At the Pool with Donna de Varona

8:11 pm Sports

ABC Ink

By Dawn Shurmaitis

Thousands of photos exist of Donna de Varona as a gangly 13-year-old, poised on the edge of an Olympic swimming pool, preparing to make a powerful leap into sports history. Much harder to capture are the innumerable leaps she’s made in the 37 years since.

Record breaker. Gold medal winner. First, and youngest, female sportscaster on network television. Co-founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation. Moving force in “Title IX Legislation.” Consultant to the 1984 Olympics. ABC sportscaster for six Olympics and newscaster for two.

Perhaps more important, and less tangible, is her contribution to female athletics. Mention de Varona’s name to a female athlete, whether a 9-year-old soccer player or a 50-year-old jogger, and the recognition often goes well beyond a face from the TV. For de Varona is that rare commodity — an athlete who truly made a difference.

Those now-famous Nike commercials that celebrate the importance of sports to a young girl’s self esteem? “The Women’s Sports Foundation has been pushing that information for years,” says de Varona, the organization’s first president. “We’ve had to plant lots of little seeds.”

For more than 25 years, de Varona has been a highly charged and dedicated champion. Her efforts, particularly through the Sports Foundation, helped lend stature to women’s sports. Today, she is also chairwoman of the 1999 FIFA (Federation International Football Association) Women’s World Cup Organizing Committee, working to insure the soccer tournament is a break-through event for female athletes.

“We’ve been way ahead of the curve realizing that there’s a women’s market out there. There are 18 million soccer players in the U.S. — and 7.5 million of them are female. I think [ABC Sports President] Steve Bornstein is very smart to recognize that,” she says. “It’s going to be exciting in 1999. We may finally see women’s finals on primtetime TV. We’re setting the standard.”

An insider who knows how to work sources, de Varona is comfortable reporting for both sports and news. She’d like to see sports trend stories on all ABC programs and greater attention paid to the sports department’s trademark “up close and personal” stories.

“I can’t think of one interview I’ve been denied because all the athletes know I’ve paid my dues,” she says, citing in particular the Harding-Kerrigan skating scandal she reported for news. “I believe in the sports world. I come from that world. I know how athletes feel.”

The daughter of an All-American football player, de Varona broke barriers from the start. Disappointed that girls couldn’t join Little League, she nonetheless hung out in the dugout, spending all her money on bubblegum to bribe her way into the clubhouse as bat girl. “It’s the story of my life,” she laughs.

She was just 13 when she participated in the Rome Olympics and by the time she was 17 she’d broken an unprecedented 18 world swimming records. Of her athletic abilities, she says, simply, “I was given a gift. I was fortunate to have aptitude.”

Life wasn’t all chlorine and bathing caps. Reading “The Ugly American” in high school sparked an interest in international relations and politics. She grew up during the civil rights and feminist movements and well remembers the early efforts of black athletes like Wilma Rudolph. “It was an incredible time of discovery. Friends were being drafted to Vietnam. I sent letters to Humphrey. I wanted to make a difference.”

Today she teaches her own two kids some of the harder life lessons she’s learned, like “honesty is everything” and “no one can take away your dreams.” Now 50, she married at 39. Her family often spends free time swimming, biking, snorkeling and hiking. Twice a week, the kids accompany de Varona to swim laps at a Connecticut YMCA. “I don’t coach them,” she says. “I mentor them.”

Her mentor was sportscaster Jim McKay, ABC’s anchor during the historical 1972 Olympics. “He’s a wordsmith,” she says. “Only as I’ve gotten older have I realized how important it was that I sat next to him all those years ago. Understanding the global community is very significant. You need to have a sense of history.”

 

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