Women Athletes Talk of Hard Roads Traveled, Long Roads Ahead
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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:
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.