During the summer of 1984, we were staying at my grandmother’s house. We were ecstatic because the TV rules were quite liberal at her place. That was how, at age 10, I ended up watching hours and hours of summer Olympic coverage. That was the summer I begged to get a short, feathered hairstyle like expert vaulter Mary Lou Retton. That was also the summer that a sedentary little kid like me, with zero attachment to sports, fell in love with athletic pursuits.
Women could be fast? Who knew! Women could be beautiful? That I knew, but now they could be both. And they could get the whole planet talking about their speed and their style?
It was the first time I saw inspiring, gorgeous, flashy women killing it on my TV screen. Everyone was talking about Florence Griffith Joyner (“Flo Jo”), who could both sprint like a thoroughbred and paint her fabulous nails in multiple colors. Her physique and her bright red lipstick changed my life forever. Women could be fast? Who knew! Women could be beautiful? That I knew, but now they could be both. And they could get the whole planet talking about their speed and their style?
Oh yes, please!
And women could compete. Fiercely. I’ll never forget sitting in my Minnie Mouse nightgown watching barefoot runner Zola Budd racing in the 3000-meter final. If you were watching the Olympics that summer, you were talking about Zola and the heartbreak on Mary Decker’s face when she fell during a final race, allegedly because Budd tripped her. My pre-teen heart ached for both of them.
The 1984 Summer Olympics stirred something inside my sedentary 10-year old heart. It got me up, and moving. I was never destined to become an Olympic champion, but watching that summer opened up a new destiny for me. No longer were girls destined to sit on the sidelines watching male athletes hog all the fame and fortune. Now I knew that women could be on the cover of a Wheaties box.
The generation above me had Nadia, and my younger sister had “The Magnificent Seven” gymnastics dream team from 1996. My swimming friends adored Janet Evans, and the skaters wanted to be Nancy Kerrigan or Debi Thomas. (For obvious reasons, no one wanted to be Tanya Harding.) These women at the top of their fields exploded on our TV screens with as much intensity as the men did. That was first for me, and I want that for my daughter.
This summer, when Olympics coverages begins, I’m going to give my daughter unlimited screen time for the first time in her life. If her head doesn’t explode from shock, she’s going to be amazed by what she sees and feels. The heart, the grit, the tenacity. She’s going to find her own Mary Lou Retton to idolize—maybe Simone Biles or Aly Raisman. Maybe there’s a synchronized swimmer out there who will capture her heart or a volleyball hero whose image she will post on the wall by her bed.
My job is to give her the chance to fall in love with women in sports and let the champions speak for themselves. I plan to sit right next to her and fall right along with her.