Twirling toward triathlons

Courtesy of Sarah Groff

Before she grew up to be a world-class triathlete, Sarah Groff tried her hand at baton twirling -- but she was better suited to holding the banner. (That's her on the right.)

When you grow up in the iconic village of Cooperstown, N.Y., people imagine a childhood filled with pickup summer baseball games in the shadow of Doubleday Field. But while baseball was an omnipresent part of my life, the way it was for most kids who shared a home with the Hall of Fame, it didn't define my upbringing. Sure I dabbled in Little League for a few years; ultimately, though, the sport was just another frustrating attempt to find my athletic niche.

For whatever reason, triathletes are occasionally referred to as "multi-sport athletes," giving the impression that we are athletic Jacks and Jills of all trades. But the road to triathlon wasn't a straight path for me. I had to deal with misadventures in other sports before learning to be at peace with my klutzy athleticism.

Before my Little League career, I had an even shorter foray into the world of baton twirling, as a member of the "Balancing Batons" group. To the twirlers, our instructor was legendary, a master of the skill who was head majorette in college and who once twirled fire batons while wearing go-go boots and sequined outfits. She was the most amazing woman on the planet. She was also the same woman who brought me into the world.

While my twirling career was as short-lived as the eight-track -- my utter lack of coordination relegated me to the position of banner holder -- batons represented something completely different to my mother when she was a kid. In contrast to the wealth of sporting options I had growing up, my mom could choose among only four sports in high school: basketball, field hockey, softball and gymnastics. Needless to say, I would have been sitting on the sidelines if I had grown up in the 1950s or '60s. Thank goodness for the rise of women's endurance sports.

My mother would have loved the chance to run competitively, like my sister and I did. She picked up the sport when she was 40 and continues to pound the pavement religiously today. In her pre-Title IX world, though, competitive running was simply not an option for her; she was instead pushed to the more "feminine" pursuit of baton twirling, serving as mere entertainment for the "real" athletes at football games.

Courtesy of Sarah Groff

Groff's mother, Jeannine (front and center in the photo), used her twirling talents to help fund her college education.

Granted, my mother is grateful to this day for the opportunities that twirling provided. She gained confidence through her dedication to become truly skilled, she was able to travel, and she funded her college education through teaching lessons and a related scholarship. (She was in the first class of women at Franklin & Marshall, enrolled in 1969.) In some ways, her experience was an early vision of what Title IX could mean to women. Through equal access to sport, countless girls have gained confidence and life experiences, while also being able to offset the cost of their education.

As a woman who grew up after Title IX, I am dismayed by attacks on the legislation, particularly those claiming that women have somehow been harmed by increased participation in sports. From the time I was a young girl trying out a wide range of sports, to my swimming days at Middlebury, to my current career as a pro triathlete, I've directly benefited from the proliferation of women's sports.

It is difficult to express how much sports have meant to me. So much of who I am as a person has been shaped through being an athlete. There are obvious benefits: I travel the world, represent my country with pride, and -- instead of being relegated to a desk and cubicle -- I earn a living from what other people do for fun. But the less obvious benefits are deeper and more personal. When I decided to pursue triathlon as a career, it wasn't out of a sense that I could be a world-class athlete. I did it to find out who I am. Sports are the most direct way to challenge yourself and your fortitude, a lesson that I realized as someone who used to fold under pressure. After years of being toppled by my inner demons, I am now strong enough to stand up to them.

Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

Groff, a self-proclaimed klutz, will represent the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in London.

Without question, my childhood playing sports, in conjunction with the heightened visibility of female athletes in popular culture, changed the relationship that I have with my body. As a girl, seeing images of strong, beautiful women helped enforce that broad shoulders and muscles could also be feminine. By participating in sports, I learned to love my body for its functionality.

I am also fortunate to be involved in a sport marked by gender equity. Triathlon has evolved in a post-Title IX world where female participation in sports is a given. When the International Triathlon Union was founded in 1989, one of the principal missions was to ensure pro-female policies were promoted. And every ITU event since the first world championships that year has offered equal prize money for men and women. Just as significantly, 43 percent of the estimated 1.9 million triathlon participants in the U.S. are women, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

My mother and I recently had a conversation about the massive sea change that occurred in the course of a generation. The post-Title IX world of opportunity that my sister and I inherited was not only key in our development, but also had an impact on our mom. As she put it, "Your participation in sports has been an inspiration for me to at least try to get in shape and stay in shape. I realized early on that my children's vision and self-description included athletics. While I wasn't very athletic as a youth and young adult, my self-description now would include being a runner. That is a big change for the positive."

Earlier generations are supposed to inspire those that follow. When it comes to sports, though, younger women often lead the way, and it's easy for them to take our world of equal athletic opportunity for granted. But when we see older women taking their first tentative steps in a triathlon, we are reminded of how drastically change has occurred.

While these women, like my mother, are now finding a latent passion later in life, I can't help but imagine how great they could have been if they had been given the same opportunities I've enjoyed.

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