Friday, March 27, 2015

A Nod to Swimming - A Sport that Fosters Equality

If I give a nod to swimming, I must offer a bow to my coach,
Bob Gillett, and his wife, Kathy.
Kathy taught me to swim at the age of four, and Bob took the
reins from there, coaching me for the next thirteen years,
through high school. I don't think I can ever thank Kathy and
Bob enough for their guidance. I learned strength and
perseverance through swimming--and yes, equality--and truly,
this has been the foundation for everything else. 

When I stepped onto the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy for Induction Day in the summer of 1985, women comprised just ten percent of the incoming class of midshipmen. In a recent radio interview, I was asked if I felt intimidated by the prospect of entering the Academy as a member of such a small minority. My answer was no.

Certainly, I was intimidated about a lot of other things at the Academy. But worried or nervous because I was a woman? No. And it wasn’t that I was extraordinarily brave or some super woman who was going to bust in, kick ass, and take names. No, I wasn’t intimidated, because up to that point, I didn’t know I could be. Or should be. Or was supposed to be.

I believe this was due in large part to my competitive swimming background, where girls and boys were treated equally from the get-go. We swam in the same lanes, performed the same workouts, raced the same events, and completed the same strength training routines. We practiced before school, after school, and on weekends. We suffered, rejoiced, complained, and commiserated, day after day, week after week, year after year. Equal all the way. Taught the same. Tasked the same. Evaluated the same.

Fortunately for me, this was reinforced at home, too. Equality in my family just was. My mother was a physician, my dad a dentist, mutual respect always. Never did they intimate that girls and boys were different in terms of intellect, drive, or resiliency.

And this constancy in example continued when they dropped me off for swim practice—a place absent of “motivational” speeches like the following:*

Gentlemen, the cheerleading squad is over there!

Come on, ladies, let’s move it!

You wear a jock strap, not a skirt. Now, get out there and play like it!

Man up!

Cheerleader practice starts at five. If you want to stay on this field, you’d better hit somebody!

*No prizes for guessing what male-dominated sport produced these quotes.

Don’t get me wrong. We swimmers got our asses chewed if we were screwing around or not making sets or whatever, but no one’s gender was degraded in the process.

So when I finally left home to attend college across the country, I did so—naively, I guess—without thought to gender.

It was a surprise—a big surprise, actually—when I arrived at the Naval Academy to find the men’s and women’s swim teams practicing separately. Men on this end of the pool, women on that end. What?

And then, those other things. When women were separated in our physical education classes to learn self-defense, while the men learned boxing. Or when we were made to climb over a shorter wall on the obstacle course named—cringe!—the “Women’s Wall.” [Oh, that’s hard for me to write]. Or when my female classmates who entered the U. S. Marine Corps following our graduation four years later, arrived at The Basic School in Quantico, VA, and were assigned to an all-women’s platoon.

Separate. That other group. Over there. Those lesser ones.

I do believe the military services are attempting to move in the right direction, adopting physical fitness standards based on job requirement, not gender, and integrating men and women into the same units. So we’re making progress.

But we would make so much more—not just in the military, but everywhere—if we established the gender equality mindset far earlier. When our children are still kids. It could be track and field. It could be co-ed soccer. It could be equestrian. Taekwondo. Cross country. Triathlon. So many thoughtful options exist for parents—sports that foster equality between girls and boys early on, avenues that allow our children to grow up knowing no differently.

Was I intimidated going to the Naval Academy because I was a woman? No. And it’s my hope that your daughters will be able to answer in the same manner, regardless of the challenges set before them.


  1. This is great to read especially with having daughters! Thank you for your insight into both the world of swimming and the world at large. Swimming has been a gift to many of us, teaching us life long lessons that we carry with us forever. Our circle of men and women is big, yet so small! Love our sport of swimming and the men and women who conquered the sets together!!

  2. Great post Anne! (I remember the girls may have been tougher...) You skipped that.