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The sporting world is no longer just a man’s world

6 mins read

By SCOTT GRABER

It’s Sunday morning and I’m watching a rising sun send shafts of low-angled sunlight into my backyard. I’ve also got my Wall Street Journal — Weekend Edition — and a cup of Espresso Roast (“rich and caramelly’” courtesy of Starbucks.)

Today’s Journal is focused on Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. Most of that news is disquieting, distinctly unhappy. 

But we find relief with a story on Cori “Coco’ Gauff — the 15-year-old who upset Venus Williams. There is also the phenomenal news from Paris where the U.S. women’s soccer team has dominated the World Cup.

I am old enough to remember when men’s baseball, boxing and football dominated the sports pages. In the 50s and 60s there were a few women athletes like Evonne Goolagong, Dawn Fraser and Margaret Court. 

And of course, I had read about Babe Zaharias and Althea Gibson. 

But when I was a kid, the sports pages belonged to men.

When I was 15, I found myself struggling — more of a downward death spiral — with algebra. I also had a runaway case of acne; and was not large or fast enough to play football. 

I was, to be more specific, lacking in self esteem. 

Complementing the self-esteem deficit was a remarkable capacity for self pity. I was heading for serious trouble when I stumbled upon an AAU-sponsored swim team at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.

The team was made up of Army “dependents” and, unlike most other sports in those days, our coach encouraged women to join and compete. 

Although we did not wear goggles, we did wear an early prototype of the now ubiquitous “Speedo” that consisted of one (thin) layer of clinging nylon. It took me less than 10 minutes to discover that these swim suits gave one a pretty good idea of the underlying anatomy and, at first, I thought these ‘tank suits’ had to be illegal.

Our swim meets were held all over Texas but usually at other military posts — most of the pools were never designed for competition. In fact, once off the homemade, wobbling starting blocks, one realized that the 100-yard swim was actually 125 yards; or sometimes 90 yards.

But in those days, regulation size and records didn’t make much difference to us. We were happy to ride four hours to Ft Hood; to sleep in an aging barrack building; to eat watery eggs in the mess hall.

Early on, I began to make observations. 

Even at 15 the boys were taller, had bigger feet and bigger hands than the girls. 

That meant that the male “levers of propulsion” were larger and more powerful than those of female swimmers. 

But I also observed that the girls — and I use this noun purposely — had better technique. They were more flexible in the knees and hips and pulled themselves through the water with more efficiency. They also had more endurance.

When we went to meets, the boys did well in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard distances; the girls were good at 800 and 1,500 yards. The girls were never faster than the fastest boys (at the longer distances), but they would often beat the slower male swimmers — including me.

But none of theses comparisons mattered much — we were teenagers for God’s sake — but it was exciting to see the athleticism and toughness from a gender that (in those days) wasn’t supposed to be athletic, or tough, or competitive.

It was also exciting to watch a slight, thinly muscled girl cut through the water with a smooth stroke and a metronome-steady kick keeping her body streamlined and her toes extended. 

And, of course, it was sexy.

In the 1970s I was not surprised when Chris Evert’s double-handed finesse caught the attention of the public. Then came Billy Jean and Martina and suddenly women’s tennis found itself at center court and at popular parity with the men’s game. 

Nor is it surprising to me that women’s soccer filled a stadium in Paris and pulled in 19 million viewers in the United States. Nor am I surprised when I read that this team wants equal pay.

Several weeks ago, my wife walked in while I was watching a women’s beach volleyball match on television.

“Wow! They’re wearing bikinis! Is that allowed?” she asked. “No wonder you love beach volleyball.”

“You’re wrong,” I replied. “I love the flexibility, the coordination. Surely you remember that I’ve been watching women’s volleyball since Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings won the gold in Beijing?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “I remember.”

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