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Schools' Investment in Women's Rowing Pays Off in Olympics

Posted on November 30 2015

Why U.S. Women Will Be An Olympic Force

Behind the rise of American women in Summer Olympic sports is Title IX... Including Crew

Swimmer Katie Ledecky swept every freestyle race from 200-1,500 meters at the FINA World Championships. Photo: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

By Matthew Futterman Updated Nov. 29, 2015 7:18 p.m. ET

A key component to the U.S. formula for beating the world in the Rio Games next summer might come as a surprise to anyone focused on Michael Phelps’ comeback.

As the world championships in Summer Olympic sports wind down, it’s clear, the heavy lifting for the U.S. medal haul is going to fall to women, just as it did in London, and as it likely will for years to come. On water and land, in competitions new to the Games and those that are very old, women have become a force for the Olympic team in ways their male teammates may never match again.

Behind the rise of American women is Title IX, the 43-year-old federal law that largely prohibits gender discrimination in any educational programs that receive government funding. This means that schools must offer equal athletic opportunities to both sexes, a requirement that essentially funnels females into Olympic sports. High schools and colleges that field football teams for boys have created volleyball, soccer and water polo teams for girls—sometimes while cutting male Olympics-sports teams like wrestling and swimming. The effect of Title IX has trickled down to youth sports, where it is almost unthinkable for youth leagues (outside football and baseball, though girls are allowed to play these) to create opportunities only for boys. Few other countries offer girls so many athletic options.

Consider Maggie Steffens. Steffens, 22, is the captain of the defending world and Olympic champion women’s water polo team. Growing up in Northern California’s East Bay, Steffens played basketball and soccer, did gymnastics, and swam, and joined a club water polo team all before she reached her teen years. At 14 she decided to go with the sport she most excelled at most.

“All those extra practices, all the skill sets I learned from all those different sports, they all circle back to water polo,” Steffens said recently when asked how the plethora of athletic opportunities had contributed to her precocious success. “You learn how to be your most competitive self.”

Of course, many other countries are investing in sports development. But those programs often tend to benefit obviously elite athletes, and then direct them into a specific sport. At U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in Colorado Springs, executives and coaches believe the near limitless opportunities for girls and young women in the U.S. at the recreational, scholastic and collegiate levels produce a unique competitive advantage in the medal race.

“It’s a differentiator,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. “The women’s teams are performing well and I expect them to have a really good Games.”

The women’s wave has been building for decades. It reached its high-point, for a non-boycotted Games, in London in 2012, when U.S. women won 58 medals compared with 45 for the men. That included 29 of the country’s 44 gold medals. Those results helped the U.S. top both the gold and overall medal tables, a feat the U.S. has pulled off in every Summer Games since 1996, except in 2008, when China won the gold medal race.

The results from this year’s world championships in Summer Olympic sports suggests that little has changed, with the U.S. leading the world in gold medals and in tight race with China for the overall lead. The U.S. should amass the equivalent of 36 gold medals, and more than 80 medals overall by year’s end. U.S. women won soccer’s World Cup, water polo’s world championship, and the team and individual all-around gold medals at the gymnastics world championships, where women accounted for eight of the 10 U.S. medals. Swimmer Katie Ledecky swept every freestyle race from 200-1,500 meters at the FINA World Championships and won a relay gold, too. Serena Williams nearly won the Grand Slam in tennis.

In China and elsewhere, schools designed to groom Olympians pale beside the resources bestowed upon female athletes by the American college system. Before she entered Princeton, Heidi Robbins competed in lacrosse, cross-country skiing and equestrian. At 6-feet-2 inches tall, however, she was an easy target for Princeton crew coaches at registration.

Before long, Robbins, now 24, was hooked. She now is part of a women’s eight boat that has won 10 consecutive world or Olympic titles. The key to her journey from beginner to world class—access to a deep coaching staff, training equipment, and sculls from the moment she first grabbed an oar. “I was given all the tools,” she says.

Tom Terhaar, head women’s coach at U.S. Rowing, said the college system is now so expansive that he feels like he has 100 assistant coaches scattered across the country. The network has only increased during the past 15 years as schools that weren’t traditional rowing powers have invested in women’s crew, with its large teams and expensive boats, in part to balance spending on their expensive men’s football programs and meet their Title IX requirements.

“If you look at the rowing programs that are well-supported now, a lot of them have good football programs,” said Terhaar, who noted Michigan, Ohio State, Texas and Virginia’s recent entry into the elite of women’s rowing.

The NCAA recently approved triathlon as a women’s sport. But American women already excel at it, thanks to college swimming and track teams. The world’s top triathlete has been Gwen Jorgenson, who competed as both a swimmer and a distance runner at Wisconsin. The world’s second-ranked triathlete is American Sarah True, who swam and ran at Middlebury College in Vermont.

World champion gymnast Simone Biles has won three consecutive individual all-around titles, plus gold medals on floor and beam, and a bronze on vault. Photo: Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team heads to the Games as back-to-back world champions. Simone Biles has won three consecutive individual all-around titles, plus gold medals on floor and beam, and a bronze on vault. At the World Championships in Scotland in October, teammates Madison Kocian, Gabby Douglas and Maggie Nichols added a gold on uneven bars, silver in the all-around, and bronze on floor respectively, for a total of eight medals won by the U.S. women. U.S. men won just two medals at the meet.

“I am very bullish on our women’s team,” said USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny.

—Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.

Write to Matthew Futterman at matthew.futterman@wsj.com




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