When I played basketball in college there was no WNBA. There were no endorsement deals with women gracing the cover of cereal boxes. The ability to see someone like me on television, someone I could look up to and emulate, was sparse. Cheryl Miller was it for me in basketball and Flo Jo in track. Others in my generation watched the few too. Eventually, more successful women athletes became more and more visible. The tireless work and passion of women in my sport helped propel participation and acceptance to the closest it has ever been to equal to our male counterparts.
Today, little girls of all races, but particularly girls of color, have a historic number of successful, professional, Black women athletes to look up to and be inspired by across a multitude of sports. This 2016 Olympics is a shining example. Among them are Simone Biles, who is the most decorated gymnast of all time and a multi-gold medalist in Rio. Simone Manuel made history as the first African swimmer EVER to win and individual Olympic gold medal. Make-up artist, Michelle Carter, painted another picture of the Black female Olympian when she threw herself into the history books with a gold for the shot put in track & field (pun intended). Gabby Douglass, through continued criticism and social media attacks, contributed greatly to Team USA’s team gold in gymnastics; the only time there has been back-to-back team gold for any country. She was on both gold medal winning teams. Ashleigh Johnson is a relatively unknown name, but she is the first Black woman to compete in water polo at any Olympics. And in weightlifting, a lesser spoken of sport for American women, Jenny Arthur made U.S. history. Though she did not medal, she did break the American record with her 107kg (236lbs) snatch. She already holds the record in the clean & jerk.
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The 2016 Olympics are not over and has so much more to offer. But if it does not produce another USA medal, if not one more record is broken, if it were to end today, the opportunity given these women and others will prove to have societal and culture ripples that will positively affect the self-image of little girls of color throughout the world for generations. There is a little Black girl somewhere who does not care about her hair. She just wants to swim like Simone. Or a little girl jumping on her mom’s couch and flipping up the hallway shouting, “I’m Gabby.” Now that we have more images and women like these listed have created the precedents, it is up to us as community to support and encourage our little girls to be active, to be dedicated, and to be great.