chapter 1 THE champion
“I feel confident that in the years ahead many of the remaining outmoded barriers to women’s aspirations will disappear.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt, chairwoman of President John F. Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, 1962
Perched at the starting blocks, about to compete for the United States at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, champion swimmer Donna de Varona gathered her thoughts.
Four years earlier, as a tiny thirteen-year-old, she had been the youngest member of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. At fourteen she was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The magazine called her “without question, the best all-around woman swimmer in the world.”
Across America many cities were in turmoil as African Americans rallied and demonstrated for basic civil rights. A few women were beginning to speak out for more opportunities.
But Donna’s life was a blur of school and sport, including at least four hours of swimming a day, six days a week. Her dad, an insurance salesman, and her mom, who worked at a library, had sacrificed so their second child could shine. The family of six moved to Santa Clara, California, from Lafayette so Donna could train at a world-class swim club. They scrimped to pay for coaching and trips to swim meets in Japan, Europe, and South America.
Intensely focused, Donna de Varona swims the butterfly on the way to a gold medal at the National AAU swimming-and-diving championships in 1964.
Donna’s progress was remarkable. By her midteens she had broken numerous U.S. and world records. Most notably, she was the world record holder in the most challenging of swimming events, the 400-meter medley, a grueling combination of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle laps. Now, at seventeen, she was competing for the ultimate prize: Olympic gold.
Night after night, she had rehearsed this moment just before she went to sleep. “I’ve got my head on the pillow and I’m in that Tokyo pool. I say to myself, ‘What have those seven years of work been for? You know you’re in shape. There is no reason anyone should beat you.’ ”
Donna’s first love had not been swimming, but baseball. In elementary school she hurried out after school to join the boys in pickup games. But when the boys moved up to Little League, girls weren’t allowed on their teams. All she could do was collect the bats. She quit after one season because “being that close and not being able to play hurt too much.”
After her older brother hurt his knee and began swimming as part of his rehabilitation, she followed him to the pool and found her sport. She swam in her first meet at the age of ten.
In the pool she grew into a focused athlete, determined, intense, and competitive. But on dry land she took great pains to look pretty and well dressed like the other girls. After practice in the morning, she would rush to the locker room and sit on the concrete floor, styling her hair under a hooded hair dryer while she ate scrambled eggs from a Thermos.
In the 1960s girls were known as the “weaker” or “fairer” sex, and they were supposed to be dainty, not strong. Very self-conscious about her muscular, sculptured arms, Donna hid them under long sleeves at school. “I really wanted to look feminine,” she said.
In the pool, however, she was all strength. When the starter’s gun popped in October 1964, she whipped through her two best strokes, the butterfly and the backstroke, and then endured the breaststroke. As she made the turn for the last leg, she let loose. “I just want to go,” she said in Life magazine. “That’s what I’m here for—to get that gold medal, boy. It’s free-style. Gung ho. Guts out.”
She won, setting an Olympic record.
Donna returned home as a national hero with two gold medals, one in the medley and another in a 400-meter relay. The Associated Press and United Press International both named her “Most Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year.” She was an athlete on top of the world.
Then, suddenly, her swimming career was over.
The best boy swimmers were offered scholarships to continue swimming in college. But there were no such scholarships for the best girls in the world. Few colleges even had any kind of women’s sports program. Though she was just a high school senior, “there was no future—no scholarships, no programs, no way I could continue to swim,” she said.
Donna knew that if she wanted to be as successful in the world as she had been in the pool, she needed a college education just like the men did—but she would have to pay for it herself. Society assumed that educating men was more important than educating women. That realization made her feel like her hard work had been discounted, “that what I’d won seemed somehow cheaper,” she said. “It was a devastating feeling.”
Donna de Varona holds one of the two gold medals she won at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The experience made her determined to make a difference, to ensure that other girls wouldn’t face the same discounted future. Many other women and men were beginning to share a similar determination. Across America too many women were being denied a chance to reach their true potential. Too much precious American talent was being wasted in too many areas. From California to Washington, D.C., they were beginning to call for change.