Donna de Varona was a double Olympic swimming champion at 17, and retired soon after because of a lack of professional or college options. Almost 50 years later, she’s working to ensure women don’t face the same hurdles.
The American, who made the Olympic team at 13 and retired after the 1964 Tokyo Games, is leading a program sponsored by accounting firm Ernst & Young to help elite women athletes find careers after retirement from competitive sport. About 4,800 female athletes took part in the London Olympics. More than 70 percent of competitors typically don’t return at the next edition, according to the International Olympic Committee.
Making the transition from being an athlete to a career can be tough, De Varona said in an interview this week. De Varona competed at a time when Olympic athletes weren’t paid, and colleges didn’t have to offer the same level of sports for both sexes. It meant options could be limited, she said.
“I was one of the 1960s generation, I retired from my sport at the age of 17 because there were no opportunities,” the 65-year-old said in a telephone interview.
After Tokyo, De Varona signed a contract with U.S. broadcaster ABC and became one of the country’s first female sportscasters in 1965. She has been a trailblazer ever since, helping set up the Women’s Sports Foundation with tennis champion Billie Jean King in 1974. Da Varona served as its first president from 1976 to 1984.
“Because I had visibility, the one thing it gave me was the opportunity to gain entry to basically the male-dominated world of sports and politics,” De Varona said. “Because I was a winner, I understood that winning brings respect and that even in the most conservative circles, you are respected.”
De Varona used her fame to campaign for Title IX legislation, which banned gender discrimination at schools receiving federal funds and opened the door for women’s scholarships in college and sports.
“For years, I’ve been working on this idea that if you network and convene, you can make a huge difference,” said De Varona, who is also a member of the International Olympic Committee Women and Sports Commission. “I was able to do that, but I’ve never ever been able to make a sustainable transition in this world for women in sport to a successful career back in the sporting world or into the world of entrepreneurship.”
Ernst & Young, a sponsor of the 2016 Rio Olympics, is introducing a first-of-its-kind women athlete global leadership network to coincide with today’s International Women’s Day.
It will give participants access to former competitors such as De Varona, IOC member and former U.S. rower Anita DeFrantz and Nawal El Moutawakel, an IOC member who at the 1984 Olympics became the first Moroccan, African and Muslim woman to win a gold medal.
“With their inherent confidence, high standards, discipline and experience in working as a team, female athletes have tremendous value for businesses like ours, governments, and non-governmental organizations around the world,” said Beth Brooke, global vice chair, public policy at Ernst & Young and a Title IX scholarship recipient.
Ernst & Young said it wanted to start the network after the London Games, where 44 percent of the competitors were women, who, for the first time, competed in all sports on the Olympic program because Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar sent female athletes.
“We’re going to tell stories of inspiration, all day you see stories of inspiration in men’s sports, but women’s sports gets very little coverage,” De Varona said. “And we’re going to commission more research on the impact of women’s advancement in sport and in society. Sport helps women transition into higher education and better jobs.”
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