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Hitting their stride

Women are realizing that it's not too late to have a crack at something they've always wanted to try.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2003

Across the United States, a new generation of female athletes is breaking barriers. But these ponytailed jocks are not in high school or college. They're the moms who previously cheered from the sidelines. They're the women who never had the opportunity to join a team or test their physical limits - until now.

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Many mature women are realizing that it's not too late to finally have a crack at something they've always wanted to try. Others, who participated in athletics when younger, are making a commitment not to give up sports even though raising a family or pursuing a career demands much of their time.

Swimming, rowing, and soccer are high among the sports that are feeling the influence of expanding numbers of female athletes over 35.

"We're seeing the first generation of women who had the chance to play sports [in school] enter their 40s," says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "They are Title IX babies. They know what it means to be in shape, feel strong ... and [they] are wanting to continue their physical activity."

Since Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act was passed, the effects of the law have reached far beyond school playing fields. "Younger women simply don't realize the opportunities they have had," is the comment often repeated by women over 40. To many of this group, growing up athletic meant ill-fitting gym clothes, cheerleading for the boys' team, or being told that looking strong wasn't attractive.

Today, the more than 2.9 million high school girls involved in sports have become role models for the ages.

Ode to chlorine

Emily White says swimming has changed her life. Ms. White, who looks 10 years younger than her 49 years, joined a Boston masters swim team three years ago. For two decades, she had performed modern dance, a gentler form of dance that focuses on self-expression rather than on leaps and lifts. She never liked to work out. In fact, she disdained feeling "out of breath" for more than a few minutes.

No longer. "Swimming makes me feel very powerful because I didn't think I could do it," she says. "I've never been this strong."

Many share White's newfound interest in swimming.

US Masters Swimming, a competitive athletic program for adults, reports that 49 percent of its 19,175 female members are over the age of 40 (17 of them are in their 90s).

Those numbers have increased during the past decade. Many are former college swimmers rejoining the sport several years after graduation. Others are discovering its joys for the first time.

White, a freelance copy editor who never thought she'd develop muscles and call herself an athlete, is now one of the fastest on her team. She ticks off the benefits of enduring cold-water workouts: friendships with her teammates (White is single), a new understanding that competition brings out her best, and "finding a place" where she can work out anxieties when her world feels restricted.

"At a time in my life when my body is changing," she says, "masters gives me an opportunity to leave appearance behind and focus on what I can do. And I'm astonished at what I'm discovering."

Drawn to the rhythm

Rowing is proving to be another sport that promotes self-discovery for women. Chuck Alexander, managing director of the Masters Rowing Association, says 55 percent of its members are women, and of those, 72 percent are over 35.

"It's a phenomenon that we never counted on," he says. "Women are driving the growth in rowing overall."

Mr. Alexander attributes this in large part to college athletic programs that established women's crew teams to meet Title IX regulations. In turn, the teams' community boathouses attract town residents - mostly women - to the sport.

Sara Hall of Newton, Mass., is a latecomer to rowing. Tall, with short blond hair and a steady gaze, she looks like a seasoned athlete. But Ms. Hall didn't take up sculling until 1995, at the age of 42.