March 16, 2001

Commentary

We Should Encourage Girls to Play Sports

by Juleyka Lantigua

Marion Jones runs like a girl. Venus and Serena Williams serve, receive and volley like girls. And these women earn gold medals and millions of dollars.

Feb. 7 was National Girls and Women in Sports Day, a change to honor the stellar accomplishments of women in sports and the benefits of having girls play sports. Across the country, people will commemorate one of the great accomplishments of women's liberation: the equalizing of the athletic playing field.



Juleyka Lantigua

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, the federal legislation that mandated equal opportunities for female athletes in high schools and colleges. Since then, women's participation in sports has skyrocketed.

Forty-two percent of athletes in the Sydney Olympic Games last year were women. Of the 39 world records set, 23 belong to women. The American team was 43 percent female, and women won 40 percent of the medals awarded to Americans (39 of 97), according to the International Olympic Committee.

Track champion Marion Jones won more medals at last year's Olympics than any female track athlete in the history of the games. She also wrapped up her season with $150,000 more in the bank.

All these women were once girls. When they were girls, they were taught to enjoy sports. Someone took them ice-skating for the first time. Someone taught them to throw. Someone waited for them at the deep end of the pool.

Although I'm not a world-class athlete, I throw, catch, run and serve like a girl. And I'm proud of it. Being athletic has been key in my life, touching my professional success, my personal growth and even my spiritual well-being.

I learned to swim almost at the same time I learned to walk. I remember endless competition among cousins. We would heave our lanky bodies into the ocean and swim until our lungs hurt from the strain. Arms flailing, head bobbing under and above the waves, I learned two of the most fundamental lessons in life.

Lesson one: Know your own limits. I was skinnier and younger than my older cousins, so it would have taken a miracle for me to win any of our afternoon meets. But there I was, at the starting line of every single one.

Lesson two: Define success for yourself. It didn't matter that it would be years before I achieved a respectable pace. It only mattered that I tried and that I outdid myself every time.

Winning wasn't the point. I just wanted to make it back to the starting line and to keep pace with the older kids.

Later on, volleyball was compulsory at my elementary school, so all the kids learned to play. I took to the sport and in high school I became varsity captain. I was even named "Class Athlete" and my picture —volleyball in hand— went into the yearbook. My participation in volleyball made my transition to college much smoother. Practice sessions, team events and weekend tournaments taught me the importance of managing my time well.

When soccer star Brandi Chastain scored the title-winning penalty kick against China in the last World Cup, she said, "I just lost my mind. I thought, my God, this is the greatest moment of my life on the soccer field."

Imagine your daughter, granddaughter, niece or goddaughter feeling the exact same thing when she catches a fly ball, stops a kicker from scoring, spikes the ball on the opposing team or crosses the 100-meter line.

It's a thrill no girl should miss.

Juleyka Lantigua is the managing editor of Urban Latino magazine in New York City. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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