Friday, June 25, 1999

Girls find new sports heroes: Women

The Cincinnati Enquirer

American star Mia Hamm is swarmed by teammates after she scored a goal in a World Cup victory Thursday night.
(AP photos)
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        The young girl is sweaty and tired, but her tanned face bursts into a smile as wide as a soccer goal when she is asked about her favorite athlete. Not Michael Jordan. Not Mark McGwire.

        “Mia Hamm,” said 12-year-old Sarah North, naming the world's most famous women's soccer player. “I think she's really cool.”

        This is the face of the new women's movement.

        On patchy fields and in humid gyms across America this summer, many girls are answering just the same.

        With the women's World Cup soccer tournament playing in the United States — and with Ms. Hamm, the American star, reinforcing her standing as the world's most dominant female soccer player and one of America's highest-profile woman athletes — women's sports are taking an unprecedented step up into the public spotlight.

Mia Hamm
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Chamique Holdsclaw
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Venus Williams
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        It's what women's sport pioneers had in mind when Congress passed Title IX in 1972, mandating proportionate funding for women's sports in schools and opening locker room doors to a flood of girls for the first time. More girls participating, more girls watching, more women to look up to.

        “Before Title IX, they didn't even have (girls') teams in some of the high schools,” said Mary Jo Huismann, who was the University of Cincinnati's first women's basketball coach in 1971 and is considered one of the leading pioneers of women's sports here. “We thought maybe there would be more change faster. Now the younger moms have had the opportunity to play, and their kids are interested.”

        Nearly 79,000 people attended the U.S. women's victory in their World Cup opener last week in East Rutherford, N.J., the largest crowd for a women's team sporting event in history. Many of the faces were those of young girls like Sarah North.

        The slogan of the tournament says it all: “This is my game. This is my future. Watch me play.”

        And it's not just soccer. In tennis, teen-age stars Martina Hingis, Venus and Serena Williams and Russian Anna Kournikova are stealing worldwide thunder from the men. In basketball, the WNBA, powered by the marketing muscle of its NBA brother, is pushing women's basketball to further popularity and exposure behind stars like the Jordan-esque Chamique Holdsclaw, superstar-turned-mother-turned-superstar Sheryl Swoopes and perhaps the league's best player, Cynthia Cooper.

        The 1996 Atlanta Olympics provided new female heroes in the Magnificent Seven gymnasts, including Cincinnatians Jaycie Phelps and Amanda Borden, while the 1998 Nagano Olympics gave us the grinning yet tough-as-nails Picabo Street. Ice skating, long dominated by women, continues to be the domain of pixie stars like Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski.

        Suddenly, after years of toiling with just a few big-name female stars, young girls have more and more diverse athletic role models than ever.

        “It's totally changed,” Ms. Huismann said. “I'm doing a basketball camp right now with (former Xavier player) Nikki Kremer, and all the girls know who she is. They saw her on TV against UConn (in the NCAA Tournament last spring). That would never have happened five years ago.”

        Advances in women's sports are nothing new — Billie Jean King saw to that in 1973 when she beat Bobby Riggs in a “battle of the sexes” tennis challenge — and there have been female stars throughout this century, from golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias to tennis player Chris Evert. But the latest step has opened the boom from a small corps of elite women tennis players, gymnasts and skaters to a larger group in male-dominated sports like soccer and basketball.

        “I think it's really good, especially in sports that men play,” said Cincinnati's Emily Mocahbee, 13, a participant in a soccer camp run by Xavier men's coach Jack Hermans. “It shows the women are just as capable as the men. It shows we can play, too.”

        But at the same time, women are still struggling for equality. Fed up with earning smaller championship purses than the men at Wimbledon and the French and Australian Opens, female tennis players may consider a Grand Slam “girl-cott” next year if they don't get equal pay.

        “We've made a lot of gains, but it still isn't easy sometimes,” said Ms. Huismann, noting that women still receive far less TV and newspaper coverage than men. “The media (in Cincinnati) hasn't been in the forefront, either.”

        But even the limited TV exposure — usually on cable — of the WNBA and the U.S. women's soccer team (which won the Olympic gold medal in 1996) has helped speed women's emergence, Ms. Huismann says.

        “When you do a story on Mia Hamm, people know who she is,” Ms. Huismann said. “That wouldn't have been the case five years ago.”

        Ms. Hamm, the vivacious superstar who is expected to lead the U.S. to the World Cup title next month, is the poster girl. Her skills make her the world's best individual on the best team — she owns the international record for goals scored — and her girl-next-door personality has made her a top athlete endorser (Nike, Pert shampoo).

        “She wants girls to have positive role models,” said Torie Hesser, an instructor at Mr. Hermans' camp and a former soccer MVP at the University of Kentucky. “She's all about kids. The boys love her, too.”

        Ms. Hesser said camp instructors ask kids who the best players in the world are, and Ms. Hamm's name always pops up. “If she's not the first, she's one of the first,” Ms. Hesser said.

        “My role models were men, Michael Jordan, Pele,” said Ms. Hesser, who is 23. “Now girls know there's somewhere to go.”

        Girls need role models like Ms. Hamm, who is married, and Ms. Swoopes, who missed part of the WNBA's first season to have a child, said Ms. Huismann. U.S. soccer players Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck, America's original “soccer moms,” also have children.

        “To see women in that role, with children and husbands, who are successful in sports, it shoots down all those myths,” said Ms. Huismann, referring to the old stereotype that women athletes weren't feminine enough.

        “It's good for girls to see that, because you still have a lot of thinking that women are supposed to be taking care of men. They see it doesn't have to be one or the other.”

Women athletes sell, companies finding
AP coverage: Women's World Cup | Wimbledon | WNBA

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