Four years. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days.
That’s a long time to wait. A long time to work towards redemption.
At the age of 12, Dana Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the team but four years later, at just 16, she helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 800m relay – while battling a congenital heart condition that required her to carry a defibrillator to every practice and meet in which she swam. Coming into the 2008 Olympic Trials, where she was scheduled to swim four events, the talented twenty-one-year-old was expected to be a major force.
But she didn’t make the Olympic team – not in a single event. In two of them, she didn’t even make it to the trial finals.
After such crushing disappointment, Dana didn’t know if she ever wanted to swim again. For many athletes, the Olympics are the single greatest measure of their talent. Ahead of Dana stretched fifteen hundred days of grueling work and little payoff. Athletic training isn’t cute, no matter which gender you are. It is gritty and monotonous and agonizing. It goes on day after sweaty day, with plenty of setbacks. Progress, when it comes, is incremental.
Sometime during the bleakness of 2008, Dana decided to keep training. For four long years, she got into the pool every day. And last Sunday, she became the first woman in the world to swim the 100m butterfly in under 56 seconds, earning not just an Olympic gold medal but a world record, and a place in history.
Sixteen years. Five thousand, eight hundred and forty days.
That’s a long time to labor. A long time to maintain an elite edge.
Kim Rhode had just turned seventeen when she competed in her first Olympics in 1996, in the sport of double-trap shooting. When she won the gold, she became the youngest female to do so in the history of Olympic shooting. In the next several Olympics, spanning a dozen years, she won a bronze, another gold, and a silver. Kim’s sport isn’t one that people tune in to watch on TV (although they should – it’s a treat, watching her shoot with laser precision). Before this week, few people knew her name. Nobody would have recognized her on the street.
Kim had to make plenty of adjustments along the way. After her sport was eliminated from the Games, she switched to skeet shooting. In 2008, the shotgun she’d used for eighteen years was stolen from her truck. Shooter’s guns are like an extension of their arm and trying to adjust to a new one, Kim said, was like “a swimmer going from the backstroke to diving.” But adjust she did, while shooting 500-1000 rounds daily, seven days a week.
And when she won another gold medal this week, Kim became the first American in history – male or female, in any event – to medal in five consecutive Olympic games.
Forty years. Fourteen thousand, six hundred days.
That’s a long time to hope. A long time to yearn for a place at the table.
Saudi Arabia entered its first Olympics in 1972 with an all-male team and in the four decades since, the country has never allowed women to compete. This year, after months of intense pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to ban Saudi Arabia (and Qatar and Brunei) altogether if they didn’t let women on their teams, those nations scrambled to find some female athletes.
Saudi Arabia came up with two teenagers, Sarah Attar, a runner who attends college in America, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo wrestler. These women have no shot at Olympic wins – their scores and times aren’t nearly good enough to even qualify them for the Games (they were given a special dispensation by the IOC). And they’re still an agonizingly long way from equality. They marched at the back of the pack during Friday’s opening ceremonies. Their clothing is regulated and their movements are monitored. Their very inclusion is largely a “saving face” move by Saudi Arabian authorities.
Still, they have taken a tiny but important step forward for their gender, in a country where women still suffer appalling indignities. They are quiet pioneers, giving a face to millions of their sisters who still have no voice. One desperately hopes that these two modest, veiled women are that “cloud the size of a man’s hand” that Elijah saw in a barren desert, the promise of a deluge of progress to come.
These Games are chock-a-block full of strong, beautiful women.
Like Allison Schmitt, the effervescent swimmer who has brought such cheer to the entire U.S. team, including her more famous buddy Michael Phelps. A fierce competitor, she’s already earned four medals this week. After swimming a blazing relay anchor leg on Wednesday that brought her another gold medal, she sounded adorably like Buddy the Elf. “I think this is the biggest smile I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I love smiling.”
Or the astonishing British heptathlete (in seven! track & field events) Jessica Ennis, one of only ten women in history who have high-jumped a full foot above their own height. She hurdles. She jumps. She throws. She runs. Two years ago, running the 60 meter hurdles in an international meet, she actually beat a chagrined Lolo Jones – the U.S. champ whose only event is the hurdles. Jessica has pushed through fractures in her foot and inflamed muscles, and she’s filled her walls with medals and trophies and awards. Her 2012 Olympic quest begins on Friday.
And of course the glorious Gabby Douglas, who last night led the women’s gymnastics competition from beginning to end, becoming the first black woman to win the gold all-around medal. In a sport where frayed nerves usually cause even the most confident athletes to stumble, she sailed through every rotation with terrific skill and pizzazz.
Women athletes often don’t get as much attention as their male counterparts, who are stronger and faster. But they train just as hard, and their stories are just as extraordinary. They have earned their place in history. My gorgeous sisters inspire me and make me proud.
I am woman. They smile, as bright as the stadium lights. Hear the crowd roar.