Donna de Varona paves the way for women in sports

In mid-September in Lower Manhattan, I sat down for cappuccinos with the legendary swimmer Donna de Varona. The two-time Olympian swam in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games at just 13 years old and started working for ABC at age 17, becoming one of the first female broadcasters. Her entrepreneurial spirit and barrier-breaking courage has inspired women in all walks of life, including myself.

Her journey as a pioneer in women’s sports continues to pave the way for gender equality and is endlessly expanding opportunities for women across the board. De Varona and I discussed life after an Olympic Games, the difficult transition leaving sport, working in sports media and the many parallels our lives share. Growing up in Northern California and graduating from UCLA like de Varona, she was a household name to me, naturally. She is still an icon of power and strength in my mind and certainly remains a role model.

Sitting across the cafe table from de Varona, I often had chills listening to her compelling life experiences swimming in the Olympics as the youngest athlete on the team, becoming the first female president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and overcoming self doubt throughout every transition. During her era, opportunity for women in sport simply did not exist. De Varona has dedicated her life to creating possibilities for women that weren’t available to her, an endeavor every female athlete should be deeply grateful for. 

During her decorated career, de Varona held 18 world records, won two Olympic gold medals, worked as a consultant to the U.S. Senate to protect and promote Title IX and won an Emmy award. She is currently the lead adviser for the Ernest and Young Athlete’s Business Network and is on the executive board of the Special Olympics.

Kim Vandenberg and Donna de Varona in New York City (Photo by Kim Vandenberg)
Kim Vandenberg and Donna de Varona in New York City (Photo by Kim Vandenberg)

Vandenberg: Donna, I am so fascinated by you because you are the pioneer for women in sports. You recently wrote about life after the Olympic Games for Vox.

De Varona: Yes I wrote a piece on life after the Games, I weaved in many stories. It’s really about how difficult the transition is which relates to my work helping women transition from sport into professions. No matter how visible you are or what place you come in an Olympics, even if you are an intense elite athlete, you are going to have transition issues. We all do, but I think athletes particularly because it’s such a whole way of life. All of the sudden you go from knowing where you are, you have a path, you have feedback, you have everything that you want in a job and then it’s all over. You aren’t part of the tribe anymore. I went through that when I quit swimming in 64, well I didn’t quite quit, I swam in one more meet in Germany and swam really well but part of it was I didn’t want to quit swimming. I just knew that there was no future there, the canvas was blank, there were no scholarships back then.

Vandenberg: What was it like retiring in 1964 and not having that opportunity to swim at UCLA?

De Varona: Well unlike a lot of my friends and peers, I had a lot of opportunity in front of me and I needed to put myself through school. My parents weren’t wealthy and I wanted a college education so one day I called up ABC. I knew the producers, who were new to the sport, I used to work with them and tell them what events they should cover. I helped them with where to put the camera with the scuba diver. Technology was so basic back then. I said I can’t bare to quit my sport but I could if I knew I could be near the sport covering swimming. It was my senior year in high school and I flew from California to Yale University to cover the men’s National Championships.

Vandenberg: Were you nervous?

De Varona: Yes but I was so into it, they didn’t have researchers then. I did all my research and I think that’s why I was the only woman in the booth covering swimming for so many Olympics.

Vandenberg: What was your favorite Olympics?

De Varona: I don’t know. They were all different because I was maturing and getting better but 1972 was pretty exciting when Mark Spitz won his seven gold medals. I was on the deck with him everyday talking to him. Our perch was right on the deck so we would be on the deck with the swimmers. I had total access to the athletes.

Vandenberg: What was it like at age 13, as the youngest on the team, to compete in your first Olympics?

De Varona: I remember one day going on the pool deck and the official came up and said ‘coaches daughters can’t be on the pool deck’ because I was 5’2 and barely weighed 100 pounds. I remember my coach laughing and saying “she’s a world record holder!”

Vandenberg: Ha! What did you say to that?

De Varona: Oh I wasn’t hurt, I laughed because I got that a lot. I swam in the preliminary of the gold medal winning 4 x 100m freestyle relay. I didn’t get to swim the 400m individual medley, the event I had the world record in, because they didn’t have that event for women back then. They only had it for the men.

Vandenberg: That’s like the mile now, why don’t they have the mile for women in the Olympics but they have it for the men?

De Varona: Well, they put the 800m freestyle in the Olympics when they thought about distance for women, it’s just the way it was. This attitude of thinking still permeates sports to this day. We have gotten a lot better but in my day, the 400m IM was for men and not for women, why? And the 200m wasn’t added, which I never lost, until 1968 but it was a thrill to swim in that relay. They only had two relays for women. So I spent a lifetime changing all of these things.

Vandenberg: I know and that’s why we are here! Who were your mentors and your role models? You are my role model and the mentor for so many women in sports, you are like the queen. You are like the Beyonce of swimming world!

De Varona: Haha well I was training with a team of world record holders. I started out in California at the Berkeley YMCA and I lived in Lafayette. I would take the bus to Oakland and walk to the YMCA or I would train at Treasure Island to swim in the 50m long course pool. It’s the naval base and that is where they would train the navy seals. We should go together, wouldn’t that be fun? My teammate was Sylvia Ruuska and her father was our coach, he was way ahead of his time. We did cross training and lots of distance. We would do wind sprints in the park and we would do push-ups and sit-ups. She held the world record in the 400m IM and when I beat her in 1960, her father wouldn’t coach me but she was great, she was a sweetheart. She became our team captain in 1960. Also Chris Von Saltza, she was more of a distance than a sprinter. Chris and Lynn Burke were two of my role models. They were never given credit. They started our gold rush.

Vandenberg: Did you train with them or just race them?

De Varona: When my coach wouldn’t let me train with him anymore, their coach let me train with them. He was our Olympic coach, the famous George Haines. He was one of the few coaches that could coach both men and women.

Vandenberg: As the first president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, what obstacles did you face?

De Varona: Well the best thing is that I was swept up in the feminist movement and the civil rights movement so I was meeting all these incredible people and I had been adopted by another role model, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to get involved in the Special Olympics. That happened in 1968, I watched her network and put together what was then just a little organization and now it is global. I thought ‘I am working with mentally challenged athletes and working on civil rights but what about women and what about sports?’ I had gone to the 1972 Olympics when so much happened there with our U.S. Olympic committee not performing well and there really needed to be a restructure. So I came back and helped start a lobby to get congress to focus on their responsibility. There were all these fights between the NCAA and athlete’s were being denied the right to compete. In all this, I kept thinking “I am doing all this but what about women?”

So when Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs in tennis, I was working with ABC and had just come back from the Munich Olympics as an announcer. I started to have a platform, people recognized me and that opened doors. So when ABC was going to cover the tournament, they said “I want you to get Billie Jean to come to ABC” so I went to Billie Jean and said “you know we got to start a Women’s Sports Foundation”

At first it was going to be the World Sports Foundation for all athlete’s rights and then it morphed into the Women’s Sports Foundation and the point was, what would it do? how do you sustain it? we didn’t even have the word marketing back then but how do you market it? I was on the original group that got together and we struggled at the beginning, because how do you make it sustainable and have a place at a time when Title IX was being debated and equal prize money is being debated and can women beat men?  Anyways so we struggled until about 1978. Billie Jean left the foundation because she had so much on her plate. She is a superstar and everyone wanted her time, she started a magazine, so since we didn’t have a former president at the time, they made me president. I said okay we are going to start our women’s sports dinner in New York and it is going to be a fundraiser.  Since I had experience in Washington, I said we are going to have a national day (National Girls and Women in Sports Day), we are going to do a travel and training fund, we are going to have a Gala dinner to honor athletes and network athletes and have the power brokers in the city come to us to see how important we are. We are going to get the fashion designers to dress our athletes and make it really fun and also we are going to give recognition to journalists, that has kind of gone away but we did that, and we are going to have a toll free number, we had a toll free number because nobody understood Title IX. We are going to do research and that was my plan. That was what we have been doing ever since. We have probably raised over 30 million dollars since we started, we have had many travel and training grantees compete in the Olympics and we have some grantees in the Paralympics right now. We had a voice. We were really pushing this snowball uphill, lucky for me I worked for Roone Arledge (ABC president) and he embraced and supported my activism. I was the youngest and one of the first to pioneer network television.

Vandenberg: What are your words of advice to women in sports and to women in general from your experiences?

De Varona: From my experience, no matter what your talent is, it’s really important to find a physical activity that sustains you for life, I mean all these studies about exercise and depression, exercise and cancer and what exercise does for you is so significant. Also I think having the opportunity to compete with other women in a competitive team way really translates to the workplace. I think women need to give each other a hand up and that doesn’t happen all the time. One of my best friends is Sharon Finneran, we traded world records and as one great photojournalist said “Great champions are made by great rivals”

Donna de Varona in New York City (Photo by Kim Vandenberg)
Donna de Varona in New York City (Photo by Kim Vandenberg)

Vandenberg: Did you ever experience self doubt throughout your transitions?

De Varona: It took me ten years to get a full time job in television. Ten years. There were lots of doubts.

Vandenberg: How did you deal with that? How did you keep your strength?

De Varona: I found some friends that were outside the business, I had this couple who kind of adopted me, Alvin Cooperman who was a producer and his fashion designer wife, I would go to their house Sundays and sometimes they would give me extra steaks and $50. I mean they were just great. I came to New York by myself in 1973 with just a trunk and now I look around my house in Greenwich and think “how did I get all this stuff?” You get to my age and you don’t want stuff anymore.

Vandenberg: We have similar paths, we are both from California, graduated from UCLA, moved to New York alone and work in sports, what are you working on now? What do you want to accomplish next?

De Varona: I think it’s important to have a voice in international sport with a focus on women, because from all my experiences and all my connections, I will continue to do the program I am doing now with Ernst & Young, but you need the money and the marketing power and you need a team, I mean this is really the first time I have had a team on a long project, a really good team of women. We identified a group of female athletes in Rio that were retiring and had interest in Ernest & Young and so we are placing them in the company as interns. I think that is what the USOC and the NCAA could do better, they do it, but they could do it better. 

Vandenberg: I completely agree, it really wasn’t even talked about.

De Varona: They don’t talk about the mental aspect, there are three things you go through in the transition out of sports. There is the physical thing, where all of the sudden you are a Ferrari and next your body is going crazy.  Secondly, mentally you are going crazy.  On one hand you are all excited because you have freedom and then you think where is feedback? where is my coach? where is my structure? what is the end game? You have to make it up yourself and then there is the financial thing, it’s hard.

Vandenberg: Well I can relate to all three of those things because I definitely felt lost when I first moved to New York. I was creating my own visions of what I wanted to do and I was exploring different things outside of the sport.

De Varona: Nobody tells you that you are going to be depressed. You are going to be depressed and as an athlete you go “well, I shouldn’t be depressed” and then you feel guilty for being depressed.

Vandenberg: That’s exactly what I felt. I felt so guilty for being in a low spot because I was able to travel the world doing what I love but with that comes feeling incredibly alone since not many people have that experience and it’s hard to relate to that. Allison Schmitt is talking a lot about that now, which I think is really important. Where did your vision and strength come from?

De Varona: Well my father’s father left him when he was little and his mother was deaf, he moved eleven times, he was the freshman on the CAL team for boys on the boat. I got a lot of my inspiration from him on how to think. My mom was tenacious, she was a hard worker, four kids and no help, she worked too and she was a real fighter for her kids. I think I got it from my parents. But I think you are born with it. People say ‘when are you going to retire’ and I go ‘when I die’ Why would I want to retire?

Excelle Sports associate editor Kim Vandenberg is an Olympic bronze medalist, Pan American gold medalist, World Championship silver medalist and three-time U.S. national champion and French national champion in swimming. She’s also a member of Excelle’s Athletes Council.

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