Cheering the Pioneers

As girls, we are shaped by the women in our lives who model strength before us. Have you stopped to consider which women shaped you, and how? Have you ever thanked them for their influence? Read on as Valerie Gin and Jo Kadlecek help us remember.Elisa

Cheering the Pioneers

By Valerie j. Gin and Jo Kadlecek

"The memory of a strong woman is a sanctuary . . ."

From the novel, When Girls Became Lions

Do you remember the strong women from your childhood? They were teachers and relatives, neighbors and camp counselors, and their encouragement provided the safety to risk. They not only cheered us on, they showed us how to play and think and grow.

As two girls growing up only with brothers (Val in Illinois, Jo in Colorado), we dove into any sport we could find. Thanks also to the newly enacted federal law called Title IX that mandated equal opportunities for girls, our high schools and colleges began offering young women athletes a chance to play the games we'd previously only watched our brothers play.

Consequently, each coach, female or male, became an instant hero to us. They taught us how to kick a soccer ball, hit a softball or nail a free throw, and in the process, develop personal character and discipline. We loved each minute of it and benefitted in ways we only began to realize as adults.

But we were also girls who loved books. So when we searched the library for female sport stories, we found only a few dusty young adult biographies. Even after we both competed as college athletes and then became college coaches, we wondered about the stories of those who'd gone before us. We wanted to know them and learn from them - but how could we if their pioneering efforts were lost or ignored?

So when our careers crossed at a small Christian college in New England - where Val is still chair of the kinesiology department and Jo was journalist in residence at the time - we talked about the sports that had shaped our lives, built our confidence and developed in us crucial life skills, like persistence, goal-setting and teamwork. We talked, too, about the novels that had inspired us, stories that had ignited our moral imaginations and sent us to new places and ideas.

That's when it hit us: Why weren't there any novels about women's sports? Where, besides a few young adult books, were the stories with women athletes as the protagonists? How could today's young athletes, who view Title IX only as a clothing brand, know what we, and others before us, went through so they could enjoy today's competitive opportunities?

Though we lamented the lack of women's sports fiction, we also began to plot. We gathered Title IX anecdotes from friends and colleagues, as well as our own, scheduled meetings, and wrote When Girls Became Lions.

The novel moves between 1983 and 2008 and is told through the stories of two coaches. The pioneering team in 1983 won the state championship, but like so many women's sports of that era, their achievement as girls doesn't matter. It's not until 25 years later that a young coach discovers their legacy and pushes for recognition.

Yes, it's a work of fiction, but the story explores the actual obstacles women endured so that others could enjoy the level of sport and success we see today. It reminds us that without the real life inspiration of women like golf and track star Babe Didrikson Zaharias or tennis star Althea Gibson, we - and our daughters - would still be sitting on the sidelines. We would also be missing out on the trust and solidarity athletics instill in us.

Even so, women's sports still aren't an easy sell, and they don't fit easily into today's literary landscape. The New York publishers who loved our manuscript couldn't decide how to market it. Was it women's fiction? A sports novel? Contemporary or historical? So they passed.

Our coaches, however, encouraged us never to give up, so four years and dozens of edits and conversations later, we did what so many Title IX recipients have learned to do: we took the initiative. We published the novel ourselves. We had to. It was our way of thanking those strong women who'd gone before us. And of giving readers and athletes a book that tells their story.

Valerie J. Gin (right) is a professor of kinesiology, a former collegiate volleyball and softball coach who earned numerous Coach of the Year honors. When not travelling or teaching for the International Sport Leadership Schools, she's downhill skiing or walking her dog on the beach near her home in Gloucester, MA.

Jo Kadlecek (left) never made the USA women's soccer team - there wasn't one in her day - and instead became an English teacher and a professional writer, authoring 16 books before When Girls Became Lions. She and her husband recently moved from Boston to Australia to be near his parents and to swim in outdoor pools.

For more about When Girls Became Lions, visit their website.

© Elisa Morgan 2020

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