Exclusive Interview: Ann Meyers Drysdale Olympic Legend
Written by Joni Ravenna
"YOU LET SOME GIRL BEAT YOU?"
As the Olympic Games Begin in London and the Historic Women’s Sports Legislation Called Title IX Turns 40, Ann Meyers Drysdale—One of the Greatest Female Athletes of All Time—Looks Back on Her Life as a Woman Athlete in a Man’s World.
With Joni Ravenna
Time Magazine recently called her one of the “Top Ten Female Sports Pioneers of All Time,” but she never saw the write-up herself. “I don’t like to read about myself,” she says. You’d think she’d be used to it by now.
By age 11, Ann Meyers Drysdale was already being written up in the O.C. papers with photos of her holding a trophy surrounded by her all-male teammates. “Unlikely leader to bring home the championship in the La Habra City School District basketball tournament” read the captions.
The first girl to play on an all-boys team in high school, graduated to become the first woman to receive a full athletic scholarship to a division I school (UCLA) thanks to Title IX. There, she was named the first four-time All American—man or woman. And that was just the beginning.
A silver medal-winning Olympian and Hall of Fame athlete, Ann Meyers Drysdale’s life has been defined by breaking barriers. Today she remains the only woman ever to sign a no-cut contract with the NBA (Pacers in ’79) and continues to be the only V.P. on the operations side of the NBA (Phoenix Suns). She is also an award-winning broadcaster (and the first female to broadcast an NBA game) who will once again be covering the Olympic women’s basketball for NBC this summer.
In her book, “You Let Some GIRL Beat You?” which launches this month, she gives a candid look at the courage, faith and determination it takes to be a champion on the court and in life. Recently this OC mother of three sat down with us to talk about the book and about raising happy, healthy, athletic kids.
With 11 children, your parents couldn't have spent too much time training with any one of you individually. How much of your achievement was just pure drive and how much was the desire to keep up with your older siblings?
I'm sure it was a combination of sibling rivalry, great drive, wanting the attention of both our parents and being around sports and competing. Actually I felt that our parents were involved. My mom was a stay- at-home-mom and she always got us off to school and was home when we got back. She made dinner every night. Dad did travel, but when he came home, I do recall that he would come out and play sports with us, and we would do yardwork or wash cars with him.
Like you, your late husband, Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, is also in the Hall of Fame of his sport. Do you think your children feel an expectation by the outside world that they pursue a life in professional sports? If so, how do you deal with that?
Don and I talked about that when he was alive. He did have a daughter from his first marriage, so anytime you have famous parents, I think most children are put in the spotlight and expectations by “others” can be very influential, both in a positive and negative way. Sports is, and always has been, a part of our lives. We knew as parents, that we wanted our children to compete in sports because of all the positive things it brings to your life. We didn't expect them to be “pro” athletes, because we know how hard one has to work, how much one has to want it, and that one has to be lucky too. Our children have all played sports—and people would and still do ask of them, “Are you going to play basketball like your Mom?” “Why aren't you as good a pitcher as your Dad?” I continue to encourage all three of our children: “Be yourselves. You are not your father and you are not me.” It can be a struggle for them at times, because of what others say. So we talk about it and they are all becoming comfortable in who they are.
In your book you talk about the double standards that existed in the treatment of male professional athletes as compared with female professional athletes. Since we're celebrating 40 years of Title IX this month, has anything changed?
Forty years later, and there’s less exposure to women's sports on TV, and yet the amount of young girls and women competing in sports has increased tremendously. Before Title IX, more than 75% of coaching jobs coaching young girls and women were held by women. Since Title IX, less than 50% of those jobs are held by women today. More money means more men getting the jobs. Today, you still hear, "You throw like a girl!" in a derogatory way towards a boy. A young girl trying out for Little League or Pop Warner still has to fight to be on the team. Opportunities and scholarships are more abundant for females today than 40 years ago. But when men at colleges travel they go by charter and stay at 5-star hotels and the women still don’t. Why do the boys still get the prime time to practice on a court and the girls practice at odd hours or outside? And yet, more and more colleges that are building new basketball arenas are putting in two practice courts—one for the women and one for the men. There are weight training rooms where the women athletes work out with the men, and training rooms occupied by both male and female athletes at the same time with female and male trainers working on both athletes.
As a high jumper at UCLA, does your 19-year-old daughter, Drew, hope to take her athletic career beyond college? Or, does she have other dreams?
She knows how important and lucky she is to be a part of a team at UCLA or any other school, the advantages that being an athlete gives one. She is very appreciative of the opportunity to represent her school. She played several sports growing up. She loved soccer and didn’t pick up track until High School. She loves to compete. Is it her dream to pursue her sport? I don’t think so. She wants to explore the opportunities that college offers and find her way. She loves to sing and recently sang God Bless America and the National Anthem at two Dodgers games. Singing is actually what she’d like to pursue. Through sports, she understands the meaning of “hard work” and “putting in the time,” which you have to do to be successful in anything in life.
Ann and her daughter, Drew, who sang God Bless America and the National Anthem at two recent Dodgers games.
Most parents can't help but have dreams for their children, but so many of us don't really consider whether or not that's what our children really want for themselves. As a mother who sees athletic gifts in her daughter, is it difficult not to push her in that direction?
My dreams are not my children’s dreams. I was blessed to grow up in an environment that fueled my dreams. Sure I have encouraged all my children to compete in sports. And like any other parent, you want them to do well in that sport. You hope they enjoy it and have fun. Deep down you would love to see them go further, sure, but so many things factor into what happens and what they want as they develop. I have pushed them to stay in sports, because it teaches you about life and it opens doors in meeting people who might help fulfill the dreams they have for themselves. So, if they don’t play professional sports, that doesn't matter. What matters, is that they are happy with their lives and who they are.
What’s your advice for those parents out there who are trying to groom the next great Olympian?
To be an Olympian, starts with a dream. It starts with wanting to compete, wanting to put in the work, the sacrifice. You have to be good and have good coaches and good people supporting you. If your child is good in his or her sport, he or she will move up the ladder.
The Olympics have changed from when I grew up. Back then, you had to be an amateur, and for most American athletes (especially in a team sport) one Olympics was about as far as they got because of the commitment and cost. Today, of course, pros are no longer ineligible. But representing your country back then had a different feel. It wasn’t about making money, it was about pride. What would I tell the parent of a child who wanted to compete in the Olympics? Certainly, I would say it has to be THAT person's dream. They have to want to represent their country. At the last Olympics in women’s basketball, there was a USA player who got Russian citizenship just so she could play in the Olympic Games. She was not Russian; but she knew she wouldn’t make the United States team. People of my generation couldn't believe or understand why she would compete for any other country than the United States! (Meyers-Drysdale played on the first U.S. Women’s basketball team to go to the Olympics in ’76) And yet, other athletes from around the world today will compete for several different countries. For example a Bulgarian wrestler competing for his country in one or two Olympics, who marries a Romanian or Italian, can then compete for one of those countries.
What do you hope people take away from your story?
That anything is possible as long as you have the desire, determination, dedication, belief in yourself and the support of others. It's about trying. Just try. We all have opportunities; what we decide to do with them is what counts. We all have struggles in our lives; but how we decide to deal with the tough times is what matters. And finally I want them to get the message that you should live in a way so as never to look back on your life and say, “What if?” No coulda, woulda, shoulda thinking. Better to go for it and fail than to never have tried.
For those hoping to get a signed autograph of the book, tell us where you'll be signing locally.
I will be at the Staples Center on June 8, when the Mercury play the Sparks and I will be at the Special Olympics in Long Beach on June 10. I have been associated with the Special Olympics since I was a freshman at UCLA when Rafer Johnson helped bring me in.
What’s your greatest legacy?
When people ask me about being remembered for having been the first woman to have done this or done that, I tell them there are others who came before me. While I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, what matters is not that I was the first, but that I not be the last.
For those hoping to get a signed autograph of the book, tell us where you'll be signing locally.
I will be at the Staples Center on June 8, when the Mercury play the Sparks and I will be at the Special Olympics in Long Beach on June 10. I have been associated with the Special Olympics since I was a freshman at UCLA when Rafer Johnson helped bring me in. I will also be at a book signing in San Diego at the Barnes and Noble on June 11.
Click Here to read an excerpt from her new book: You Let Some Girl Beat You?