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It all began—as so many ideas do—on a training run. Two-time Olympian Molly Huddle and two-time NCAA champion Sara Slattery had an epiphany: They needed to write a book—for, by, and about women. Today, on International Women’s Day, How She Did It meets the world.
International Women’s Day (IWD), according to its website, is a time to “come together to celebrate women’s achievements or rally for women’s equality.” What better way to do so than by digging into the stories of the fifty female track-and-field athletes featured in How She Did It?
Celebrating Women’s Achievements
There’s no lack of celebration around women’s accomplishments within the pages of How She Did It. Each of the 50 featured athletes—from four-time Olympian Madeline Manning Mims, who competed in her first National Championship in 1965, to world championship steeplechase finalist Stephanie Garcia, who is still racing and proudly representing the Latino community—have achieved incredible things, on and off the track. Huddle and Slattery asked all of the women to tell their stories in their own words, so we get a sense not only of their personalities, but also of their hard-earned confidence.
But it’s not about simply putting these track-and-field heroes on pedestals. Behind all the victories, titles, and speedy PRs, each woman comes off as genuinely accessible. I could be like that, too, we might think as we’re reading. Most of us don’t run professionally, but we can strive to cultivate the courage Gabriele Grunewald had when she trained and competed while battling cancer. We can patiently chip time off our PRs like Kim Conley did when she became a two-time Olympian without training as part of a pro team. We, like Alysia Montaño, Kara Goucher, and Sara Vaughn, can continue to race strong after becoming mothers.
How She Did It is a celebration of every woman who loves to run. The first section of the book is dedicated to all of us, whether or not we’re professional runners. While many of the female-specific insights about how to maintain physical, hormonal, nutritional, and mental health are targeted toward school-aged athletes, the principles are relevant to every generation.
Raising Awareness About Women’s Equality
Many of us take for for granted that we can line up for a road race or watch our favorite female runners compete on TV. Without a doubt, the number of equal opportunities for women in the sport has increased since 1967, the year Kathrine Switzer scuffled with the Boston Marathon race director because he insisted females weren’t allowed to be on the course. But reading How She Did It is a powerful reminder of how long it’s taken to get this far—and how much farther we have to go.
In the same decade that Switzer was facing battles in road races, Cheryl Treworgy was tackling the challenges of being a rare female track athlete at her high school. She was required to start three seconds behind the boys and notes in the book that “the shame that was thrown at us for doing something different was huge.” In the 1970s, Lynn Jennings confronted similar sentiments at her high school. She was often the only girl on the bus when her cross-country team traveled to meets. Jennings felt intimidated, isolated, and even more like an outsider when rival male athletes made sure to point out that there was a girl on the other team.
But the scarcity of opportunities for female runners throughout history hasn’t been limited to high schools (or to the U.S.). Over the years, the Olympics has been slow to add women’s running events to their lineup. According to a timeline in How She Did It, the 800 meter event—the longest race for women at the time—was removed from the Olympics in 1928 out of fear that running such a distance would compromise a woman’s health. It wasn’t added back until 1960. Longer female events were gradually introduced, including the marathon (1984), 10,000 meters (1988), 5,000 meters (1996), and 3,000 meter steeplechase (2008).
Still, achieving women’s equality in running is a work in progress. In How She Did It, Kara Goucher describes the pressure she’s felt to advocate for higher compensation from races and sponsors, simply because she’s a mother. Alysia Montaño remains vigilant in maintaining a support system, including her coach and medical professionals, that truly understands her unique mental and physical needs as a mother and female athlete. Many of the women featured in How She Did It have observed the way female athletes are still hyper focused on their body weight, a practice that often results in eating disorders, nutritional deficiencies, and missed periods. In fact, recognizing that our youngest runners are at risk of thinking they have to look a certain way in order to succeed, Brenda Martinez urges all of us to “tell our girls, ‘You’re perfect as you are. You have to love yourself and be kind to yourself.’”
International Women’s Day is a much-needed nudge for us to take more actions that will lead to gender equality. The theme for IWD 2022 is #BreakTheBias, a call for women to help foster a more equitable culture in our communities, schools, and places of work. Several of the athletes featured in How She Did It share the measures they’re taking to do just that—some that are familiar, others that surprise us, and even some we wish were told more fully.
We get a taste, for example, of Mary Cain’s story as the basis of what inspired How She Did It in the first place, but then, surprisingly, she isn’t mentioned in a significant way again. Although the authors briefly acknowledge that Cain isn’t letting the challenges she’s faced end her athletic career, a lot of readers—especially young athletes who may be experiencing what she did just a few years ago—are left wanting more details about how she’s creating change for the next generation.
After all, the need for equality begins with the youngest runners. In How She Did It, Brenda Martinez reveals that when she was in high school, her coaches helped raise funds for her so she could keep competing in the sport. Wanting to give back to her community, Martinez founded Big Bear, a camp for young girls that’s completely free to attend. Each summer, 10–12 students participate without having to pay for shoes or gear. Remembering there are always girls who are looking up to her is what motivates Martinez to train every day.
Sara Vaughn has made her mark in the college running community. When she was a student at the University of Colorado, Vaughn became pregnant but was determined to finish her degree. A school administrator told her it might be easier to drop out than to fill out the paperwork required to keep her scholarship and complete her schooling. Vaughn filed the paperwork anyway, but shares how alone she felt in the process. In the years since, Vaughn, understanding that undergraduate parents tend to leave school due to a lack of resources, has established a scholarship that pays for childcare.
Amy Yoder Begley focuses on another set of young female athletes: those who are transitioning from collegiate to professional running. Begley believes women in this phase of life frequently struggle after leaving their college support systems behind. She’s also detected a tendency for females to follow a significant other to a place that doesn’t offer professional training resources. Begley’s priority has always been to help make this transition easier and faster for the young women she coaches.
One of the most well-known pioneers in the sport is Kathrine Switzer. Although Switzer admits she wasn’t trying to prove anything when she ran in the 1967 Boston Marathon, the experience fueled her desire to create more running opportunities for women. Her efforts and dedication have contributed to several significant breakthroughs in the sport, including women being allowed to officially register for the Boston Marathon as well as the addition of the women’s marathon event to the Olympics. Now, Switzer is at the helm of her own nonprofit organization, 261 Fearless, which helps unite women all over the world through running.
Some of the most impactful tools professional athletes possess are influence and social platforms. Ajeé Wilson, knowing that students look up to her the same way she used to look up to professionals, takes any opportunity to attend or volunteer at high school running events. Aliphine Tuliamuk relishes every chance she has to return to her village in Kenya, so she can urge kids to pursue their dreams. Eilish McColgan responds to the social media messages she receives from young girls and encourages them to develop body positivity.
One of Huddle and Slattery’s missions in sharing the success stories was to balance out the numerous accounts of athletes whose running careers were derailed after high school, often due to environments that weren’t conducive to the specific needs of female athletes. They also hope the stories will provide female high school and college runners with invaluable advice from a large and diverse group of role models.
No matter where we are in our lives, How She Did It gives us a welcome opportunity to celebrate the achievements of so many female athletes. From Martinez starting a program for girls to Vaughn creating a scholarship to Wilson, Tuliamuk, and McColgan using their influence to build up young athletes, these are the kinds of stories that will stay with us, not only on International Women’s Day, but every day of the year.