The Joy of Women's Sports

By Conniff, Ruth | The Nation, August 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Joy of Women's Sports


Conniff, Ruth, The Nation


It has been my generation's great good fortune to grow up in the era of Title IX. Never before has a single law made it possible for so many previously disfranchised people to have so much fun. Since Title IX of the Education Amendments Act passed in 1972, requiring publicly funded schools to offer equal opportunities to male and female athletes, the number of American high school girls who play sports has jumped from one in twenty-seven to one in three. The effects are visible everywhere: an explosion of female Olympic stars, college and professional women's teams playing to packed stadiums, new magazines aimed at female athletes. But most of all, the effect of Title IX is evident in the freedom, strength and joy of a whole generation of young women.

In June I went to Buffalo, New York, to watch the NCAA track championships with Kamila Hoyer-Weaver, a young woman I coached when she was a high school runner, and her mother, Joan.

"What must it be like to get this far--to be ready at this level?" Joan mused, as we stood near the starting line before the women's 1,500-meter race. College runners in ponytails and racing flats were doing their warmup strides and nervously shaking out their legs. Behind us, a high jumper made the best attempt of the meet so far, and the stands erupted in cheers.

"For women my age it's a foreign thing to understand this competition," she said. "We weren't even raised to be competitive."

Kamila, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, has an entirely different point of view. She came to watch her teammates who have made it to this elite level--some of the best athletes in the country. She has been steeped in competition, as a high school runner and basketball player, and now as part of a Division I college program.

I watched Kamila and her friends grow up during the six years I spent coaching runners at nearby Madison East High School--my alma mater. It was a joy to see those saucer-eyed kids on the starting line, pale and sometimes sick with nerves, propel themselves into accomplished, self-assured womanhood. This, it seems to me, is the whole project of adolescence--testing yourself, facing your fears, discovering what you can do. Sports provide the natural arena for it. Instead of turning inward, nurturing the crippling self-consciousness that often afflicts adolescent girls, these female athletes thrust themselves into the world. Along the way, they shed some of their peer group's cloying affectations and picked up an appealing jocky swagger. Kamila blossomed from a shy back-of-the-packer to a consistent varsity scorer in cross-country and track. At the end of her high school career, I traveled with her to the state meet where she ran a lifetime best in the 800, taking eighth place at 2:20.14. Now, she is reaching the next stage.

"She gets to run with the big girls," Kamila said admiringly of Kathy Butler, the NCAA cross country champion from Wisconsin. The "big girls" are a group of Olympic hopefuls, including the famous Suzy Favor Hamilton, UW graduates who still train full time with their former college coach, Peter Tegen. "It's inspiring to see them on the track with us," Kamila says.

At Wisconsin, Kamila is in the center of women's track history. Coach Tegen, who founded the Wisconsin women's program twenty-five years ago, has nurtured a series of Olympians, beginning with Cindy Bremser, Wisconsin's first female All-American. In a speech at our girls' city banquet one year, Bremser told us how she began jogging for exercise in college and ended up at the Olympics, where she took fourth in the 1,500 meters in 1984.

"The talent that was developed while I was at Wisconsin has had an impact on the rest of my life," she said. "It's opened doors for me that I never would have dreamed of."

In the eighties, when I was running for East, Suzy Favor was starting her career on one of our rival teams, Steven's Point Area High School.

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