Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Paying it Forward–Rally for Girls’ Sports Day

I've always believed sports can be an integral part of any young girl's development. That belief stems from my own introduction to athletics as a young girl.

For me, sports were first and foremost a bonding experience with my dad. He made sure, early on, that I knew how to throw a baseball properly and shoot a perfect jump shot.

As I began to participate in organized sports, it was my dad who bought me my first softball glove and first pair of basketball shoes. Early on, we bonded over the pain and nuisance of wearing eyeglasses while participating in sports - so he bought me my first ulgy, black athletic eyeglass holder - thankfully, he then allowed me to begin wearing contacts by sixth grade.

But it was once I discovered running - specifically high school track - that I really began to embrace athletic participation. And, you guessed it, it was my dad who bought me my first running tights, racing spikes and even my first sports bra.

My participation in high school track led me to college at the University of Minnesota where I competed on the track team. Later I volunteered for years as a track official with the team. But even I have been surprised by what athletics did for me longer term.

Today I still run, albeit longer distances at much slower paces than my high school sprinting days; I even competed for a couple of USATF-MN teams post-collegiately. I've coached high school athletes, and worked at countless road races, track meets and cross country races. And I make a living as a freelance writer by telling the stories of other people's athletic endeavors.

What did I win by playing sports? A lifelong passion for health & fitness; the ability to compete, win and lose with grace and dignity; the understanding of how to set and achieve goals; the knowledge of what it means to contribute to a team; self-confidence, self-respect & self-esteem; and, perhaps most importantly, the zeal to encourage, influence and support the next generation (as well as newcomers of any age.)

When the National Women's Law Center asked bloggers to write a post today, December 8th, about the importance of girls in sports and the benefits of athletics participation, I gladly signed up. In trying to come up with my angle on this broad topic I decided to seek out some of today's experts: girls who are just now moving up the ranks through athletic pursuits of their own.

Thankfully, opportunities for young women today abound, so I had many "subjects" from which to choose. I ended up asking the daughters of two friends to write just a glimpse into their athletic lives. Their stories follow.

Nine-year-old Grace Byers is in fouth grade at Burroughs Community School in Minneapolis, Minn. She started figure skating in December 2008. When she's not skating, Grace practices yoga in mother and daughter yoga classes led by her certified intructor mom, Faith McGown. She also participates in the yoga classes Faith teaches to her figure skating club. An extremely active girl, Grace is learning to enjoy running with her mom, who has run Twin Cities Marathon and many other races.

This weekend I competed in a figure skating competition in White Bear Lake. I took first place in my event. Since I started skating three years ago I have won 10 medals and trophies.

Ever since I started figure skating I have been more focused in school and I am getting better grades. It’s made me a better student and a stronger person. Every year our school does a family fun run. In 4th grade you have to run 40 minutes. It used to be hard for me. Since I started skating, I run the whole thing. I even run some 5ks with my mom.

Even though I compete on my own, I am still part of a team. I am good friends with many of my teammates. We help and cheer for each other even when we compete against each other. I think all kids should have a sport. [Photo caption: Grace with her first-place trophy–Saturday, December 4, 2010. Photo courtesy: Faith McGown.]

Maddie Peterson, 15, is a sophomore at Saint Louis Park Senior High School in Minnesota. This spring she will play Ado Annie in her school's production of "Oklahoma!"

In the fall I run Cross Country for Saint Louis Park. I’m the fifth fastest varsity runner on the team. Our girl’s team doesn’t think of running as a sport that you do after school. We think of it, as a way to make new friends every year and create sister-like bonds that will last all throughout your whole life even if you stop running. Since our girl’s team is so small we have more of a chance to get to know each other better. I’m glad I don’t go to a huge school with a giant team because you don’t get the same kind of relationships with every runner. This year I learned something from every girl on the team.

Over the summer when I train for the season my parents sometimes have us do family runs. Our family is very close but usually I prefer running alone. When I run with my family I’m distracted and it feels like they’re going extremely fast, but really I’m going too fast. When I’m running alone I can think and clear my head. My parents always say, “How come you can run with your team but you hate running with us?” and I tell them its because with my team I don’t feel any pressure from them. You can go as fast as you want at practice and everyone will be ok with it.

I want to be an opera singer when I’m older. I’ve often thought that my abilities to project my voice like I can come from my lung capacity from running and the endurance I’ve built up. I asked my opera teacher one day if it was a good idea to exercise and sing at the same time. He told me yes it is and he would sometimes hum his song while running. At practice I tried singing some songs while running. It wasn’t perfect but it’s a start! [Photo courtesy: Susan Peterson.]

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