I've been hearing the same story over and over again, and it's not just because the Olympics are on right now. It's a story I like very much: sport improves lives. Yesterday morning the story came in a Facebook note from my friend, Esther. Esther's a four-time national rowing team member. She's won gold medals at the U-23 World Championships in the eight and quad, gold in the U.S. eight at Lucerne, and silver and bronze medals at the Senior World Championships in the four. Her note explains how athletics helped her:
Being a part of a team sport and learning to push myself
when I sucked at something made me who I am today...
Sports helped me feel like my height and strength could be
positives, when otherwise my middle-school self felt
awkward about towering over my classmates and insecure
about my looks. Learning how to work with teammates to
win a game, learning the discipline of practicing a skill until
you know how to do it well- these are very important things
that come up on a daily basis, whether or not you're an athlete
I'm sure many can relate to Esther's experiences; in fact, she included a link to an article that insists that almost everybody benefits from participating in sports. The article was Tara Parker-Pope's New York Times column, "As Girls Become Women, Sports Pay Dividends." It describes a study by Dr. Betsey Stevenson who, by using "complex analysis," comes to the same point as Esther's Facebook note. Stevenson's study shows that participating in sports "had a direct effect on women's education and employment." The article goes into further statistical detail that illustrates that playing sports improves people's success in education, work, and leading healthy lives. I recommend reading it. This study and my friend both proclaim, "let the games begin, continue, and grow!" Also joining the sports-were-good-for-me chorus- Joanne Wright Iverson in her new book, An Obsession with Rings (available now on the JL bookshelf!). Iverson tells her rowing-life story- one that starts in an old wooden row boat on the Schuylkill and ends with the founding of the National Women's Rowing Association and women racing in the Olympics. She describes her struggle to claim rowing for herself, her teammates, and the generations of women that followed (thanks, Joanne!). Iverson's conclusion reinforces Dr. Stevenson's findings:
The confidence I gained as an athlete and my experiences
in rowing are the primary reasons I have had the courage to
start my own business... Over the years, as my two worlds
of rowing and business intersected, I discovered that the
rowing world gave me tremendous confidence in all
professional situations. Once you have been on the line in
a race, your confidence has been tested. No one- and I
mean no one- can intimidate you.
The New York Times, Facebook, a real book- each story slightly different, the conclusions the same. They come to me in various forms all the time: in my teammates tired faces, glowing stories at Cal Crew alumni dinners, gawky novices that wander into the JL store with their bewildered parents for their first uni, even from my dad after his 15 min jogs through the neighbourhood. The stories aren't just coming from elated Olympians, or NBC fluff (a guilty pleasure of mine), they're everywhere, in everybody. I'm still not tired of hearing them.
Sports have always been such a central part of my life it's easy to take the benefits for granted. It's nice to hear these stories, in whatever form they come, and take the time to reflect. While they aren't surprising to most athletes, many like me find joy and comfort in them. They support my feeling (not to mention my lifestyle) that sport has immense value; if we are open and honest, athletics will improve us. The challenges of sports are often so visceral and objective; they have an especially effective way of exposing personal weaknesses. Rowing provides me opportunities to confront myself with myself on a daily basis: How do I respond to pressure? Can I keep going when it hurts? How hard can I work? How much? What could I have done differently? How well do I deal with adversity, suffering, frustration, loss, and success?
I suppose I honestly believe that sports can change the world. Hearing people's stories only strengthens that belief, so keep them coming.
Some of my favorite sports books:
Anything by Sally Jenkins (especially the Lance Armstrong and Pat Summit books)
Once a Runner by John L. Parker Jr.
Running with the Buffaloes: A Season Inside with Mark Wetmore, Adam Goucher, and the University of Colorado Men's Cross Country Team by Chris Lear