Sports make girls resilient, says American Olympian

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX was a great moment in women’s sports. Social media was buzzing with advocacy, progress stories and camaraderie from people of all ages, and for one day we got a small glimpse of a world in which men’s and women’s sports receive equal attention.

As part of the celebration, I joined the Front Office Sports Title IX Virtual Summit with WWE Champion Bianca Belair and former NWSL athlete Haley Kopmeyer (who is now a team member of the very awesome Just Women Sports team) . We discussed our professional paths and what the future holds. But most importantly, we got you covered why we must fight for women’s sport.

One of my reasons why comes from my personal journey:

Sports teach young women how to overcome difficulties they will face for the rest of their lives.

I grew up in Southern California in the late 80s, which is not where you expect an Olympic hockey player to come from.

As the story goes, my father went to a local rink to sign my brother up to play. The team was desperate for kids to fill out the team and told my dad they would give him a discount if he signed me and my sister as well. He did, even though at the time it was almost unheard of to have a girl playing hockey – let alone on an all-boys team. All this did not matter in his eyes; once you hit the ice, everyone’s a player.

A few years later my sister pursued other interests, making me the only girl in my age group to play in the entire state of California. It doesn’t get more isolating than that, but I didn’t care. I fell in love with the game and had an amazing family around me who supported my dream of going pro.

But being the only girl playing came with its own challenges. The opposing boys called me names, which you are used to as a nine-year-old child, but strangely the parents were opposed to my presence.

This led to a seminal moment in my life that shows the value of sports in a girl’s life.

I was a top player on my team but got cut – obviously because I was a girl. As I cried in the car on the way home, my dad said to me, “you can retire and prove them right or you can go on and be the best player out there next year.”

It was a setback, but happening at such a young age turned out to be the best thing for me. It got me focused and started what ended up being a great athletic career. I went on to win four Olympic medals from 1998 – 2010, became the all-time leader in games played for Team USA, and became the fourth woman ever elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame (and the only player from California). At one point I also played for a men’s team – the Tulsa Oilers – and became the first woman to play in a professional regular season hockey game in North America at a position other than goalie.

This belief carried over into the boardroom, where I became a member of the International Olympic Committee and was elected Chairman of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, the body that represents all Olympic athletes worldwide.

Ever since I got cut, I’ve faced obstacles with consistency. Whenever I’m the only girl in the room and I know I need to be twice as good, my attitude has been “bring it on.” Whenever I have a challenge in front of me, my instinct is to face it rather than retreat from it. This has not only served me well as an athlete, but now in business as co-founder and CEO of the Sports Innovation Lab, and is one of the best skills we can teach our children.

Whether you’re kicked off the team, down 28-3 in the Super Bowl, or just trying to learn something new, sports are a valuable playground for learning lessons that serve us throughout our lives. It’s even helped me become a podcast host – something I never expected to be when I was younger.

So protect youth sports. Invest in growing the women’s sports community. Go out and play something yourself! The results are worth it.

Do you have a story of overcoming adversity? Message me on Twitter @angelaruggiero to share it!

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