Hitting their stride

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

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.

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.

Seeing a rower cut through the water one morning off the Long Island shore, she decided she wanted to try it, too.

"Learning to row at midlife wasn't easy," she says. "Going down to the dock where everyone was good but me - it was hard being a doofus!"

She says that her husband was not supportive and that he felt her new passion for life on the river took her away from mothering and homemaking duties.

This resistance only spurred her on. She mastered the rhythm of her oars, survived lung-burning workouts, and discovered a physical side of herself that is, as she puts it, "outside of a gender context." Hall says she drew on this newfound strength to help her face her unhappy marriage.

Three years later, she won the gold at the World Masters games and filed for divorce.

Now on calmer waters, Hall has written a book about her experience, "Drawn to the Rhythm," launched a website, and started workshops for midlife women yearning to discover untapped talents. She still rows - and wins. If she has any regret, it's that she didn't start earlier.

"Women who have benefited from Title IX are pouring into the bottom of my category [at races]," says Hall. "It's just fabulous to see these women ... they are such pros."

Soccer moms on the pitch

When the US Women's Soccer Team won the World Cup in 1999, the world wasn't just watching the action on the field; it was also watching the excitement of the ponytailed set in the stands. But the girls in the crowd weren't the only ones dreaming of becoming soccer stars. Those "soccer moms" who drove their kids to the game were having visions of their own.

Since the mid-1990s, increasing numbers of women over 30 have been learning how to dribble. Leagues have sprung up across the US. Over-40 and over-50 women's soccer teams are also becoming more common. Now, instead of just serving as soccer chauffeurs, these women find themselves competing with their husbands and children for time on the pitch.

Having had only cheerleading opportunities in high school, Bonnie Blanchfield developed an almost insatiable hunger for wanting to play sports. Nearly seven years ago, Ms. Blanchfield, a 43-year-old healthcare consultant, was standing on the sidelines of her 5-year-old daughter's soccer practice chatting with a group of parents. She found herself remarking, "I wish there was a team for moms."

There was. After learning about a league for women over 30 in her town of Silver Spring, Md., she networked with other moms to form a new team, had uniforms made, and found a sponsor. The Red Strikers were serious about learning the sport, and they recruited Blanchfield's husband to coach for the first few seasons. Some players even signed up for clinics.

"When we first started, we lost every game," she says. "But in three years we won our division." Her team decided to stay in the lowest-ranking division to keep the focus on fun.

Blanchfield says her husband and two children now take their turns on the sidelines to cheer her on.

"It's good for them to see me play," she says. "At one point, my son and daughter and I were all on teams at the same time. It was soccer all day on Saturdays."

An expansive soccer network also proved valuable for meeting new friends when the Blanchfields relocated to Weston, Mass., last year.

Like Hall, Blanchfield wishes she had been able to develop skills earlier, especially now that she has observed younger, more-talented players in her league.

Julie Foudy, captain of the San Diego Spirit professional team in the Women's United Soccer Association, says she hears from women "almost every day" who are watching their daughters participate in sports and wishing that they had been given the same opportunities.

But Ms. Foudy thinks that shouldn't stop the women from tying on their own cleats.

"[New soccer players] do need to get the basics: passing, shooting, trapping," she advises. "A lot of them don't have serious coaching, but if they can find a coach, I don't think it's ever too late to learn."

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