Three Women Who Are Changing the Face of the Olympics

Female athletes first reached for the gold in the 1900 games. (What they suited up for: lawn tennis and golf.) Now, more than a century later, women are still breaking barriers, as illustrated by these athletes hoping to qualify for the 2012 games.

by Sophfronia Scott
women olympians image
Photograph: ©Cable News Network, a Time Warner Company, All Rights Reserved; Associated Press (2)

First female boxer
Two years ago, Houston-based boxer Marlen Esparza was looking forward to hanging up her gloves and living a “normal” life that included college, medical school, maybe even a boyfriend. She'd been in the ring since age 11, had won six national titles and felt she had gone as far as she could in the sport. Then the spunky pugilist got the news: For the first time, women's boxing would be included in the 2012 Olympics. The normal life would have to wait. Now Esparza, the subject of the recent CNN documentary Latino in America 2: In Her Corner, thinks only of her training. “I put my life into this goal,” she says. Her biggest Olympic challenge: Women in other countries, especially China, Ireland and Russia, are better funded and have competed in more fights. But Esparza, 22, is counting on her inner game. “You have to be mentally prepared,” she says. And she's not throwing punches for herself alone. “Women boxers before me had to earn respect before we even had the chance to be in the Games,” she says. “It's a lot of pressure, but I would rather the pressure be on me than anyone else.”

Midlife swimmer
One morning last year, Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, who hadn't competed since 1996, woke up and told her husband, “I think I want to swim again.” At 39, she's back in the water, challenging young'uns who weren't even born in 1988, the year Evans won three Olympic golds. Though the Orange County, California, resident had a successful career as a motivational speaker, she still felt her greatest skill was, in her words, “swimming as hard and as fast as I can.” It's not even the most difficult thing she's done. A mother of two, she says, “I remember getting up in the middle of the night with my kids and thinking, Compared with this, swimming in the Olympics is a piece of cake! There's this empowerment you have as a woman, as a mom, that you can do anything.”
Evans is already setting records in her age group, and she expects to be fully ready to compete in the Summer Olympic trials in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle events. What's different this time around? “I have some perspective now that I didn't have then. I'm swimming not because I have to but because I enjoy it.”
First Olympic headscarf
When Ibtihaj Muhammad was 13, she and her mother happened to see the local high school fencing team at practice. Noticing how the participants' protective uniforms concealed their bodies from head to toe, Muhammad's mother told her, “I'm not sure what that is, but when you get to high school, you're trying it out.” Muhammad, whose Muslim religion requires girls to cover their heads, arms and legs after puberty, didn't argue. It was a way to stay in sports (she had previously played tennis and run track) and nourish her competitive nature. Now the Maplewood, New Jersey, athlete may become the first practicing American Muslim to wear a hijab—the traditional Muslim headscarf—in the Olympics. “I love that I don't have to change anything about myself to fence,” says Muhammad, 25, who wears her hijab under her helmet. Currently ranked number 11 in the world in women's saber, she hopes to inspire other religious minorities to take up the sport. “We think of America as being this huge melting pot, especially at the Olympics,” she says. “To think that it's 2012 and there hasn't been a hijab on the Olympic team … It's a humbling experience to be the first.”
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First Published November 9, 2011

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