Originally posted as a Special to ESPN.com, March 17, 2009.
I have known and been friends with Anita DeFrantz for three decades, since she was a vice president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1984 Summer Games. She is one of sports’ true pioneers, both for her marvelous athletic career and for her position as perhaps the most powerful woman in international sport through her role in the International Olympic Committee. Her influence is written all over the Olympics.
Recently, she told me, “I know we are not done yet; but between 1996 and 2008, we have had twice as many women competing in the Olympics than those who competed between 1900 and 1992 combined. Forty-two percent of the Olympians were women in Beijing. When I was on the team, it was less than 20 percent.”
The Olympic experience in the Athletes Village in 1976 shaped the rest of her life.
“I saw the Africans walk out to protest racism in South Africa,” she said. “They stood up for justice, and I learned from them. But I also learned from the Olympians who stayed that everyone could live in peace. Sport smashed boundaries and dissolved hatred.”
DeFrantz has been an against-all-odds person throughout her career. It was against considerable odds that this girl, who wasn’t able to play high school sports, became a great rower. She didn’t compete in that sport until college; yet in 1976, she became the first African-American to win an Olympic medal in rowing. Later, she showed the courage to stand up to President Jimmy Carter, in leading athletes to protest the administration’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.
The focus of ESPN’s coverage of Women’s History Month this year is on young athletes in sports that are both traditional and non-traditional. DeFrantz’s role as a positive influence in helping young women become competitive in sport makes her a perfect subject. Her own example, of course, is a key factor. She broke barriers and gave hope to young girls that they could follow her path.
I accompanied Anita to the National Black Heritage Swimming Championships in May of 2008 and watched young black girls huddle around her. She was excited to see all these youthful African-American barrier breakers who were trying to find their way in a traditional country club sport that has provided opportunities almost exclusively for whites. She kept telling them, “Yes, you can; yes, you can.” DeFrantz has been saying this to young girls ever since she stopped competing herself, and long before Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can” campaign phrase took on a whole new meaning.
Anita said at the time, “I wanted to swim competitively when I was their age, but an African-American girl had no outlet to swim. My being a competitive athlete prepared me for everything that followed in life. I think it is great that these kids are getting this opportunity.”
One of the young women in awe of Anita was the University of Maryland’s Blair Cross, who was then the only African-American swimmer in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Cross recently told me, “It was so inspiring to have met Ms. Anita DeFrantz. When I first met her, I must admit that I was surprised that there was an African-American woman who held such an influential position within the International Olympic Committee. She made me immediately comfortable in approaching her to ask about her sports career and college athletic career in rowing. She and I share a similar experience in being minorities in our sports. We have been asked similar questions and have been put in uncomfortable positions as minorities in our sports — especially sports that have a history of not being diverse at all. She couldn’t swim competitively during her college years, but here I am. And she also had questions about my current experiences.”
Indeed, DeFrantz engaged those young people like adults rarely do. She asked questions such as, “Was the competition good for you? Would you do it again? Did you accomplish what you set out to do?”
She got enthusiastic answers to all her questions.
I have seen young athletes and athlete representatives at an IOC meeting seek her advice. While her athleticism and international influence are most often noted in her story, I have no doubt that her greatest legacy will come from the millions of children who have participated in LA84, a foundation that she has led for 23 years. LA84 has undertaken programs to support sporting, health and fitness activities in Southern California and was funded originally by profits from the Los Angeles Olympics. Focusing on sports activities that historically have been denied to impoverished youth, the programs have helped jumpstart the careers of young athletes who became high school stars, won college scholarships, made Olympic teams and turned pro. With support from LA84, for example, Venus and Serena Williams began to compete in Southern California Tennis Association events before they took America and the tennis world by storm.
Angela Williams, another former LA84 athlete, won four straight NCAA titles in the 100 meters at Southern Cal, won the 60-meter gold medal at the 2008 IAAF world indoor championships and was on the past two U.S. Summer Olympic teams. Among other LA84 products in track and field are Valerie Flores, Natalie Stein and Alexis Weatherspoon, who became intercollegiate stars; and Zuri Henderson, who has made a mark in the USATF National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships.
In short-track speed skating, Jacqueline Chen won the 2008 U.S. National Short Track Championships in her age group (9 and under), and Maria Garcia competed in the Torino Olympics and was the U.S. Junior Short Track Champion. In track cycling, Christine Barron, Sarah Chen and Tara McCormick competed successfully in the 2007 and 2008 USA Cycling Junior Track National Championships. All were supported by LA84. The foundation has a six-page list of the girls and boys it has supported who competed nationally.
But when DeFrantz talks about the foundation, she talks about more than the accomplishments of the athletes on the playing field.
“We live in dangerous times,” she said. “The streets of our cities can be battlegrounds. Within a two-week period four years ago, two college students who went through foundation programs came back to volunteer. Working their ways home, both were shot and killed.”
Anita was determined to further expand their programs to get kids off the streets.
By now, more than 2.5 million children have participated in LA84 programs. Each summer, 9,000 young people take part in a huge swim program. DeFrantz proudly said of the program, “80 percent of our life guards were summer swimmers.”
She glows even more brightly when she talks about the girls who have become healthier through competition and who have participated in the life skills programs almost always attached to LA84 athletic programs. They come to believe that “Yes, we can,” in their own lives.
Anita DeFrantz opened a world of new opportunities by making, and then shaping, history. This is her legacy to all the young girls she has inspired and touched.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.