Everyone has heard the phrase, “you play like a girl,” but when did it become a bad thing? Was it when Shannon Miller became the most decorated U.S. gymnast — male or female! — at the Olympic Games with a total of seven medals? Or when Mariel Zagunis broke a 100-year gold-medal drought in fencing?
Clearly “play like a girl” really means “wins all the time.” So in honor of Women’s History Month and Women of Team USA Week, we asked nine U.S. Olympians to tell us how they define what it means to “play like a girl.”
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Janet Evans, Swimming
’Play like a girl’ is a phrase that resonated with me when I was a young girl on one very important level: because I was a product of Title IX and the incredible women who made it possible, I saw no difference in ‘playing like a girl’ or ‘playing like a boy.’ From the age of 5 — when I swam in my first swim meet — until the age of 40, when I swam in my final Olympic Trials, my gender was never an issue in my athletic success. For that, I credit the pioneering women who came before me, and thank them for breaking down barriers in this country, giving female athletes like myself every opportunity to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
Jamie Greubel Poser, Bobsled
My earliest memories of playing sports involve being the only girl trying to play sports at recess or working out on the track with the boys. I remember them being hesitant to include me. But that quickly changed when they couldn't catch me as I sprinted down the field! As I developed as an athlete and as an adult, I realized that being strong, healthy and athletic doesn't make you any less feminine. Being strong and confident is a good thing — whether in the weight room or driving my sled down the track, I never lose sight of that! To me, playing like a girl means being proud to be strong and athletic – of your accomplishments and of who you are. I'm proud to be an example of a strong, healthy female athlete and I hope girls see that and start to think of ‘play like a girl’ as a compliment!
Erin Hamlin, Luge
As I was working my way through the ranks of luge, I often became self conscious of being strong — being bulky, having ‘man shoulders’ as a result of the required training. My mom, one of the strongest women in my life — literally and figuratively — coined the phrase ‘be proud of your pipes’ to encourage me to remember what those muscles could allow me to do in my sport. And never be upset about being strong and healthy. Was I made to be a dainty and graceful ballerina or figure skater? Definitely not. Which makes me fortunate and forever grateful to have found the perfect sport!
To me, to ‘play like a girl’ means to embrace the strength your body and mind has, whatever that looks like, and put it towards excelling in whatever it is you are passionate about. To play as hard as you can, as well as you can and be proud of wherever that takes you.
Devin Logan, Freestyle Skiing
When I was a little girl, my older brother Chris played Pop Warner football. Of course, I wanted to do everything my older brothers did so I signed up for football at the age of 7.
I was the first girl to ever do this in the league so I had to play by the same rules as the boys: wearing pads, weigh-ins before games and, yes, I even had to wear a cup.
I remember one day a mother of one of my teammates was watching and started heckling me. I was so caught off guard that my own teammate’s parent — and a woman — was giving me grief that I shouldn’t be on the same field as the boys because I was a girl. She even started laughing when one of the boys tackled me and made a rude comment, along the lines of, ‘that’s what you get for playing with boys.’
At that young of an age, I didn’t know how I was supposed to react, but I remember she made me question why I was out on the field with the boys even when I loved playing football. After all these years I can’t remember the games we won or how many touchdown passes I threw, but the most vivid memory I have is of a mother heckling me as a little girl just playing a sport that I enjoyed. If you love something that much, it shouldn’t matter what gender you are. You should be able to do it and have fun doing it and not get judged.
Shannon Miller, Gymnastics
When I think of the phrase ‘play like a girl,’ it reminds me of the quote ‘I run like a girl... try to keep up!’ I love that quote. It reminds me of my mother. There is nothing she can't do. She taught me that if I was willing to work hard and believe in myself, I could do anything I put my mind to. She turned the table and instead of thinking, ‘Can I do this?,’ she taught me to think, ‘Why wouldn't I go for it?’
Maggie Steffens, Water Polo
When I think of ‘play like a girl,’ or hear it, I think about when I was a kid running around my backyard and counting down the final seconds of a game, ‘3…2…1… she puts it away, right into the net for the WIN! The crowd goes crazy…’ Whether it was kicking a soccer ball through the bushes, shooting a basketball into our chain net or playing keep away with my siblings in the pool with a water polo ball, I was alive and I was loving every second of it. That is how I know to play like a girl!
Gevvie Stone, Rowing
As the single sculler for the U.S. rowing team, I got to choose everything about how I trained. In the system my coach (my dad) and I set up, I did all my hard practices racing against local masters men. I was the only girl, and the men ranged from 35 years old to 64 years old, most having raced as members of the U.S. rowing team in their day. One morning, I was beating a group of them by more than usual, and Mike Cataldo (former member of the U.S. rowing team) turns to the group and says, ‘Guys, we should have t-shirts that say, 'Team Gevvie: Row like a girl!'’ I considered it the ultimate compliment. Him wanting to put that phrase on a shirt meant he was OK with the world seeing that this group of men was trying to ‘row like a girl.’ Switching up the typical gender norms for sport.
Katie Uhlaender, Skeleton
I must have been 7 when my father, a Major League Baseball player, taught me how to throw. He said no daughter of mine is going to throw like a girl. I played catch with him until my arm was better than the boys. I played boys’ baseball until I graduated high school, and he was proud of me playing like a girl.
Mariel Zagunis, Fencing
A few years ago, my fencing club was hosting a number of out of town fencers for a camp. One day during the camp I was getting ready to fence this guy, he's maybe only a few years younger than me and a pretty talented fencer who I knew but never trained with. Before our bout I said to him, 'I'm looking forward to finally fencing with you!' He said, 'Oh yeah, me too.' I said, jokingly, 'Yeah I can't wait to give you a run for your money, I bet this will be a good bout.'
He replies, with a smile on his face, 'Oh, but you'll never beat me.' Thinking this is all part of our friendly banter I say with a smile, 'Oh yeah, why not?' And he says, this time sans smile so I knew he was serious, 'Well, because you are a woman.' All I could do was mouth a long, silent 'oooookkkkaaayyy....'
I had no mercy on this guy and even though it was practice we both went all out and I beat him 15-5. At the very least I hope it made him think twice before thinking he could win against someone automatically due to their gender.
Playing like a girl means that you are unapologetically competitive, strong (mentally and physically) and resilient. It means to break barriers and stereotypes and to set records without even realizing it because you're just too focused on being the best athlete that you can be.