The summer of 1984 was spent moving from my position in front of the living room television to running around outside, like any normal elementary school kid in my neighborhood at the time. It was the summer of the Los Angeles Olympic Games and I was glued to the TV, watching all kinds of events but mostly becoming enamored with gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who scored that perfect 10 on the vault to win Olympic gold and become America’s sweetheart for the rest of summer vacation.
She was the first female athlete I actively remember.
I became obsessed (in the little girl idolatry way) with all-things Mary Lou. And while my half-hearted desire to take gymnastics lessons fell on deaf parental ears (a good call, by the way, mom and dad) she continued to inspire me as did the entire Olympic movement. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, or even really an Olympian. Upon reflection, the reason why Mary Lou Retton was so important in my life was because she was one of very,very few female athletes that I could watch on TV, read about in newspapers and magazines and collect her print ads from a plethora of endorsement deals.
In my personal history, she was the first female athletic superstar to enter my orbit.
And it was vitally important. Not because I eventually became a sportswriter or even later in life an endurance athlete. Not because I wanted to be Mary Lou. But because it gave me evidence that I could be Mary Lou, in a manner of speaking, if I wanted to.
It’s fashionable to call “real people” our role models. Family members, teachers, friends, firefighters, etc. — those are the people whom we want kids to look up to and emulate. And that circle has a vital role all its own because those are the people we have daily contact with. But as much as I loved and adored the people in my immediate life, there is something magical about dreaming, about getting lost in possibilities, with big names. In a way, they become mythical creatures, like characters in a good book, that inspire us to go ahead and try things we thought were out of our reach.
I had no problem growing up a sports fan and being inspired by the men who played football, hockey and baseball. But to see women athletes succeed — someone who looked like me — captured a part of my imagination that otherwise would have gone undiscovered.
That is one of the reasons why National Girls and Women in Sports Day is a time for celebration. Now, more than ever, girls (and us adults, too) have access to stories and photos and news reports about all kinds of female athletes. They can range from the graceful figure skaters like Sasha Cohen, to hockey players like Hayley Wickenhieser to basketball players like Candace Parker to upcoming Vancouver darling Lindsey Vonn. Add in three-time defending Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and marathon runners Kara Goucher and Deena Kastor and the possibilities just seem endless.
Often, we critique the way in which these women are portrayed in the media and debate the balance between femininity and athleticism and messages sent to society, especially young girls. And there is a time and a place for that.
But today is a day for celebration. A time to remember and embrace the athletic women we find inspiring — whether that’s a professional athlete, an Olympian or forward Dana Mitchell of the St. Bonaventure women’s basketball team.
National Girls and Women in Sports Day is about opportunity, about health, about fitness, about defining yourself. It’s about being inspired to reach for whatever it is that you want to do, whoever it is that you want to became regardless of age or gender.
Let the party begin.