but mentally there are things that happen in your mind....

For me, when I [was injured] in Tokyo, I felt that maybe I would get over this hamstring injury. And when I was training in January of this year ... every time I got ready to accelerate I got to that same spot and I couldn't go. And I was really frightened.

I thought "I'm going to be strong and I'm going to overcome this." Then, we went to our Olympic trials. I thought it was gone and the same thing happened. Then I went to the Olympic Games [and] just said "I'm just going to run through that wall and break that barrier of not being afraid...."

Donna Lopiano: I think my biggest obstacle was the system. Like Donna [de Varona], I was a baseball nut, and I grew up on a street with 15 boys and one other girl. From my earliest memory, the only thing in life that I ever wanted to do was to pitch for the New York Yankees.

I made the Little League baseball team along with everyone else on my street. When the time came to give out the uniforms, the president of the league came over to me, and on page 14 in the middle of the rulebook were four words: "No girls are allowed." I was destroyed. My parents fortunately had the financial wherewithal and the aggressiveness to find me an opportunity on a softball team which was a national championship softball team. I had to learn to pitch upside down to play the game I loved, and ev entually made the Hall of Fame in softball. But I'm a better pitcher overhand.

Carol Mann: Looking back on it, I was so highly motivated to use my body with this thing called the golf club, and there wasn't good teaching or good training. Frankly, I was confused a lot of the time even though I got on the tour. And, finally I met a coach in 1962 after I had already been on the tour for a year-and-a-half and had a pretty decent amateur career. And when I heard him talk about the golf swing and what I was trying to do, it was like the heavens parted intellectually for me.

Mary Ellen Clark: I have two obstacles. One is financial: I have been in this sport for 22 years and really maybe this year I will start to get funded through US Diving.

The other obstacle I have is - I think - myself. In a lot of ways, the mental game in the sport is so much [more] than the physical aspect. When you are standing up there or you are ready to do your race, it's you against you. And I think, for me, it took a long time to figure that out.

Who were your role models, your heroes or heroines, when you were growing up?

Mann: They were all men. When I started golf at nine, at 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, my role models were the older kids in my junior golf groups. When I got exposed to golf history at a club in Chicago, where a lot of men had competed in national championships, I began to have them as my heroes. Walter Hagan, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, guys like that were visible in my sport.

Then when I was 16, I was exposed to females: Patty Berg, Mickey Wright, Betsey Rawls, and [Mildred] "Babe" [Didrikson] Zaharais. So I went to a golf tournament to see the men and the women who were playing there. Now, frankly, my heroes are mostly women, although I admire a lot of the achievements of men. But my heroes are the women, people like Donna Lopiano and Donna de Varona, for things they've done not just on the playing field but off.

De Varona: My role model growing up was my big brother. I loved my big brother; I wanted to be everywhere with my big brother. I knew a long time ago that the boys have all the fun because they go play the games. They get to play baseball, they get to go to the soda fountain afterwards and they still do in my business. Fortunately, in my sport the men and women trained together, so I trained against the men. I think that is why our women dominated the sport until East Germany came onto the scene.

[We] were treated exactly the same up until the age of 17 in the pool. We weight trained, we did the same mileage. The coaches who were astute would put fast women in with the men so we'd have goals. Then I had my role models: women swimmers like Chris von Saltza, who went to Stanford and was a fabulous student, and read all kinds of great books on our trips and taught me about reading. Sylvia Ruuska, who was the first record holder in the event I won in the Olympics in the individual medley.

Clark: My role model was my family. Being the youngest of seven kids and having my dad be a diver himself, he was a role model for me. More than anything, I think the family taught me that it should be fun. If you are not having fun, do something else. They were so supportive of me whatever I did. Growing up, I was in elementary school and there was some article written about the "diving Clarks." In the article it said "Mary Ellen can beat the boys in just about pretty much any sport." I got so much flak

for that in elementary school. It was kind of a misquote.

As far as women role models, coaches were role models for me. People who were very assertive and believed in my talent.

Benita Fitzgerald: First and foremost, my biggest role model was my mother. She at the end of the 1950s wanted to go to graduate school. [None of the schools in Virginia would accept her, "because she was black."]

I graduated from high school and had 50, 60 scholarship offers from major universities, Ivy League institutions to UCLA, and I ended up going to Tennessee. Not only did I get an athletic scholarship, but I majored in engineering. So I broke all the stereotypes across the board.

I look at my mother - her being a strong role model and being a professional woman and raising two children and being a wonderful wife to my father, their being on equal footing as far as education goes, as far as their careers went, as far as their salaries went - and I saw throughout my whole life it's possible to be a wonderful mother and role model.

Joyner-Kersee: I have always admired Wilma Rudolph and Babe Didrickson. I wanted to run track and I wanted to be like Wilma Rudolph. I didn't go out there trying to be the best, but I felt I was going to learn each event. I always felt the impossible was possible.

Lopiano: Mine was easier: I wanted to be Whitey Ford - but he was a lefty and I was a righty. I also wanted to be Don Larsen when he pitched his perfect game in the World Series. So I was going to be a combination of those two and I was going to hit like Mickey Mantle. Then, I remember a combination of the televising of the Olympic Games, Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus.

Those television images where the first images of women I had ever seen in sport. They were fascinating images. Then, when I got the opportunity to play softball, [my heroines] were my teammates because those were the greatest people in the world in terms of my sport. There just weren't women role models and it was only those women with the most active imaginations that it didn't bother them seeing or envisioning doing the things that men did that made it through that period of time. It didn't occur to m e it was OK to have a male role model.

Are there enough coaches for women today?

Lopiano: There are. A lot has been said that there are not enough women coaches of womens' teams. The fact of the matter is that about 44 percent of all coaches of women's teams are women. But what bothers me is that there are hardly any women's coaches of men's teams. So I want someone to ask the question of the athletic directors, Why aren't you hiring women [for male teams]?

Mann: For some men and some women, coaching requires more knowledge that doesn't usually exist in the normal coaching training channels. I think some women are socialized to have some problems ascending to success. A lot has to do with self-esteem issues. I don't think the normal training channels for coaches [includes] cross-gender training. I still think there are differences between men and women, especially as you get more critical and more precise in the ascendancy to success.

Lopiano: As an athletic director for 17 years, I've had the opportunity to hire many coaches. And the best coaches are a combination of the strength that we see of men in our society and the sensitivity of women. I truly believe the best coaches have been women. There have been very few men who have had that sensitivity. When you combine the two, the feminine quality is just wonderful in terms of mentally dealing with an athlete and being sensitive and picking up things right away and handling them right

up front.

What would you do to make it easier for female athletes today?

Lopiano: I think we are really falling down in our youth work programs. We've seen a real movement in the last decade to support the elite athlete program. And we've sacrificed our youth-support programs. And that's where it's going to happen. If you have strong youth-support programs, you are always going to have gold medals.

When you sacrifice youth sports, you sacrifice more than gold medals: Girls who participate in sports are 82 percent less likely to be involved in an unwanted pregnancy, 90 percent less likely to be involved in drugs, three times more likely to graduate. We see a situation now where if a little girl does not participate in organized sport by the time she is 10 years old, she has less than a 10 percent chance to be involved in sport by the time she is 25. That has long-term consequences in our society.

Clark: I can't tell you how many people have told me, "You've inspired me to do what I want to do." That is such a good feeling. You've touched people in that way so they can go and run with it. I agree, as a woman athlete, we need to go back to the younger kids and really tell them, support them to get involved. I know it is hard to do it individually. But it's nice to give back and it feels good to give back because you know how many people inspired you when you were growing up.

De Varona: This is really important to me.... We're finding universities like UCLA will cut men's volleyball so they can cut a woman's sport. That creates a terrible relationship between men and women. And they are doing it because they say there is a budget crunch. Well, where are the numbers? There's more money involved in collegiate sports than ever before.... The schools are getting selfish. What we have to address is the system.

Where do women's sports go from here?

Lopiano: I think we have to confront the problem of redistribution of resources. Fifty percent of our athletic budgets are spent on two sports: men's football, men's basketball. There is some myth that football is the goose that laid the golden egg....

The fact of the matter is that at 91 percent of all NCAA member institutions, which are the majority of college sport programs in this country, there is either no football program or football doesn't even pay for itself. So, it is a question of this big goose eating all the feed and not producing anything to share....

I believe in strong football programs. I think football is a great sport. I love to watch it on television. I love the traditions involved in college football and I don't want to see football die. I want it to be a sleek goose. I want it to fly fast and to be fun. There's only 45-50 kids who get to play anyway. Let there be football teams with 70 and 80 players.... Take those savings and create three new women's teams and you have Title IX realized overnight. We can do that.

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