Women Olympians as Role Models

Since Title IX guaranteed equal funding for girls’ sports programs 40 years ago, we’ve seen the results in school, in the workplace and in women’s self-confidence. Studies have shown that girls who play sports in high school are more likely to do better in science classes, complete college, avoid substance abuse and join the workforce. And the more time they spend participating in team sports, the higher their self-esteem.

Naturally, there has also been an effect on the playing fields. Now, for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, there are more women than men on the United States team in London. And we can look to these women as role models for the positive traits we want to emulate. The strengths they gain from years of hard work and dedication to their sport are more than just physical. They also represent many of the character virtues identified by Positive Psychology researchers Chris Peterson and Marty Seligman.

All this week we’ll be looking at some examples of these and other strengths personified by the athletes – consider how to integrate them into your daily life.

Vitality. Gabby Douglas, dubbed the flying squirrel due to the actual height she achieves as well as the high level of energy she exudes in her routines, won the gold medal in women’s all-around gymnastics as well as in team all-around. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she engages everyone around her with her electrifying smile. In her passion to fulfill her potential, she left home to train with a new coach and live with a “second family.” Her heart is big enough to include them all in her zest for life – and gymnastics. Now search for what energizes you and go for it all the way. You’ll feel more alive than ever.

Friendship. The Fierce Five USA gymnasts are a close-knit group, supporting each other through the Games – even when they are competing against one another. Jordyn Wieber, who had been best in world in all-around didn’t make the cut for the Olympics all-around, yet was congratulating teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas who did. McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross have been friends since they were 8, both participating in gymnastics at the same facility. When they all worked together as a team, they drew strength from their friendship with each other and won the gold medal in team gymnastics. You may not be reaching for the gold yourself, but the commitment you and your own friends make to each other nurtures each of you and creates emotional bonds that provide the foundation for a fulfilling life.

Persistence. Dana Vollmer didn’t even make the Olympic women’s swimming team four years ago. But she persevered and worked harder than ever to make the team this year. All her practice paid off when she broke the world record, winning gold medals in the London Games in butterfly as well a gold in women’s medley relay, with Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt and Rebecca Soni. When you are discouraged and tempted to give up working toward your own goal, believe in yourself and you’ll find the strength to continue.

Loyalty. Missy Franklin has been approached time and again to make endorsements but has turned them all down so could remain an amateur and swim for her high school and future college teams. With her bubbly personality, Missy enjoys her friends in school and is devoted to them, to her family and to her hometown coach. Winning 4 gold medals in backstroke and women’s team relay and a bronze in another team relay, she is looking forward to getting back home and hanging out with her friends. Your own sense of responsibility for your community and the value you place on generativity and giving back will help you remain true to your ideals.

As you continue to watch the coverage of the London Games this week, enjoy the spectacle of sport but also reflect on the strength of purpose and commitment that the athletes – female and male – have developed over the years. A nice Olympic ideal for all of us to follow.

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