Your Sport is Real: An Open Letter to Female Athletes and Those Who Doubt Them
BY HALLI MELNITSKY Hey there.
If you’re on this website, you have found the brain child of Bea Chang, basketball coach extraordinaire, worldly globe trotter, and friend to stuffed animals everywhere. Hi, Bea.
She is one of the most positive people I know. And, writing a piece on women in sports for her website, I want to be positive too.
Sometimes that’s hard. Especially right now.
Weirdly, when I think about being a female athlete, I keep thinking about the past. Specifically 2012, when sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis had a chance to win her third gold medal at consecutive Olympics. Considered a favorite for the championship, she instead she came in fourth — not even making the podium for the first time in her Olympic career.
Like most fencers, I was expecting Zagunis to bring home another gold. Like most American women who were also sabre fencers, I was excited to watch her win.
In high school, a senior boy taunted my squad for fencing women’s sabre. In college, I’d blithely tolerated the “compliments” from male fencers that I “fenced like a dude.” After all, I had beaten them, so I couldn’t possibly “fence like a girl,” right?
"I suppose no article about a female athlete by a male writer is complete until he’s written about her hair ."
Going into the 2012 Olympics, Zagunis was indisputable proof that my sport was real and that a woman could excel at it.
Here’s what the New York Times had to say about her surprising defeat:
“She didn’t beat me — I beat myself,” Zagunis said, adding that that is generally the case when she is beaten.
While that may sound overconfident, it comes from Zagunis’s track record: she is ranked No. 1 in the world. She has won three world championships, including one — the 2010 competition in Paris — that she fenced with a fractured femur.
The Washington Post’s Mike Wise had a different take. Wise mocked Zagunis for being surprised by her loss, although she was the clear favorite to win. He berated her for not smiling more, although she was a world-class athlete who had just suffered defeat. He wondered why she wasn’t acting more like the bubbly teen he’d met in 2004, although it was eight year later and she had become an adult. He made fun of her sport, although he was the one who had chosen to write about it.
He mentioned her ponytail. I suppose no article about a female athlete by a male writer is complete until he’s written about her hair .
"I’d like to say that things have gotten better. But I'm not sure if that's true."
You can find the whole thing here, but I’ll share a few choice excerpts:
“I met Mariel Zagunis in Athens in 2004. Zagunis then was this likable teen with a blond ponytail…”
“Perhaps that means you need to laugh and smile more, because you made it to the Olympics again.”
“That is, no one but fencers care about fencing after the Olympics are over. And nothing is as over as when the Olympics are over.
So while they’re going on, niche athletes need to savor the Games and smile more often for those two weeks, give opponents that beat them credit more often — because they really matter to most of us only every four years.”
I started fencing when I was 14. I’d met a lot of Mike Wises. I’d just never seen their snide comments in the newspaper before.
I’d like to say that things have gotten better. But I'm not sure if that's true. Since then I’ve read coverage on Serena Williams that's both racist and sexist. I’ve seen cameras linger on women’s bodies in ways that have nothing to do with their winning record.
You will be a child and they’ll expect you to act like an adult. Or you’ll be an adult and they’ll wonder why you don’t act more like a child.
They’ll treat your sport carelessly and without thought. It can’t be “real” if a woman does it. It can’t be real if a woman is better at it than a man. It can’t be real if it’s not on ESPN. It can’t be real if…
They’ll pat themselves on the back for their progressive views and they’ll smirk at you, with your body and your hard work and your championships and your sweat and your heartbreak. At best they’ll think you’re cute. At worst they’ll think you’re silly.
So much for being positive, huh?
Okay, but here’s the thing.
Women keep fencing sabre. They keep kicking ass. I read that article by Mike Wise. Then I drove to my fencing club and fenced. I did that for years. Until I started rock climbing, and hung a thousand feet off the ground without breaking a sweat.
You are allowed to want to win. You are allowed to want it more than anything, to get so lost in it that your mind empties and the rest of your life feels like an echo.
You are allowed to win. You are allowed to get dirty and smell like crap. You are allowed to have a body that helps you win. Give your body what it needs. You are allowed to love that powerful body.
You are allowed to hate losing.
Your sport is real. Your work and effort and passion are real. You are real. Men like Mike Wise? They have loud voices. But they say nothing.
They can’t do what you can do.