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Women bring it home from 2016 Olympics

The 2016 Olympics wrapped up this past week-end in Rio. It was an astonishingly success games for the US women - they earned 61 of the 121 medals won by US athletes and 27 of the 46 gold medals - 59%.

These numbers are even more astounding because there are fewer events for women to compete in than men - 145 events for women and 161 for men.

This year, 45% of all athletes competing from around the world were women. The International Olympic Committee has a goal for there to be an equal number of women and men by the 2020 summer games. Read more here.

Why is it so important for women to have equal access to sports? There are so many benefits to participating in sports and before the Title IX act of 1972 in the US (which prohibited discrimination again girls and women) female athletes were not ensured of equal access to sports.

Next... more in our on-going series on women and swagger in sports. Continued from this blog.

Why try it?

A 2006 study - The New Normal? What Girls Say About Healthy Living noted that emotional health is linked to body image. The study found that the more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, whether they are thin or heavy.

In the book Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher also echoes that finding, saying:

...sports can be protective. Girls in sports are often emotionally healthy. They see their bodies as functional, not decorative. They have developed discipline in the pursuit of excellence. They have learned to win and lose, to cooperate, and to handle stress and pressure. They are in a peer group that defines itself by athletic ability rather than popularity, drug or alcohol use, wealth or appearance.

Alice Temple, council director for Girls on the Run in Santa Fe, New Mexico says that the girls who participate in their programs are profoundly changed by their experiences. The mission of the Santa Fe organization is "to educate and prepare girls for a lifetime of self-respect and healthy living.”

Alice says many of the third to sixth grade girls who participate in the ten week curriculum come from families that haven’t encouraged exercise. She says the girls often come in very shy, with their heads lowered. After ten weeks of running and body-positive work, she says those same girls “look you right in the eye; they’ve grown a foot in confidence.”

At the end of the class, the girls participate in a 5K race. Alice says that more than 1,000 girls have crossed the finish line, as a result of the program. “Many parents tell me that the program was life-changing for their daughters. One girl thought she had asthma and couldn’t run. Through the program, she found out that wasn’t true. She has been active ever since and just received an ROTC scholarship to go to college.”

Saving your life

Girls who are physically active are less likely to smoke, try drugs, and have unprotected sex according to a 2009 study called Her Life Depends on It, sponsored by the Women’s Sports Foundation. Girls in sports do better in school and are more likely to complete college than those who don’t participate. Girls who are active are 20% less likely to get breast cancer or suffer from osteoporosis later in life.

The study says that “the more time girls spend participating in team sports, the better they feel about their athletic abilities and the higher their level of self-esteem.” Rates of depression and suicide are lower for female athletes than for other women.

Do you have a sport that keeps you fit and gives you joy or would you like to try something new? Moving your body allows you to express yourself, have fun, and build strength and fitness.

I started hiking with my family when I was young. I always loved being outdoors where I could use my “outside” voice and run and have fun. I love hiking now for the some of the same reasons. I don’t have to worry too much about how I look. I get to be outside and breathe the fresh air and be in the silence and sounds of nature, which soothes my mind and my soul.

The girls and women that I interviewed for the book, The Girl's Guide to Swagger in the Outdoors and Sports talked about what they get from their sports. A common theme was the enjoyment of being out in nature, even in the winter and seeing wildlife and amazing sunrises. They spoke about feeling the water underneath them in a kayak and the air in their face, while riding their bike or boating.

Some were active outdoors to get exercise and to feel healthy. Many mentioned building strength that allowed them to feel better and look better too.

When I first started hiking, I could feel the muscles in my legs grow stronger every time I walked. The more I did it, the stronger and more fit I became. Brenda Staab is a Colorado mom in her 40s, who also works on a start-up business in technology. She says “I love biking for many reasons. I find it to be an incredible workout, and especially enjoy riding up hills and mountain passes because it gets my heart rate up for extended periods of time.”

Some of the elite athletes I spoke with talked about being the first women in their sports and how they worked hard to achieve their dream. Jen Welter is the first woman to play professional football in a contact position. She played running back for Texas Revolution and is now a coach with the Arizona Cardinals. Jen says “Tackle football is the ultimate team sport. It is truly the place where everybody of every body type can be great. Diversity is strength in football. I grew up loving the sport, but being told I could not play football, so playing is literally a dream come true.”

Sarah Hendrickson achieved another first for women. She was the first woman to ever compete in the Olympic Games ski jump. Although men have been ski jumping in the Olympics since 1924, women were not allowed to participate in this sport in the Olympics until 2014. Sarah was the first woman to ever compete. She finished 21st in the competition and hopes to better her results in the future and she is widely expected to be an Olympic medalist in the coming years.

Finding a sport to play can be a way to challenge yourself and to develop discipline that can carry into other parts of your life. It is a way to learn patience and persistence and a strong work ethic. Playing outdoors can be fun and make you forget your worries. Hiking on a mountain trail, near a running stream with wildflowers all around has a way of refreshing your mind and making your troubles seem smaller and less important. Connecting with nature allows you to be mindful of what is happening in the moment and enjoy that moment fully. Lauri Bausch Miller races skeleton, which is like bobsled with just one person. She hopes to be in the Olympic Games some day. When she is competing in her sport, she says “I feel alive, strong, and confident.”

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