There she was, standing on the first-place podium in the All-Around category for her age level at the Bravo Gymnastics meet. Her face beaming with pride, my eyes brimming with tears, both of us acknowledging all the hard work -- the 25-plus hours a week in the gym, the homework being done on the road and the many nights of icing aching joints -- that brought her to this moment.
Next goal, the Olympics! However, my daughter's life changed, and subsequently her Olympic dream, when a frightful back injury forced her to retire from the sport she loved at the age of 12. So what do you do when a child's Olympic dream dies? You fashion a new one, of course. After exploring a variety of sports she decided on softball, and she was good at it. Problem is, softball was eliminated from the Olympic Games in 2005.
As a parent, I want my daughter to think big. As I, and many of my fellow gymnastics parents, became co-opted by our children's Olympic dreams, however, I began to realize that I was losing sight of the more important benefits of my daughter's involvement in sports. It is not about receiving a gold medal. So, instead of writing pleading letters to the IOC threatening to launch campaign to boycott the 2014 Olympics unless softball is voted back in for 2020, I chose to reflect on the initial reason my husband and I introduced sports to our young daughter. Parents of young female athletes, join me on this reflective journey.
Health and life benefits. There is a preponderance of evidence that suggests girls who participate in sports will experience lower breast cancer and obesity rates and are less likely to become depressed, socially isolated or pregnant. Girl athletes are also likely to have higher levels of self-esteem and confidence and have the capacity to set and achieve goals and work well in teams. New research also found that college attendance and completion rates as well as employment rates increase as girls' participation in sports increases.
Leadership development. Our daughters' participation in sports places them in a position to encourage other girls to do the same. Girls' sports involvement, though increasing in high school, is still dismally low compared with boy's participation. Research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation confirms that a gender gap of 2 percent to 5 percent exists in sports participation across intermediate and high school sports programs. One reason for girls dropping out, as reported by the Women's Sports Foundation, is the lack of female athlete role models. Our daughters are the role models the future generation of girl athletes need.
Gender equity advocacy. Title IX continues to be a vehicle used by female athletes to open up opportunities to participate in sports that are either traditionally associated with men or are considered extreme sports. For example, Tori Allen successfully used a Title IX argument in a lawsuit against the Indiana High School Athletic Association, and now girls pole vault is a state championship event. Parents of a middle school girl in Pennsylvania are suing the Lion Mountain School District to allow their daughter to join the wrestling team. There are many other examples of advocacy that is spearheaded by a girl just wanting to play a sport. It is because of such sports equity advocacy activity that we have professional female mixed martial art fighters, female boxers and female professional football players.
This year alone we will witness the first women's ski jumping competition during the Winter Games. It is because of girls' participation in sports that we are able to break down gender barriers in sport programs.
This month we celebrate both National Girls and Women in Sports Day and the 22nd Olympics. As my daughter and I watch and cheer for our U.S. athletes, I will be comforted in knowing that although my daughter's softball career may not result in an Olympic medal, the person she will become because of her participation in sports will be well worth our time and investment. Go Team USA!
• Adrienne M. Holloway is an assistant professor in the School of Public Service at DePaul University in Chicago.