Racing Forward

For one illuminating moment, the noise of thousands of fans was dwarfed by the impact of 11 words in print.

My 15-year-old daughter, sidelined by a strained hip flexor, was standing next to me at last year's high school cross-country state meet. We were rooting on her team when the program in my hand caught her eye.

"Wait a minute," she said. "82nd Annual Boys and 33rd Annual Girls State Cross Country Championships." She wrinkled her brow. "I don't get it."

I looked at her, lean and leggy in her warm-ups, cheeks tinted pink from the bracing November wind. There was so much I wanted to say.

"Girls weren't allowed to run at states until 1978. That's three years after I graduated from high school. Can you believe it?"

Her jaw dropped. "That's crazy!"

When past discriminations seem ludicrous to people today, it's a good sign that real change is sinking in. But it also makes it hard to explain the bad old days. How the careers of gifted girls — even young Olympians — ended at high school graduation for lack of college athletic programs. How a friend of mine who loved playing high school basketball finally got her dad to come to a game, only to have him snarl in disgust afterward: "You looked like an animal out there!"

Title IX slowly changed all that. The 1972 law required federally funded institutions, including public schools, to offer equal opportunities to both sexes. Before Title IX, fewer than 300,000 girls played school sports, compared to 3.5 million boys. By 2008, those numbers had risen to 3 million girls and 4.4 million boys.

Today, girls and women's sports have at last earned media attention. Watch five minutes of the fever-pitch Women's World Cup soccer matches, and it's impossible not to realize how cool it is to play like a girl.

Incredibly, this groundswell of social change escaped my notice when it began nearly 40 years ago.

As a child, I had happily taken tennis, trampoline and gymnastics lessons at the YWCA. I spent a few years in a cheerleading uniform. But by high school, my main goal in gym class was to avoid sweating.

Early on, I thought my daughter might follow a similar path. She played rec soccer and softball but seemed in it more for the social time, snacks and trophy.

Then my husband, a standout runner in high school, introduced her to the middle school cross-country program. Striding through that grassy course, her adolescent awkwardness seemed to fall away. She'd found her niche, and I entered the unfamiliar territory of young women who play for keeps.

It's an exciting, confusing ride for me. I've loved watching my college-aged son play baseball and soccer since he was 4. But with my daughter, it's more personal somehow. I struggle to maintain boundaries, rather than win or lose vicariously through every race and time trial. I remind myself: She owns the experience, not me.

I'm unsure how hard to push her. At meets, I'm the one on the sidelines cheering, "Good job, girl! Keep it up!" Her father is farther up the course, yelling, "You've got to move up now!"

Maybe I suspect that the engines of girl athletes run on different fuel. A dad who coaches girls and boys rec soccer teams explains it this way: "When you try to correct them as a group or point out mistakes, girls always assume you're talking specifically to them, and boys always assume you must be talking to someone else."

Coaches and parents tell me girl athletes respond to a blend of nudge and nurture. You can read it on their faces and hear it in their car chatter: Girls may endure coaches who berate and bully, but they don't want to perform for them. Girls want to be inspired.

As a new season hurtles forward, I'm exhilarated at watching my daughter learn through sports what it took me decades to figure out on my own: how to work hard when you really don't feel like it. How to compete fairly, fiercely, without apology, and be part of a team while aiming for your personal best. How to face a friend in a contest that both of you want to win — and stay friends. How to bear the agony of being sidelined by a setback and start over. How to lose with grace.

It's everything boy athletes have always had the chance to learn and carry forward to the workforce — and life itself.

Today's definition of beauty includes women who flex muscles and sweat, women who wear T-shirts that say, "My sport is your sport's punishment" and "The only thing that runs faster than us is our mascara."

It's only now that I truly grasp what Title IX gave young women. Watching my daughter and her teammates race past me, I only now understand what I was missing.

I call out to each of them: "Run, girl, run."

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