Caitlin Cahow on Olympics, equality
Caitlin Cahow is a two-time U.S. Olympic hockey medalist, a Canadian Women's Hockey League champion with the Boston Blades and now a member of the league's board of directors, a Harvard graduate, Boston College law student set to graduate next spring, an advocate for concussion research on female athletes and an occasional worker on a lobster boat on her home island of Vinalhaven off the coast of Maine. She is also gay, and intends to bring all of those life experiences with her as a member of the formal U.S. delegation that will attend the Closing Ceremony at the Sochi Olympics in late February.
Cahow, 28, spoke with us over the weekend, and here are excerpts from that conversation:
Question from Ford: How did you find out you were being considered for the delegation?
Answer from Cahow: I got a phone call from the White House personnel office, saying, "You're a candidate, are you interested?" I couldn't believe it when my phone rang, and I couldn't believe it after the conversation, so I put the phone down and said "Oh well, I don't think there's any chance they'll pick me." Then I got a call the next day that I was being invited to join the delegation, and I was elated and incredibly humbled. It's the greatest honor of my athletic career.
Q: A month ago, you discussed your sexual orientation extensively for the first time in a media interview. Now this. Quite the whirlwind.
A: This past spring, I was invited to speak at the Boston Pride celebration. They were doing a special conference on members of the LGBT community in sports. So I joined Patrick Burke of You Can Play and (academician and activist) Pat Griffin and spoke on a panel. I had a really great experience and enjoyed interacting with these pioneers.
I realized as a female athlete there's a lot of silence when it comes to LGBT issues, and I felt strongly that hurts us as women, overall, not just athletes who identify as LGBT, but all athletes. Women get marginalized in sports. I look at the opportunities I had as an athlete at Harvard, and I look at my teammates and members of the men's hockey team and I see them progress through to various opportunities later on in life because of their experience as athletes, in large part.
There's a huge network for successful athletes. Any woman who's successful in any field always seems to struggle with getting beyond attacks on her femininity or sexuality. So for me, speaking out on LGBT issues has a lot to do being a woman and being an athlete and wanting all women to have the opportunities I have.
Q: And the delegation was announced when you were in the middle of finals week?
A: I found out privately and I wasn't allowed to tell anyone. The announcement was made around 4 or 5 p.m. and I had a 9 a.m. Constitutional Law exam the next morning. So, not a lot of studying happened between the public announcement and my Con Law exam. I don't think I slept. I got a nice email from the dean of Boston College Law School, and that gave me some encouragement to go in and take my exam and do my best. I think I did well. The topic was the Windsor case [Editors note: United States v. Windsor, a case that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage], so I feel at this point I'm pretty well versed on a lot of equality arguments and considerations and legal perspectives. I went straight from my final exam to CNN to go on the air with Wolf Blitzer, and away we went.
Q: How well do you know fellow delegation member Billie Jean King?
A: I haven't met or spoken with her in a meaningful way. We've brushed shoulders before at events, but I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to introduce myself and speak with her. For my money, she's the most important female athlete in the history of the United States, maybe the world. She just opened so many doors, she and other women of her generation provided so many opportunities for those who would follow.
I probably wouldn't have been able to play college hockey at Harvard had it not been for women like Billie Jean King lobbying for Title IX and equal opportunity. She's a remarkable ambassador for the United States no matter what role you're asking her to play. She's an amazing advocate for equality in every possible sense. So I agree with those who think she's the best possible choice for this job. I can't imagine anyone better. But for me, Billie Jean King is not just someone who is identified as leading the LGBT community. She represents so much more to me in my career, as an athlete and my status as a woman in this country.
Q: Thoughts on another fellow delegate, Brian Boitano?
A: I've actually been really interested in his decision to come out and some of the statements he has made, because I think he is spot-on. Each of us is so proud to be part of this delegation. But each of us also recognizes that our sexuality, at least for me, is just one part of who I am.
As important as I understand my role to be in this delegation, I'm going to Russia not just to represent one community, I'm going to represent the United States and all that we stand for. I guess my hope is that we go to Russia and I represent my country as best I can and support all our athletes, but that I return to a country that's looking toward a future where these classifications and these categories don't matter as much.
To me, it's somewhat shocking that in this day and age, being gay is still somewhat shocking. I hope that's something that begins to wane over time. I don't think labels are the solution as we move forward. We need to start thinking about people as people, and all the different attributes that make up humanity. Each attribute is valuable and that's what I think this delegation is really representing in Sochi, the diversity of the human experience and the diversity of the American experience.
Q: Well before you were selected for the delegation, you were involved with the Principle 6 campaign through Athlete Ally. What drew you to it?
A: It's an organization of LGBT and straight-identifying athletes who find common ground and want to spread tolerance throughout athletics. It's a great organization because it's not about what your sexuality or gender or orientation is, it's about the fact that we all share the desire for dignity and competition and fair play and supporting the best values athletics can bring to the world. I think it's amazing that so many straight athletes have rallied to it and I think it's so necessary. This is one of those moments where the spotlight is on our athletes as they go to Sochi. For LGBT athletes, it can be a very scary, nerve-wracking time. Having the support of athlete allies is so important. We're all in this together.
Q: To athletes, gay or straight, who are struggling to decide whether or how to express themselves in Sochi, what would be your advice?
A: I'd just say to them, be true to your heart. For so many athletes, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'm not going to say to any athlete that they need to be a spokesperson or make a statement. Have confidence in your preparation. The most important thing is to know that everyone in the United States is cheering for you regardless of who you are, regardless of your orientation. This is the moment all Americans are proud of you. Go take it all in, enjoy it to the fullest, have a great time, perform well and come back to the U.S. proud of yourselves, because you've done us a great service as a nation.
Q: You will be in the delegation that attends the Closing Ceremony. What did that event mean to you as an Olympic athlete?
A: The Opening and Closing Ceremonies are remarkable bookends to the Olympic experience. You go to the opening and you have a blank slate, anything is possible. There's that hunger and excitement to get out and compete and just the wonder of walking into the Olympic stadium and realizing the magnitude of the moment. That's pretty special.
The Closing Ceremony, regardless of what the outcome has been in the competition, you realize you've achieved something amazing -- and not only that, you feel camaraderie with other athletes. You know what other people have been through. You've seen victories, you've seen defeats, you recognize everyone there has done their all to achieve and perform. There's almost a sense of family that you've been a part of something incredible and shared it with the world. It's very gratifying.
Q: How do you hope these Winter Games play out, ideally?
A: My goal for this Olympics is that each and every athlete feels he or she had the opportunity to perform at his or her best and bring honor to our country. I want that feeling for athletes around the world. Equally, I want it to be a very safe and positive Olympic Games. For me, the Olympics are not only the pinnacle of athletic achievement, but also the pinnacle of human possibility. The Olympics have the power to make cynical people believe in the greatness of humanity.
Q: In your interview with Go! Athletes, you said your sexual orientation was not an issue on the teams you played for. Do you think it will cease to be an issue in women's sports here in your lifetime?
A: I hope so. I understand people are of widely different views on this issue and I know there are many who disagree with me. But the one thing I hope we can all agree upon is that the world is a better place when it's tolerant and accepting and loving. If we don't have that tolerance and acceptance and love for one another, alienation creeps in and you don't gain the benefits from each and every person the way that you should. So I hope that as things move along, when I get around to having children and raising my own family, that my children grow up in a world where those classifications are starting to dissolve and you're judged on who you are as a human being, how constructive you are, how much you give to your community and how much positive energy you put out into the world.
Q: You had a very difficult recovery from two concussions in 2012 that ultimately led you to retire. Is that an area where you intend to be an activist, as well?
A: Both concussions were whiplash, which a lot of people don't understand exists. [After the second one], I basically deteriorated for the next six months. I lost 25 pounds, couldn't get out of bed, couldn't read, couldn't think, couldn't remember, couldn't do anything. I had trouble talking at times, and became horrifically depressed. I have spoken about this and this is actually one of the main issues I'm really interested in bringing up in Sochi as part of this delegation.
I moved home, couldn't take care of myself and slowly got my physical strength back, but cognitively I was still struggling. It was definitely a very dark time in my life. I literally dropped off the face of the planet for a while to recover from this thing. I'm still saying my apologies to my loved ones, friends and family, for all that they had to do to take care of me and put up with me. My mother was a saint. I was 27. I had been living away from home since I was 14 and went to boarding school. I went to the Olympics and world championships and Harvard and law school, and then, all of a sudden, I'm like an infant again. I was very, very lucky that I had that support and I got really great medical care. It had repercussions that you can't understand when you're in it.
I got the opportunity to go down to Atlanta and work with [chiropractic neurologist] Dr. Ted Carrick, who is Sidney Crosby's doctor, and he changed my life. Turned me right back around. I was at the point where I could barely move around and do stuff without debilitating symptoms; and on Day 2 he had me skating, and a month later, I was hitting my old weightlifting numbers.
I went back and played because I didn't want anyone else to end my career. I played with the Blades, I was captain, we won the CWHL championship, first American team to ever do that, which was awesome, and I was one of the top three defensemen in the league. I went to the USA team tryouts and didn't have a great camp -- I was very, very nervous getting back. Every single time I stepped out on the ice, it was a risk, and I always felt like I was flipping a coin. It just wasn't me out there. I was left off the world championships roster and it was a shock, but at the same time, it was a wake-up call. I realized that I wasn't having fun with it like I used to. I was playing hockey and there were moments that were amazing, but the risk was always looming in my mind. I wasn't prepared to continue taking that risk every single day, so I retired.
Q: Any regrets?
A: It's for the better. I never would have gotten this opportunity had I continued to play. What scares me is the lack of [concussion] data on women. How long have men been playing contact sports, and we're just starting to get data on these injuries? This is way too slow of a process. I'm scared of what the next 50 years hold.
I was getting back on my feet, but the fear of getting injured, for me -- because I know what the repercussions are for the rest of my life -- I love being a hockey player; it's a huge part of who I am, but I can't satisfy my ego this time. This is about my life. I've got a lot more to do than be a hockey player the rest of my life.