Shrinking and Pinking: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

This time of year is always a big one for female athletes-- especially with the recent popularity of NCAA basketball superstars like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins. While it's so important to celebrate these victories, it's also important to remember the ways in which we still have room to grow when it comes to female athletes. So here are some steps forward, and a few steps back from the past few weeks. Step forward: Mark Cuban announces he would give Brittney Griner a shot to try out for the NBA, and is considering drafting her in the second round. It appears a woman trying out for a NBA team hasn't happened since 1979.

Step forward: Lauren Silberman, a college soccer player, became the first woman ever to participate in an NFL Regional Scouting Combine. She tried out as a kicker (apparently you pay to compete at these events, but there are a limited number of slots).

Step back: Silberman did not perform well-- at all. Neither of her two kicks went beyond 20 yards. Some even suggested this was designed to torpedo women trying out for the NFL in the future.

Step forward: Danielle Coughlin became the first female to win a state wrestling title in Massachusetts. She won in the 106-pound final in Division 2. She also served as a captain of her high school's co-ed team. I really enjoyed this quote from the article about what her victory meant to her: "After I won, a guy in the stands actually turned to me and he said, ‘Smile, I have to send a picture to my daughter in Africa and tell her that in this country women can become anything.’ I actually started crying when he said that."

Step forward: Caroline Pia, whose family had taken their fight to the media to ensure that their twelve-year-old daughter would be able to play on her Catholic League's football team, was given the go-ahead to play in the League.

Step back: Thirteen-year-old Ella Wood in California is the reason why her team-- which won every game in their season-- actually "lost." The Foothill Sports League decided ex post that having a girl play meant a game was forfeited. To their credit, all of Ella's male teammates said they should forfeit. But as of now she won't be able to play with her teammates next year.

But let's end on a more positive note! Former Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona, who helped establish the Women's Sports Foundation and served as its president, is now helping female athletes do even more trailblazing. She recently announced a partnership with Ernst & Young to help female athletes transition to leadership roles in their careers outside of sport.

Women In Sport Press Conference- 2013 Laureus World Sports Awards

I found this statistic especially interesting: About 4800 women took part in last year's London Games and less than 30% will return to compete in Rio. While it's somewhat discouraging that this is necessary, overall it will be a huge step forward.

To more steps forward!

Shrinking and Pinking: Athletics in a Post-Post Title IX World

The XX(X) Olympics were an enormous success for women-- especially the Americans.  If the US women had been their own country they would have placed fifth in the medal count standings.  Even more noteworthy is that 60% of the all the US' medals came from women and 2/3rds of the American gold medal haul were won by the females on Team USA. Of course a year from now we're not very likely to care as much about our amazing female athletes.  As this piece from Fortune explains, female athletes are hot commodities every four years, but in between even the professional basketball players suffer.  According to the author a lot of this has to do with the fact that marketers aren't quite sure what to do with non-traditional female bodies, which helps explain why Gabby Douglas and the Fierce Five are doing so well. (Side note: My favorite tidbit from this article is that the first sports bra was made in 1977 by a grad student sewing two jock straps together!)

While I completely understand why we need to focus on developing women in sports (it's striking that today, for the first time ever, two women were invited to join Augusta National Golf Club), I also found it somewhat disturbing that in the Olympics there are now only two sports where only one sex participates-- synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.  In both cases these are female-only sports.  Now if men did not want to participate at the highest levels that would be one thing, but the fact is that there are male synchronized swimmers and they aren't allowed to compete at the highest levels (per documentaries like Sync of Swim, which I reviewed last fall).  Men also participate in rhythmic gymnastics, though with a more martial arts-like focus it sounds different enough to be less of a concern.  If these last two sports were male only I am sure we would see more of an outcry that the female sex was excluded.

Sure, the numbers in sports like synchro and gymnastics in general skew female.  That is also true for a sport like football, though in this case men dominate.  This year for the first time ever a female, Shannon Eastin, refereed an NFL game.  Perhaps in sports where the numbers are so lopsided the way for the opposite to really participate is through officiating and judging, or perhaps coaching (if you watched women's artistic gymnastics you know that the head coach of the Team USA and most of the athletes' primary coaches are male)?  I'm not sure this is a fair trade-off for those who want to compete themselves but in cases where parity isn't possible due to numbers perhaps this is a way to include both sexes.

I understand that most "serious" Olympic sports fans think synchro and rhythmic should be excluded anyway (despite this wonderful New York Times article on how athletic synchronized swimming really is), perhaps because they are so feminine and competitively marked as such due to the subjective nature of judging, but does it both anyone else that the fact men are excluded isn't given the same amount as concern as when women are excluded?

A Post-Olympics Reading List (for enthusiastic fans who can't wait for Sochi 2014)

If you're anything like me, you and your family are facing a post-Olympics letdown. I have the perfect solution. No, not starting to play any Olympic sports. As I wrote last week, I'm more of a reader than a athlete.  I recommend you and your kids crack open the bindings of some of these recent books about competitive sports.

1) Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton- This meditative, artistic work is the perfect book for the Internet/blog age.  Shapton writes in snippets recalling her time as a national-caliber swimmer and how it shaped her.  It is a type of memoir that reads a lot like a blog with moments vividly captured in words, and sometimes with the aid of paintings or photographs.  I found Shapton's experience as a Canadian youth who was very, very good, but not great enough to make the Olympics (she went to the Olympic Trials several times), powerful.  All of us likely feel this way about some aspect of our lives and Shapton's elegant turns of phrase and evocative sense of mood is quite appealing.  Recommend for adults interested in memoir and good writing and for teens thinking of swimming more seriously, as this book shows that there is life after swimming for those who aren't Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky.

2) Rush for the Gold: Mystery at the Olympics by John Feinstein- This may be surprising but this was the first YA "thriller" since the Hunger Games to actually keep my interest piqued until the end (especially since I read a lot of adult thrillers). Now, to be clear, this is no Harry Potter or Catching Fire, but this is an enjoyable book, part of the Last Shot series by sports journalist Feinstein.  I haven't read any of the previous works in the series and there were clearly some characters whose significance was lost on me, but I enjoyed Feinstein's sense of pace and that the mystery didn't involve death or serious bodily harm (especially important for younger readers). The excellence of the main characters is at times unbelievable (they are national known high school-age sports writers, and the extremely beautiful one happens to make the Olympics in the butterfly-- think an alpha-ier Missy Franklin), but Feinstein's insider knowledge about swimming and journalism makes up for the less believable aspects of the story.  While it obviously couldn't be 100% up-to-date, it does get many things right.  While it ends a bit abruptly the story will appeal to male and female middle grade readers whether or not they are swimmers and athletes themselves.

3) Game Changers by Mike Lupica- Another middle grade series written by a sports journalist, Game Changers tackles a non-Olympic sport-- football.  Lupica covers aspects of youth travel sports that many young readers will be familiar with, especially boys.  I was less interested in the details of the football games played and more interested in the story, but I'm guessing that if I were a sixth grade boy I'd appreciate the accurate game descriptions.  Lupica has written about competitive youth sports before, so if your little one likes this know there are more books where this came from.

4) Making Waves: A PrettyTOUGH Novel by Nicole Leigh Shepherd- While the Lupica books are directed more at male readers, the Pretty Tough series is directed at females.  As their website explains they explore girls who are both fierce and feminine.  I've read the first four books in the series, each of which focuses on a different sport (soccer, football, basketball, and softball) and the latest is from a new author in the series who focuses on the summer season of lifeguarding, complete with a scholarship competition at the end of the season.  Characters are repeated throughout the series, so faithful readers will appreciate updates on their favorites, so if you haven't read the others you might have a bit of difficulty keeping all the characters straight.  Middle grade girl readers will really love learning about the private lives of student athletes-- both at home with family, and with friends and romantic interests.  Girls will enjoy the realistic situations that acknowledge how hard growing up in today's electronic and pressure-filled world can be, but parents can rest assured that the books tend to have a happy resolution when it comes to both athletics and romance.

I hope you and your young reader find that these books and authors tide over your Olympic enthusiasm until at least February 7, 2014 when the XXII Winter Games begin in Sochi!

Pint-Sized Phenoms: The Non-Olympic Edition (Music, Art, and Business)

In the past week the Olympics have brought us pint-sized phenoms like Gabby Douglas (and her hair), Missy Franklin, and Katie Ledecky.  But even in the midst of the Olympic Games it's important to remember that pint-sized achievers come in a variety of forms. Sure, a lot of them are athletes.  Some excel in Olympic sports that receive less attention than the events dominating primetime (tape-delayed) broadcasts.  For instance, I found this piece on five- and six-year-olds competing in triathlons in the Boston area quite interesting. Others excel in sports not currently included in the Olympic games, like golf.  Based on yesterday's New York Times article about 10-year-old golfer Latanna Stone (the youngest woman to ever play in the United States Women's Amateur golf tournaments) I'm sure her family would be pushing for her to compete in the Olympics at some point.

Athletes are great, and definitely deserve recognition, but we should also remember kids who love music, art, and even business.

I was moved by this recent story of a 7-year0ld drum "prodigy," Jaxon Smith, who amazingly was only one pound when he was born:

I'm not sure Juilliard would let him in, but it is clear that Juilliard is interested in developing more international young musical talent.  I found it fascinating that they will be opening a new campus in China.

If there are big bucks to be made as a prodigy on the musical scene, the young art market is even more promising.  Check out the kind of money child artists have been raking in recently; 5-year-old Aelita Andre creates paintings with price tags around $12,000 and nine-year-old Kieron Williams 24 paintings for $386,000.

That's impressive until you consider 12-year-old Willa Doss.  Four years ago, with the help of her mother, Doss started her own cosmetics line focused on sophisticated, tween skincare.

Now described as a mogul I'm sure Willa (and her mom) are raking in more than her pint-sized artist counterparts.

I don't think 12-year-old Ophelia Horton is making as much money as 12-year-old Doss, but she is establishing herself as the next big preteen fashion blogger.  That mantle has been worn very successfully by Tavi Gevinson (recently profiled in the Times and wonderfully profiled a few years ago in The New Yorkerwhere I first read about her) who has now started an online fashion magazine.

I wonder if Horton and Gevinson will blog about Doss, or if they use her products? Or if they plan to but any pint-sized phenom artwork? At the very least I hope the British Horton has taken a blogging break to enjoy the London Olympics, whether she roots for other pint-sized phenom athletes or not.

I'm an All-Around Gymnastics Fan: My events include reading, watching, commenting, and writing

I'm a big women's gymnastics fan. Knowing I love dance, sports, and nearly all things feminine and strong, this should come as no surprise.  If you know me it's also no surprise that while I took gymnastics as a kid I didn't last long.  I was flexible, but I was also fearful (I would think to myself, "Why should I risk falling off that beam when I can read a book about someone else on the beam?"). It's been a thrilling 24 hours for fans of USA gymnastics, with the women's team winning the team gold in decisive fashion.

As Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas prepare to compete in the All-Around competition I've been preparing for my own All-Around gymnastics meet.  My best event is the first- reading- and I'm really trying to up my game in the last event- writing.

1) Reading- Every four years the gymnastics shelf at the library gets restocked.  This year the bookshelf is especially full (likely due to the continued popularity of Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone, and Shawn Johnson from the last Games) for both kids and adults.

First is Donna Freitas' Gold Medal Summer, which I especially enjoyed knowing Freitas is a professor (of religion).

The message of Gold Medal Summer-- that you should pursue your dreams and not give them up for romance-- is a good one for young girls (especially because the romance still comes eventually).  The protagonist, 14-year-old Joey, has an interesting back story with her sister and family which gives the book more layers than the typical middle school activity-romance-friends storyline.

Two new series about young girls doing gymnastics are also aimed at young readers.  The McKenna American Girl books, which I've written about before (and which has now been made into a movie, discussed more below) are better for the elementary school crowd. 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu lends her name and expertise to another new series, The Go-for-Gold Gymnasts, aimed at middle-grade readers.  My favorite was Book 2, Balancing Act, because it obviously is meant to reflect some of Moceanu's own experiences as the child of Romanian immigrants.

I also liked that Moceanu and Thompson present important, and often overlooked, aspects of gymnastics in Balancing Act. They highlight that earning an NCAA scholarship is a worthy and important goal for many gymnasts-- that the Olympics aren't the end-all-be-all for most.  They also highlight that there are many hidden costs associated with competitive gymnasts (it's not just tuition and fees but also ace bandages and ice packs and hair accessories).  The characters aren't as nuanced as they are in Freitas' book, but the background knowledge is a bit deeper. The New York Times Book Review ran a review of the series and Freitas' book if you're interested in more comparisons.  I thought the observation that these particular books do not portray typical stage parents of the main characters is right on, but stage moms do make appearances in other parts of the stories.

In addition to her fictional series Moceanu also just released her memoir, Off Balance.  Readers get a sense of her gymnastics training along with an often shocking look at her family life-- including the discovery of a long-lost sister.  If you've been watching the Olympics and wondering why Bela Karoyli never mentions Dominique's name, you'll find out why he doesn't by reading Off Balance.

A different new memoir about gymnastics provides some insight as to why people like me-- non-gymnasts-- get so into the sport. Dvora Meyers' ebook Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, is a quirky look at how love of a childhood sport can continue throughout young adulthood and offer continuity through unstable life stages.

Another quirky, recent book is My Father's Dream of an Olympic Trampoline: Life Story of George Nissen, written by Nissen's daughter Dagmar. Because it's written by his daughter the tone is a bit over-laudatory.  But it was fascinating to read about how the trampoline was invented and marketed (and how it got its name from Nissen's time in Mexico). I also found it fascinating how Nissen's experiences as a gymnast and as a diver helped create the trampoline, now used for training in both (if you've been watching the springboard and platform diving you know how acrobatic the divers are).

Why did I include a book about trampolining here? Well it's not just artistic gymnastics that's included in the Olympics, there is also rhythmic gymnastics and trampolining.  Yes, trampolining is its own sport in the Olympics as of 2000.  I'm actually very excited to watch the Olympic trampolinists who perform some truly out of this world high-flying tricks.

2) Watching- Speaking of watching I try to give my reading eyes a rest by watching television.  In addition to coverage of the sport itself (from nationals to Trials to the Olympics) there have been two different television specials about gymnastics.

The first is McKenna Shoots for the Stars, based on the American Girl books. Despite an all-star cast-- including the somewhat head-scratching trio of Nia Vardalos, Ian Ziering, and Cathy Rigby-- the movie is cringe worthy at times thanks to an overly saccharine and staged feel.  I actually laughed out loud when McKenna, upset about an injury, melodramatically rips her gymnastics posters off her wall.  You can get a taste of it from the trailer if you watch around 1:13.

A more interesting take was a three-part, two-hour long documentary on Aly Raisman, Quest for Gold [now achieved!] shown on the Comcast network (you can also watch all of it in chunks on the website Gymnastike).  I fell in love with Aly's father and brother while watching the last part of the documentary.  There's a great scene of them watching Aly at Nationals (only her mother went with her to that competition while the rest of the family stayed in Massachusetts) and yelling at the TV for her to stick.  If you haven't seen the now viral video of her mom and dad watching her compete bars in Olympic team prelims then you're missing out.

One television show is glaringly absent from my line-up and that's ABC Family's Make It or Break It. I don't have anything against the network (as you know, I've been watching Bunheads), but I never got into this show-- probably because I didn't love the inspiration for it, the movie Stick It.

3) Commenting- While I've converted my husband to the dark side of emotional gymnastics viewing it's still great to commune with other fans via message boards and Twitter.  My favorite gymnastics blog is Get a Grip. The author also puts together the wickedly clever and funny Gym Memes.

I tweet about gymnastics fairly often and I love reading comments from gymnastics commentators and expert fans. I put together a public list of those who provide some of the best insight.

While this seems like the shortest event for me (the vault of my All-Around fan experience, if you will), it actually takes up quite a bit of time!

4) Writing- In addition to tweeting and blogging I do write articles.  Researching a recent short piece on Brestyan's American Gymnastics Clubs (that appeared in July's Boston Magazine as "From Coddled Kids to World-Class Gymnasts") was great fun because I actually got to see both Aly Raisman and Alicia Sacramone train (for the record they were both vaulting while I watched and Aly also worked on her beam set-- which she'll now be competing on in the Olympic event finals!).  I was professional on the outside, but fangirl-y on the inside.

It's been wonderful to see Aly share her gold medal with Mihai Brestyan who is clearly a dedicated, but level-headed, coach.  Even during such a busy time Mihai spoke with me for over an hour impressing me with his thoughts on developing young talent in the US.  One important point that didn't make it into the printed article is that Bretyan knows not everyone is an Aly or Alicia. He emphasizes NCAA gymnastics as a wonderful outlet, and as a way for families to recoup all they have invested monetarily in gymnastics over the years in the form of a four-year college scholarship.  Local news is already reporting families with young girls flocking to the gym in Burlington.  While their daughters might not end up as Olympians, or even college athletes, parents should know that Brestyan will help mold their daughters into all-around people.

And All-Around fans like me will enjoy watching from the sidelines.