ON BEING AN ATHLETIC GIRL & SPORTSWOMAN
By Jamie Leno Zimron
Sensei / LPGA Pro, Aikido 6th Dan, Somatic Psychologist & Trainer
As part of Women's History Month March 2021, Evo Sports held a Zoom meeting with women athletes that left all the men hushed, some in tears. One woman at a time, we simply told stories of our lifelong love of sports - and all the ways that sexism has tried to shut us down and out from playing. Let's just face and say it. White people have next to no comprehension of what it's like to move in this world as a person of color; and boys and men don’t really get how gender stereotypes have been limiting girls and women in sports, and life.
My little jock-self shined through by age 3. Dad took the training wheels off my bike, and I romped around in topless swim trunks. Growing up in Wisconsin, this little girl was a huge fan of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. The Braves were in Milwaukee and Henry Aaron was my homerun hero. I can’t convey just how much I LOVED baseball. My brain tracked every RBI, ERA, stat and standing as if containing a not-yet-invented computer chip. I was a southpaw like Warren Spahn, and the Dodger’s Sandy Koufax, and dreamed of pitching in the Majors.
Except for one catch: I was a girl.
There was to be no baseball career for me. I had no hope or prayer to play even Little League. Girls weren’t allowed, period. None of my talent or desire made any difference. It made matters worse that I could throw, field and bat with the best of the boys, and beat them. Once, playing catcher at school recess, a mean boy slid into me on purpose and broke my front tooth. The playground teacher and principal banned me from playing, not that boy - for my supposed girlish good. I tried joining the boys’ games down the block but never felt welcome. One day I missed a catch, like any boy could and did. That’s all it took for my parents and the other adults to send me home, permanently. They never looked or tried to see me.
And so, I was relegated to bouncing and batting balls against the garage door by my lonesome, my baseball dreams dashed into melancholy and dust. Dad played catch when I begged enough, and I collected baseball cards of all those lucky guys who got to play. Why could they follow their dreams, get rich and famous, and not me? The pro sports world wasn’t much friendlier to Jews than to women, but Sandy Koufax made it to the World Series and Hall of Fame. Being Jewish didn't stop his talented left arm the way my mere gender did. I was Jewish too, and gay, so my prospects appeared dim indeed.
Another consuming passion was driving things, starting with bumper cars at the State Fair. I salivated at our local Dairy Queen not only for the creamy ice cream but the super-cool mini-Model T on display. When my brother was 12, Dad got him a go-cart. I was 10 and literally ached, body and soul, to drive it. We lived on a safe quiet cul-de-sac but nope. I was a girl and could only pine away, watching the guys have all the fun. When we were teenagers, Dad bought a Toro power mower. He paid my brother $5 to mow the lawn, who then ‘hired’ me to go dump out the clippings for a penny a bag. I wanted to run that mower so bad it hurt, not to mention make my own money. But I was a girl, fated to sit on the sidelines and settle for pennies.
Our parents took up golf when I was 7. Summer lasted just 3 months, but that didn’t stop me from being a girl golf prodigy, a wunderkind in local headlines. I was shooting in the 80s by age 10, before junior programs existed, beating mom and dad, their friends, and every kid around. Golf was acceptable because Mom adored it, also excelled, and we totally bonded. It was okay she played better than Dad, because 'ladies golf' wasn’t threatening and he liked having a ringer for ‘couples golf.’
At 13 I won the first of three State Junior Girls championships, besting the 17-year-olds. One sportswriter said I played like a mechanical doll, while another described me as stocky, which I wasn't but mortally dreaded as teenage girls are taught to do. Those words, in print, killed all my joy in my skills and victories. When I took the trophy in a 6th grade tennis tournament, Mom flat-out told me to stop winning. Let others be first, she said, else nobody would like me, in yet another silly but dastardly dose of sexist conditioning. Make yourself smaller than you are, be deferential, and aim to be liked rather than your best.
I made it to the semi-finals at Nationals, on Pinehurst #2, barely losing in sudden death (to a future LPGA Tour star). That got me ranked in the Top Ten nationally, but even that and being a Stanford-bound honors student didn't get me a golf scholarship. I was a quintessential student-athlete, the very definition of recruitable. But again sorry, wrong sex. This was 1972, just before Title IX mandated equal funding for women's athletics, so there were no sports scholarships no matter how talented or deserving girls might be.
Losing interest in golf, I poured all my athletic energies into martial arts. I could get Stanford PE credits for Aikido classes, the Japanese Art of Peace, with an amazing sensei / instructor. I hung up my golf clubs for a gi and dove in totally. Golf had prepared me for Aikido’s circular energy flows, and sharp on-target sword work. Aiki concepts of centering, balance and integrated movement explained what this tomgirl seemed to know naturally. Training happily and fervently, within four years I reached black belt. Years later I would spiral back to golf through Aikido, developing KiAi Golf, joining the LPGA as a teaching pro, and polishing my game holistically to compete again and win several senior titles.
But back to the late 1970s and the heydays of the Women's, Black and Gay Liberation movements. I met women doing other martial arts, teaching self-defense, marching to Take Back The Night and stop violence against women. We organized women's martial arts camps and founded our own organizations. New friends asked me to open what became the Women's Aikido School of San Francisco, a much-needed empowering space for women. Many of my students had been drawn to Aikido but felt intimidated or out of place at traditional male-led dojos. Our training was intense, joyful, and extremely high-quality. But the patriarchal powers-that-be in the Aikido world looked askance upon my women’s dojo. No men? Lesbians on the mat? Raising uncomfortable gender, sexuality and power issues? How dare we. How dare I.
There has been a steep price to pay, in terms of rank promotion and falling out of official favor despite my decades of dedicated training, teaching and ongoing worldwide contributions to and through Aikido. I and so many others have worked our asses off believing in merit above privilege. But there is so much hypocrisy and inequity inherent in all the -isms. For no real or good reason, all kinds of people get marginalized, trivialized and traumatized.
To understand how a girl like me could be so gung-ho and good in sports, I know some have attributed it to my being gay - as if women couldn't be fine athletes, and lesbians aren't really women. Rather than playing my heart out, I’ve had to cry my eyes out in therapy over baseball, go-carts, and the injustices and absurdities of it all. No doubt many readers here have similar unfair tales to tell. It is clear that the pain of our personal experiences originates in the shortcomings of our badly biased societies. And it is no accident that, along with so many other women, LGBTQ and non-white athletes, I am an activist.
Oppressive status quos need to be and are being changed by our presence, participation and speaking out - more and more and at long last!
Thankfully, through Title IX and the years, opportunities for girls and women have come a long way since my childhood. Yet, despite equality being the law, sexist prejudices and disparities continue their impact on us. It is impossible to say how my life’s journey may have been different, had there been more supportive roads to take. I will say that it is rarely easy, but always an adventure. Every day I work hard, doing what I can teaching and speaking across the US, Canada, in places like Russia, Israel, Palestine, Ethiopia, from refugee camps to corporate boardrooms, and now virtually. I am proud to be making my own way as an integrative martial arts, golf and leadership educator, activist and innovator.
Every girl, boy, differently-abled and non-‘normative’ person deserves to be in the game/s of their choosing. What is most important to me is to make meaningful differences. I am profoundly grateful to be part of a rising tide of brave talented female and queer athletes who are challenging entrenched patriarchal attitudes, gender norms and power structures. Together we are making progressive strides and shifting the playing field towards equity and inclusivity. Everyone is equally here to share their unique gifts and realize their potential. Now is the time for us all to be freed from ridiculous biases and restrictions, and fully engaging our awesome authentic selves as we work, love - and play!
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