Feb. 18, 2012, 8:07 p.m. (ET)

LOS ANGELES — Believe it or not, there was a time when Geena Davis, the Academy Award winner, did not have a very strong self-esteem.

She was, as she describes herself, a tall and gangly young woman and said, “My fondest dream as a kid was to take up less space in the world.”

Other girls wanted her to join the basketball team because of her height, but Davis, who was concerned about being uncoordinated, declined the offers.

“Just stand there,” they told her. “You’re the tallest girl.”

So it became quite a turnaround for her when later in life she was cast in the film, “A League of Their Own,” about women’s baseball, and she transformed into an athlete and an advocate for women in sports. She became deeply involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation and later helped fund major research studies about women in the media.

“Playing sports dramatically improved my self image,” she told a packed audience in the hotel ballroom in Los Angeles, where the IOC is holding its 5th World Conference on Women and Sport. “I was coordinated. It just wasn’t until I was 36 until I found that out.”

Davis did not want the next generations of women to wait so long to discover that they, too, could be athletes.

Through Davis’ involvement with the Women’s Sports Foundation, she became an advocate for Title IX, the landmark piece of federal legislation that mandates gender equality in sports and which is celebrating its 40th anniversary of existence this summer.

She experimented with all sorts of sports ranging from pistol shooting to equestrian, mainly through her acting roles, but ultimately came to love the sport of archery — a sport she took up in her early 40s. Not long afterward, she became a semifinalist for the U.S. Olympic Team in 2000. Davis became so passionate about sports and the Olympic Movement that she joked that she had to be careful about what types of sports she might try because “I will want to go to the Olympics in it.”

Davis, now the mother of three children, might be most known for her acting roles — she did star in blockbusters such as “Thelma and Louise,” “The Accidental Tourist,” and, as she joked, the hit, “Earth Girls are Easy” — but she takes equal pride in her work as someone pushing for gender equality in the sports world.

And in her leading role on stage at the World Conference on Women and Sport, she focused more on sharing tales of her life in the athletic world than as a Hollywood movie star.

In her speech, Davis cited a startling statistic that said if the number of women in the U.S. Congress continued to grow at the current rate, the legislative branch of the U.S. government would reach parity among its members in 500 years.

“I say that’s too slow,” Davis said to roars of laughter from the attendees at the conference. “I say we must cut that in half.”

Kidding aside, Davis is not willing to wait, and called herself, “an impatient optimist”.

“The lives of too many girls are at stake,” she said.

Davis, who has one daughter and two sons, said is very cognizant of the roles she plays on the big and small screen. She is especially proud of portraying a female president in the TV show, “Commander in Chief.”

When her daughter was about 2, Davis noticed that there were not many children’s shows that featured strong female characters. So she started a study to analyze the industry in partnership with the University of Southern California. Davis said it is very important for young women to grow up seeing role models on TV and that extends to coverage of women’s sports. (For information about that research click on www.seejane.org.)

Davis never did become a star basketball player, but she reached greater heights in the sports world than she ever imagined.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.