Bonnie Blair: Speed Racer

Skater_Bonnie_Blair
By John Mathew Smith from Laurel Maryland, USA – Skater Bonnie Blair, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain. 

Bonnie Blair has skated her way into the hearts of America. She comes from an entire family of skaters; Bonnie is the “baby” of the family, born in 1964. She was skating with ease by the age of two and was a competitor by four! When Bonnie was seven, her family moved from her birthplace of Cornwall, New York, to the Midwestern town of Champaign, Illinois. She won the state speed skating championship for her age group that same year.

In Illinois, Bonnie was fortunate to hook up with a great coach, Cathy Priestner, an Olympic champion herself. Cathy directed her toward Olympic-style speed skating and away from the pack racing that had been her strength. Age sixteen was certainly sweet for Bonnie when she skated 500 meters in 46.7 seconds at her debut as a potential Olympian. This gave her a taste of what it could be like to be the fastest woman on skates. However, Bonnie had some bumpy ice ahead—she didn’t make the cut in the actual trials later. Another stumbling block that nearly felled her was money problems; the grueling expense of travel expenses and coaching was more than the Blairs could handle. But Bonnie’s hometown rose to the occasion, and the local police force ran a ten-year campaign to raise funds to pay for their Olympic hopeful through sales of bumper stickers and t-shirts. Their generous spirit paid for Bonnie’s training with the U.S. men’s speed skaters in the Big Sky country of Butte, Montana.

Bonnie first came into global view in the Sarajevo games in 1984. She finished quite honorably, ranking eighth in the 500-meter speed skating race, but Bonnie knew she could do better. For the next Olympics, she focused even harder and increased the difficulty of her regimen—weight-training, running, biking, and roller-skating, all over and above the intense skating. Pushing herself was key for Bonnie. She started breaking world records in 1986 and took the U.S. championship every year from 1985 to 1990. In a power sport, Bonnie actually measured in as much smaller and lighter than many of her rivals from around the world.

After adopting her new style of training, 1988 was the first Olympics Bonnie participated in. She took a gold medal in the 500-meter race and set a world record of 39.10 seconds, beating out a German skater in the first place who had just set a world record. Bonnie didn’t stop with that and took home the bronze for the 1,000-meter sprint. Bonnie became the best speed skater in the world in Calgary that day and kept her title at the 1992 games in Albertville, France, with two more gold medals. Bonnie also started winning hearts with her friendly, open manner and lack of pretension.

Odds were somewhat against veteran Bonnie in Lillehammer in 1994, but she did what no other woman has done and took two more gold medals. The emotional highlight of the games that year was not the other drama queen figure skaters—Harding and Kerrigan—but Bonnie Blair. Half the world cried with her as she took her gold and cried while the national anthem played during what was to be Bonnie’s last Olympics. Bonnie Blair: the first woman to earn gold medals in three straight Olympic games and the first American woman to win five gold medals in the history of the Olympics.

“…I’m in this because I love what I’m doing.”
—Bonnie Blair

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Myriam Bedard: Canadian Bi-Athlete

myriam-bedard_getty_2
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images.

Well on her way to a successful career as a figure skater, Myriam Bedard hung up her figure skates as a young teenager to become a pioneer in one of the Olympic’s newest sanctioned sports competitions for women: the much less glamorous and far more rigorous biathlon. It has an interesting history: for ancient Scandinavians, skiing and stalking prey were necessary for survival in their wintry climes. Infantry soldiers in World War II came to the same conclusion for completely different reasons, leading to the formation of military ski patrols in Norway, Finland, Sweden, and other parts of Scandinavia. The biathlon is a refinement of these origins but wasn’t reorganized as an Olympic sport for men until 1960. Women biathletes had to wait thirty-two more years to compete on the Olympic games. The young Myriam was ready.

She had been training for several years in a suburb outside Quebec City and quickly discovered the prohibition on firearms in Canada’s public bus system. Resourcefully, she figured out how to tear her gun down so it could be transported in an innocent-looking violin case. Highly driven, Myriam started winning races at fifteen, even though the only ski boots she had were so big she had to stuff paper in the toes. Nevertheless, at the Lillehammer Olympics, she won the bronze medal for the 15-kilometer race.

Myriam’s career has been cloaked in both mystery and controversy. Upon winning her Olympic prize, she stirred debate with her absolute refusal to sign Biathlon Canada’s contractual agreement to cycle a portion of other earnings back to the organization, accompanied by a “gag order” to prevent media appearances by national biathletes. Her stubbornness, or independence, depending on the point of view, concluded in her suspension from Canada’s team. A truce was won in time for her to rejoin the team and lead them to an exciting win in the 1993 world championships in Bulgaria. Bedard did Canada proud in Bulgaria, shooting past the Russian skier who had bested her in ’92.

Her critics love to harp on her solitary ways and her secrecy with her private coach, whose name she refuses to reveal. When she performed with less than stellar speed at the 1993 winter trials, the naysayers came out in droves to predict gloom, doom, and disaster for Canada. Resolute in her own judgment and that of her “mystery coach,” Myriam had simply decided to reserve her strength for the 1994 Olympic games in Lillehammer. Although her starting position for the 15-kilometer race was third from last, with the fierce concentration that has become her trademark, Bedard swept to the front and took the gold, following that victory with a second win on the 7.5-kilometer race. A fascinating footnote to the Lillehammer triumphs is that she realized after her second race that she had on mismatched skis! The reticent Myriam Bedard has become a much sought- after speaker in Canada and a national hero to Canada’s youth, who cherish that she is one of the nation’s all-time greatest Olympic champions. Bedard tries to balance all this with motherhood (she married a fellow biathlete in 1994) and her love of a quiet life. She walked her own path every step of the way and carved out a destiny in what is arguably the toughest of all Olympic sports.

“I like it when I strike sparks in people…after all, that’s why I’m here!”
— Myriam Bedard

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Arlene Blum: “A Woman’s Place Is On Top”

Arlene_Blum_1977_003
By Cullen328 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Public Domain.

Arlene Blum has made a success by doing what she’s not “supposed” to do. Born in Chicago in 1945 and raised by her mother’s parents, Arlene overcame “arithmaphobia” to go to the top of her class in mathematics and science, where she developed a taste for competing academically with boys. She decided to study chemistry at Portland’s Reed College, ultimately earning a doctorate in chemistry from U.C. Berkeley. In an interview with Ms. in 1987, she indicated that this spirit of competition still propelled her, “I know that…girls weren’t supposed to be chemists. And it’s always sort of nice to do things you’re not supposed to do.” Reed’s location near Oregon’s mountain peaks was auspicious for the young scientist. She fell in love with mountain climbing and even worked it into her academic regimen by analyzing volcanic gas from the top of Mount Hood.

More exotic ranges beckoned, and Arlene soon trekked to Mexican and Andean peaks. An eye-opening event happened when she submitted an application to be a part of a team destined for Afghanistan and was turned down for being a woman. After a second ejection for an Alaskan expedition, Arlene Blum took the “bull by the horns” and put together her own all-woman team of six climbers, all of whom made the peak of Alaska’s Mount Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) in 1970. This was just the beginning for the barrier-breaking shero, who in 1978 took another all-woman team to Annapurna, one of the highest mountains in the world. At the time, only four teams had ever made it to the top of Annapurna, a treacherous mountain known for fierce storms and dangerous avalanches. In addition to the danger, such treks are always extremely expensive. Ever plucky, Blum and her team of Sherpas and sheroes paid their way to the top of Annapurna, the world’s tenth highest peak, by selling t-shirts and gaining corporate sponsorship. The t-shirts became real conversation starters with the winning slogan, “a Woman’s Place is on top…Annapurna!”

Amazing Arlene has gone on to walk the entire Great Himalayan mountain range, crest Everest, and organize many expeditions and explorations. She has also excelled at her other profession, chemistry, and helped identify a carcinogenic flame-retardant in children’s clothing. Arlene’s daughter Annlise joins her mother on climbs now, part of the generation of women for whom Arlene cleared the path. Arlene Blum showed the world that, when it comes to excluding women from sports, there “ain’t no mountain high enough” to keep a good woman down!

“People say I’ve organized all-women’s expeditions to show what we can do; but it wasn’t like that. It was more a rebellion against being told I couldn’t do something, or…that women couldn’t do something.”
— Arlene Blum
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Florence Griffith-Joyner: Going With the Flo Jo

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By All the photographs are in the public domain and may be credited “Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library. – croped from File:Florence Griffith Joyner.jpg, Public Domain.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s brother, Al Joyner, was an Olympic athlete too. When he met the flamboyant Florence Griffith in 1984, the runner who made her mark on the track world as much for her long fingernails and colorful attire as for being “the world’s fastest woman,” she was working days as a customer service rep for a bank and moonlighting as a beautician at night. The former world-class runner had lost the gold to Valerie Brisco in 1980 and had given up. At Al’s urging, she began training again. They also started dating seriously and got married soon after. This time, Florence had the will to win and stormed the 1988 Seoul Olympics to take home three gold medals. Off the track, “Flo Jo,” as the press dubbed her, has devoted herself to working with children, hoping to educate the youth of America to “reach beyond their dreams,” eat right, play sports, and stay away from drugs. After her record-setting gold medal races in Seoul, Ms. enthused, “Florence Griffith-Joyner has joined the immortals, rising to their status on the force of her amazing athletic achievement, aided by the singular nature of her personality and approach.”

“Looking good is almost as important as running well. It’s part of feeling good about myself.”

— Florence Griffith-Joyner

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee: Queen of the Field

Jackie_Joyner-Kersee_Eugene_2014
By Erik van Leeuwen, attribution: Erik van Leeuwen (bron: Wikipedia). – http://www.erki.nl, GFDL, Public Domain.

Arguably the greatest cross category track and field star of all time, Jackie Joyner-Kersee has a string of firsts to her credit and keeps racking them up at an astonishing rate: she’s the first U.S. woman to win gold for the long jump, the first woman ever to exceed 7,000 points for the heptathlon, and the first athlete, man or woman, to win multiple gold medals in both single and multiple events in track and field. Since her debut in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Events, Jackie has been at the top of her game.

Along with her athletic prowess, Jackie’s charisma and style made her an overnight sensation. In addition, she has a policy of giving back as good as she gets to the community she’s from. She has a strong desire to nurture athleticism and scholarship in urban settings where access to a place to run and play is the first of many challenges ghetto kids face. Her foundation, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation, is currently developing a recreational and educational facility for kids in East St. Louis area where kids will have access to a computer lab, library, ball fields, basketball courts, and of course, indoor and outdoor tracks.

Like several other outstanding athletes, Jackie comes from poverty, an alum of the poorest part of East St. Louis. Fortunately, Jackie received encouragement from her family to participate in sports. She discovered track and field at the Mayor Brown Community Center, and her Olympic dreams started when she saw the 1976 Olympics on television. Jackie quickly emerged as a veritable “sporting savant” and started breaking national records at fourteen, excelling at basketball and volleyball while maintaining a super grade point average. Soon she was courted by many tantalizing college scholarships, ultimately deciding to attend UCLA, where Bob Kersee would be her coach.

Bob Kersee, whom she married in 1986, convinced both Jackie and the powers-that-be at UCLA that Jackie’s career lay in multitrack events. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine Jackie anywhere but in the event where she is the best in the world. Jackie’s forte is the seven-event heptathlon, a previously overlooked event in which athletes earn points by running a 200-meter dash, compete in both high and long jumps, throw both the javelin and shot put, run the 100-meter hurdles, and complete an 800-meter run, all in two days. These herculean challenges alone call for super-sheroism, and Jackie has not only made the heptathlon her own, but through her prowess made the event a track and field favorite.

She is one of the few African American athletes to get prestigious product endorsement contracts and is very aware of her opportunity to provide a positive role model, telling Women’s Sports & Fitness, “I feel that as an African American woman the only thing I can do is continue to better myself, continue to perform well, continue to make sure that I’m a good commodity. If doors aren’t opened for me, then maybe it will happen for someone else.”

“I understand the position I am in, but I also know that tomorrow there’s going to be someone else. So I try to keep things in perspective.”

— Jackie Joyner-Kersee

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Wilma Rudolph: La Gazelle

Wilma_Rudolph_1960
By Lindeboom, Henk / Anefo – [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.03 Bestanddeelnummer 911-6074, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, Public Domain.
Runner Wilma Rudolph’s life is the story of a great spirit and heart overcoming obstacles that would have stopped anyone else in their tracks, literally! Born in Bethlehem, Tennessee, in 1955, Wilma contracted polio at the age of four and was left with a useless leg.

Wilma’s family was in dire straits with a total of eighteen children from her father’s two marriages. Both parents worked constantly to feed the burgeoning brood, her father as a porter and her mother as a house cleaner, and it was more important to feed Wilma and her siblings than it was to get the medical attention Wilma needed to recover the use of her leg. Two years later circumstances eased a bit, and at the age of six, Wilma started riding the back of the bus with her mother to Nashville twice a week for physical therapy. Although doctors predicted she would never walk without braces, Wilma kept up her rehabilitation program for five years and not only did the braces come off, but “by the time I was twelve,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “I was challenging every boy in the neighborhood at running, jumping, everything.”

Her exceptional ability didn’t go unnoticed. A coach with Tennessee State University saw how she was winning every race she entered in high school and offered to train her for the Olympics, which Wilma hadn’t even heard of. Nevertheless, she qualified for the Olympics at sixteen and took home a bronze medal in the 1956 Summer Games for the 100-meter relay. Still in high school, she decided to work toward a gold medal for the 1960 games.

Well, she did that and more. The three gold medals she won in the 1960 Olympics in Rome—in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 4 X 100 relay— turned her into a superstar overnight. Wilma was the first American woman ever to win triple gold in a single Olympics. People were stumbling over the top of each other to find the superlatives to describe her. The French named Wilma “La Gazelle,” and in America she was known as “The Fastest Woman on Earth.” Wilma was everybody’s darling after that, with invitations to the JFK White House and numerous guest appearances on television. The flip side of all the glory was, however, that Wilma received hardly any financial reward for her public appearances and had to work odd jobs to get through college.

One year later, Wilma again set the world on fire by breaking the record for the 100-meter dash: 11.2 seconds. Unpredictably, Wilma sat out the ’64 Olympic Games and stayed in school, graduating with a degree in education and returning to the very school she had attended as a youngster to teach second grade. In 1967, she worked for the Job Corps and Operation Champion, a program that endeavored to bring star athletes into American ghettos as positive role models for young kids. Wilma herself loved to talk to kids about sports and was a powerful symbol with her inspiring story.

That Wilma touched the lives of children is best evidenced in a letter writing campaign taken up by a class of fourth graders in Jessup, Maryland, who requested the World Book Encyclopedia correct their error in excluding the world-class athlete. The publisher complied immediately! Wilma has also been honored with induction into both the Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. A film version of her autobiography Wilma starring Cicely Tyson was produced to tremendous acclaim. Her death from terminal brain cancer took place shortly after she received an honor as one of “The Great Ones” at the premiere National Sports Awards in 1993.

“I have spent a lifetime trying to share what it has meant to be a woman first in the world of sports so that other young women will have a chance to reach their dreams.”
— Wilma Rudolph
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Martina Navratilova: Always Herself

MartinaNavratilovaSept2011
By Angela George, CC BY-SA 3.0, Public Domain.

One of the all-time tennis greats, Martina Navratilova was a Czechoslovakian native who defected to the United States so she could manage her own career, rather than having the Czech government tell her what to do and where to go. During the eighties, she was the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world with a career record of seventy-five straight wins. She approached her career and training as serious business, a pure athlete in the truest sense. One of the first openly gay celebrities, Martina has been linked amorously with Rita Mae Brown, who penned a novel about their affair and was sued in a “galimony” suit by another lover, Judy Nelson, who went on to share a bed with Rita. Opines Martina, “I never thought there was anything strange about being gay.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.