What female jocks learn — and Olympic athletes know

As millions of us tune into the Olympics today in London, Mariel Zagunis, a saber fencer from Beaverton, Oregon, who won the U.S.’s first gold medal in fencing since 1904 in 2004 was chosen to lead the 529 American athletes into the opening ceremonies. Her parents, Kathy and Robert, were rowers, who met when they competed in the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

FedZag6 (Photo credit: Kashmera)

When I moved to New York, and was eager for a new athletic challenge, I trained with a two-time Olympian, saber fencer Steve Mormando, and was nationally ranked in the mid 1990s in that sport for four years.

Fencing rocks!

Competing in sports, especially when you’re aiming for the top, teaches many powerful lessons, some of them of special value to women, in whom unshakable confidence and physical aggression can be seen as ugly, “unfeminine” or worse.

Some of the lessons saber fencing competition taught me:

— Saber (one of three weapons used in the sport), requires aggression and a sort of boldness that’s totally unfamiliar to many girls and women in real life. If you hesitate or pause, you can easily lose to the opponent prepared to start the attack. Go!

— In saber, you “pull distance” and create space between you and your opponent by withdrawing backwards down the strip and extending your blade. This buys you time, and safe space, in which to make a smarter or more strategic move. I’ve often slowed down in life when it looked like I should speed up or jump in quick. Fencing taught me the value of doing the opposite.

— Anger is wasted energy. I hate losing! But stressing out when I did lose, which is inevitable in sports, as in life, only messed with my focus and concentration. Move on.

— Pain will happen. Keep going. I was once hit, hard, early in a day-long regional competition and my elbow really hurt. But I had many more opponents to face and didn’t want to just drop out. Life often throws us sudden and unexpected pain — financial, emotional, physical. Having the ability to power through it will separate you from the weaker pack.

When I fenced at nationals, the first group of American women to do so, there was no option to compete in saber at the Olympic level, let alone world competition. It was frustrating indeed to work and train so hard, traveling often and far, competing regionally and locally, but never have the chance to go for the ultimate challenge, trying for an Olympic team position.

The sport was dominated by European men, and its organizing body, The Federation International d’Escrime, decreed that saber was (of course) too dangerous for women.

Now the U.S. has Zagunis, a young woman of 27, who dominates the sport.

This year, a new sport (which I truthfully find horrifying, but that feels hypocritical, doesn’t it?) — women’s boxing — has been added to the Olympics.

As we watch and cheer and cry and shout over the next few weeks, remember all the women along the way, their efforts often initially dismissed or derided, whose hard work and tenacity break down these barriers.

9 thoughts on “What female jocks learn — and Olympic athletes know

      1. Ha! Yeah, the other day, someone said they saw this somewhere on these intertubes:

        “Women will gain equal rights when they can strut down the road with a pot belly and bald head, and think they are sexy.”

        Or something like that. 🙂

  1. Don

    Something I found deeply refreshing and wonderfully significant is that women, for the first time, are in every Olympic team taking part.

  2. I’ve found that any time I take on a physically challenging activity, it leads to greater confidence even when my progress is initially slow. I took on motorcycling at an age when most people are giving up the activity–I was scared but determined. My progress was slow and I had to have some one-on-one instruction. But I loved it and have now traveled almost 50,000 miles on my Road Goddess. Of course, that’s not athletic in the sense of what YOU accomplished Caitlin, but it was a big decision for me. It doesn’t matter whether its a physical challenge or any other kind, stretching ourselves leads to a sense that we can handle what comes our way. I’m always thrilled when I see women athletes achieving their personal best, challenging themselves, understanding that being tough competitors can be part of what it is to be a woman as well. Thanks for the post!

    1. Love it! I have a dear female friend who’s about to buy a Ducati, and she’s really excited about it.

      “being tough competitors can be part of what it is to be a woman as well.” So true. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I’ve been doing Brazilian jiu jitsu for the past 8 months and sadly, it’s only been women who have been the ones to tell me that it’s ‘unfeminine’ and ‘gross’. Yes, it’s a martial art that requires sharing your most intimate personal space with somebody who wants to choke you or dislocate your shoulder, but I don’t see that how being strong and knowing how to use your body to it’s best ability is ‘unfeminine’! I’m sad when women don’t support other women in their endeavours.

    And I do it in a headscarf too. 😉

    1. Good for you!! I’ve never done a martial art and probably exactly because I don’t anyone that close to me physically who could hurt me. But I know for sure you’ve gained a lot from doing it. Don’t ever let anyone deter you from your (very cool) goals!

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