Front Office

Being a Strong Woman In Sport—and In Life

By Melissa Wickes
September 9, 2021
4 min

In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was condemned broadly by the international community. I was a member of the 1980 Olympic team that had to stay home that summer because of the boycott. And of the three hurdlers, I was the only one fortunate enough to make the team again four years later. I went on to win the Gold Medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

This year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo reminded me of that time in my life when I was forced to watch from the sidelines because of circumstances beyond my control. The athletes who competed this year faced unprecedented challenges as well. They were without spectators and their families, friends, and coaches—all of the people who’ve supported them in their quest for Olympic glory.

During a recent “Strong Women In Sport” presentation, I discussed this topic with journalist Jane Hanson and some amazing champion female athletes: Sandy Dukat, Cynthia Rothrock, and Jen Cobb.

Jane described covering the Olympics in Greece in 2004 and the goosebumps she got when the athletes came into the stadium and the National Anthem was playing. She said, “It still makes me cry!”

I can relate.

Standing atop the Olympic podium is the most wonderful feeling and, like Jane, it took me 20 years after the ‘84 Games to stop crying every time I heard the National Anthem. When I stood on the victory stand, my parents and sister, my coaches, and several others who played an integral role in my success were all in the stands. The National Anthem was playing in my honor and the American flag was flying just for me. Plus, I was on home soil in Los Angeles so there were 90,000 people in the stands chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” 

I get chills just thinking about it.

The athletes in Tokyo didn’t get to experience any of that as they performed in empty, spectator-less stadiums. In addition, Sandy mentioned that they have the added pressure of having to deal with “everyone being a coach or a critic”—whether they have expertise in that athlete’s sport or not. It’s a completely different world today than when I competed—the pressure is immense and not just during competition, but also having the ability to handle all of the criticism and feedback with grace.

To be a strong woman in sport and in life, we have to remember to give people grace, no matter if they’re competing in the Olympics or asking for a raise at work.

Being a Strong Woman Oftentimes Means Being Better

During the panel, we also discussed the challenges of being a woman, both in sport and in life. Sandy, who is an amputee and a three-time bronze medalist at the 2002 and 2006 Paralympic Games in alpine skiing, described how her disability always defines her — and being a woman comes second.

She tells the story of how, when she does simple things like grocery shopping, people cheer for her because of her perceived disability. She says, “You go from this high of standing on top of the podium, and then you go to the grocery store and people clap for you. I almost want to wear my medals under my shirt and show people that I can do much more than shop for myself.”

Cynthia, who is known as the “Queen of Martial Arts” with six black belts, then relays a story about being the first woman to grace the cover of Karate Illustrated. She said the editor at the time had been told that women and minorities on the cover do not sell, but he fought to have her on the cover and they proved that theory wrong. Her edition sold out.

She said, “I’ve always felt like I was against the men. I couldn’t just be good. I had to be better than that. Even when I became the weapons champion in North America in 1982, I had to be better than all the men.”

And Jen Cobb, who is a NASCAR driver and CEO of Jen Cobb Racing, said there are only two women who are full-time racers in NASCAR right now. But being a woman isn’t the only challenging part of her job. She said, “If I don’t have the fastest car, I’m likely not going to place. It takes a lot of money to have the fastest car. To put this in perspective, our team operates on a budget of $700,000 a year against teams competing at $3-$4MM a year. So I have the challenge of being a woman, being underfunded, and being the oldest race car driver on the track.”

Overcoming life’s hurdles is the name of the game for women both on and off the playing field. These women have shown us how true champions take on challenges head-on while displaying the fortitude necessary to accomplish their dreams. 

Strong Women Ask, “Why Not Me?”

As I listened to these women talk, I realized one of my personal mantras applies here, “Why not me?”

Several weeks before the ‘84 Olympic Games, I was sitting on the track after practice and I thought, “Hopefully I’ll run a personal best. Maybe I’ll even set an American record, make the final, or place in the top three!” 

But while I was sitting there thinking about all of the things I “might” do, something in my brain switched and I thought to myself, “Wait a second. Why not me? Why can’t I cross the finish line first? Why can’t I win the gold medal and stand on top of the victory stand?” 

That completely changed my mindset. I was no longer happy to be “nominated.” I expected to win. When I got to the LA Olympics, I had the confidence to walk onto that track, claim victory, win the gold medal — and run a personal best time in the process.

Whether it’s navigating your career or competing at the Olympic Games, you are there to win. It doesn’t matter if you’re an amputee, a woman, or a person of color. We are all in it to win it. Winning certainly comes in many forms…winning an Olympic medal is just one example. Performing at your best and not settling for less than you deserve is the key. Go for the gold in all of your endeavors…

Why not me?

If you’d like to watch the full panel discussion, which I think you’ll find enlightening, empowering, and enjoyable, you can find it by clicking here.