game changers – the unsung heroes of sports history

Growing up in the 1980s if you wanted a sporting hero, the obvious offerings were men, and yet, there were scores of women who fit the definition of a hero.

As a sports minded kid growing up in the tiny seaside town of Rye, New Hampshire, Molly Schiot, a Los Angeles-based commercial, video and tv director, was a self described tomboy who spent her childhood aspiring to be like a beloved Boston Bruin or Celtic. When dreams went into the fictional realm, she set her sights on becoming the girl Rocky or the girl Karate kid. It was the 1980s and if you wanted a hero, the obvious offerings were men, and yet, there were scores of women who fit the definition of a hero that the adult Molly would have wanted to show her younger self.

Christy Martin photo credit: Getty Images
Christy Martin photo credit: Getty Images

Molly aims to make known the stories of these women known in her new book Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines Of Sports History (Simon & Schuster), a photo-centric compilation of 130 female athletes whose achievements largely pre-date the dawn of the internet. From race car drivers to mountain climbers to track stars, the book spans women from across the globe with stunning colour and black and white photos along with accompanying vivid biographies.

By comparison to their male counterparts, many of these female athletes toiled away in relative anonymity. For some, the throngs of adoring fans enjoyed by their male counterparts were replaced by  fervent crowds of angry protesters, incensed that a woman dared to step out of place. For others, history proved to be a fair weather friend; hard fought and once widely recognised victories did nothing to cement their place in the public memory. If the playing field had been more equal, then perhaps a young Molly would have shadowboxed and dreamt of throwing punches like Margaret McGregor or Christy Martin; instead of wishing she was a martial arts champion like Ralph Macchio she would have wanted to be the next Keiko Fukuda or Rusty Kanogoi. But the playing field wasn't equal and these women's stories were largely unknown.

The book's launching pad is Molly’s widely popular Instagram account, which was inspired by a series of rejected documentary ideas based on the stories of female athletes. Despite her previous accomplishments as a director (she directed an episode of ESPN's popular 30 for 30 series) her pitches were continually rejected with feedback that the stories were “not interesting enough.” Calling out sexism as the real reason behind the rejection, Molly began the account and started posting a different story with accompanying photo every day. Two years and over 750 posts later, the hardcover version arrived.

they are ordinary people who, when faced with unforeseeable hurdles, suddenly found themselves over-coming them

The book is a compilation of 130 pioneering women in the field of athletics. Many of the photos were sourced directly from the athletes themselves or surviving relatives.

There are stories of overcoming physical struggles like track star Wilma Rudolph's unlikely rise to becoming a world record breaking Olympic gold medalist after a overcoming polio induced paralysis as a child in the segregated South. Ms. Rudolph's story, like others turns into a tale of socio-political leadership when she stands up to then Tennessee governor Buford Ellington's plans for a racially segregated homecoming parade. After refusing to attend unless it was totally integrated, Ms. Rudolph's victory parade and banquet become the town of Clarksville's first racially inclusive event.

There are uplifting stories of ordinary women like Sylvia Green, a mother who successfully fought in court to break the gender barrier in Little League baseball after her nine year old daughter Kim was told “little girls can't play baseball.” Sylvia went on to create an all girls which (after 100 girls showed up to try-outs) went on to finish second in the league against all-boys teams.

Photo courtesy of Kim Green
Photo courtesy of Kim Green

The book comes at a timely period where women's accomplishments in sports are grossly underreported.  In a study called DUDE TIME, by Michael Messner, professor of gender studies and sociology at USC, he concluded,  “Men’s sports received 92% of the air time, women’s sports 5%, and gender neutral topics 3%. The television sports news did focus regularly on women, but rarely on women athletes. More common were portrayals of women as comical targets of the newscasters’ jokes and/or as sexual objects (e.g., women spectators in bikinis).”

Molly says, ‘The women in this book had the guts to be first – challenging racial, political, and cultural constructs that seemed impenetrable at the time. When a young girl sees a woman doing something it becomes attainable and key to changing perceptions. 'I see a women running for president. I can be president.’

For readers who aren't athletes, it's worth pointing out the biographies prove that athleticism was never entirely the point. These are snapshots of underdogs who refused to listen to anything other than the voices of hope in their hearts that cheered them on as the odds were against them; they are pioneers who dared to be different from anyone else they knew or heard of before them; they are ordinary people who, when faced with unforeseeable hurdles, suddenly found themselves over-coming them.

The dedication at the beginning of Schiot's book reads “This book is dedicated to the women who were forever told no,” but surely the book is appropriate for anyone who was “ever told no” for surely, we can all find something to relate.

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