Henrico County VA

Title IX at 40, through a mother’s eyes

Title IX hasn't done a darn thing for me.

But I am one of its biggest fans, just the same.

As a frustrated female athlete who graduated high school 40 years ago – the same month that Title IX was signed into law – I am all too familiar with the arid wasteland that was girls' sports prior to 1972.

Back then, the only place I could get involved in the sports I loved best was from the sidelines – as a cheerleader.

Having grown up with four brothers, I'd had little choice but to learn to throw a ball from an early age. (And no girly underhand tosses, either, my brothers told me in no uncertain terms.) Eager to be included in their games, I jumped at the chance to play any position – and of course my brothers were all too happy to have me play in spots no one else wanted, like center in football or catcher in baseball.

By the time I was ten, I could fire a baseball, throw a football and shoot hoops with the best of them, and had branched out from the backyard to the playground. Keeping my hair (and my name) short, I passed as "Pat" for a time, playing sandlot baseball and schoolyard basketball with boys who never suspected my gender.

Once I hit puberty, though, the jig was up – as were my fantasies of sneaking onto a baseball team, wowing the crowd with my skills at shortstop and launching a movement to allow girls on the team.

But as any parent knows, one of the best ways to make up for deficits in our own childhoods is to provide a better life for our children.

So there were few things that gave me more joy as a parent than exposing my three daughters to sports, and seeing them develop a passion for them. From the time they could put their toddler toes to a plush soccer ball, they were dabbling in everything from gymnastics, softball, and swimming to tennis and basketball -- while I gloried in watching them.

Although they all had different tastes and ultimately chose different favorites (one daughter even played collegiate rugby), all of them reaped similar physical, social and emotional benefits. There's no doubt in my mind that sports played a huge role in the fact that all three girls are regular exercisers and healthy eaters as adults. (To this day, in fact, my youngest daughter, Lanie, avoids soda – a holdover from the hockey season when she gave it up and found she had more stamina.)

My youngest daughter also has a better grasp than most of the more subtle, socio-emotional benefits of athletics.

When she was a senior in high school, Lanie entered a teen chef competition. Putting together a packet of recipes to submit was, she told me, a lark – a way to kick back and have fun after getting through the college application ordeal. She had no expectations of doing well, for although she has always had a gift for things culinary, she had never worked in a restaurant.

Then her recipe packet landed her in the finals, and we traveled to Washington, D.C. for a cook-off with the nine other finalists. All of them, we soon learned, had worked in restaurants; but Lanie shrugged and insisted, "This is just for fun; it'll be an experience."

She took it hard, just the same, when she bombed the cook-off – or so she said. Unfamiliar with gas stoves, she had struggled to adjust her timing and set her spice sachet on fire, in addition to forgetting her shrimp cocktail sauce. It took all my powers of persuasion (actually, I bribed her with the promise of an afternoon in Old Town) to get her to stay for the 5 p.m. awards ceremony.

At the ceremony, to our astonishment, the judges pronounced Lanie the first place winner – the one who would represent the region at the national teen chef competition in Ft. Lauderdale.

Dazed, we lingered after the ceremony to ask the judges why she had been chosen. How could Lanie – a dabbler who had never set foot in a restaurant kitchen – possibly have beaten out nine more skilled and practiced chefs? Especially after making so many mistakes in her timing, not to mention omitting an item and starting a fire?

In a word, said the judges, it was Lanie's attitude – they specifically mentioned coolness under pressure and humility – that set her apart from the other cooks.

As we discussed this crazy turn of events on the euphoric ride back to Richmond, it was Lanie who put her finger on the experiences that had developed her winning attitude: "Mom, I learned all that from sports!"

Anyone who's played soccer, softball or other team sports knows that humility is part of the package. Everyone has a part to play, and the whole can't succeed without the help of many individuals – whether it's turning a double play, double-teaming an opponent or feeding the ball to a scorer.

As for the coolness under pressure, Lanie had experienced both extremes. As a captain on Maggie Walker's 2-24 basketball team, she had had to rally her teammates night after night to run out on the floor, practice their best teamwork and act like they could actually win – no matter what the odds. If they were crushed by a wide margin, they had to smile and shake hands with their opponents, pick themselves up and do it again a night or two later.

And as captain and a key player on one of Walker's powerhouse field hockey teams, Lanie had to keep her cool under a different kind of pressure: playing grueling overtime matches at regional and state tournaments.

For too long, only boys got to learn these lessons in leadership, sportsmanship and teamwork; only boys were able to reap all the character-building benefits that sports provide. So I tell this story often -- not to brag on Lanie's cooking skills, but to illustrate why athletics are so valuable for instilling self-confidence and imparting a host of life skills.

By the way, Lanie won second in the nation at the Ft. Lauderdale competition – in large part thanks to a night in the La Petite France kitchen, under the tutelage of an extraordinarily kind, world-renowned chef by the name of Paul Elbling. As an 18-year-old, she went on to enjoy a tuition-free year at a New York City culinary school.

But that's a story for another time.

I am sure there are readers, athletes and parents with success stories of their own to share. I would love to hear from you – male and female, youth and adult. What has participation in sports done for you or your child? Did lessons you learned on the playing field help mold you into the person you are today?

Let me hear your thoughts, observations and experiences, and we'll revisit this topic in a future column.

Share your stories by e-mailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).





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