Football rules Sundays, basketball has weekday nights, and baseball is summer afternoons. Sports — watching, playing, and discussing — have been a part of my life since birth. But rarely did I get to watch women compete on the highest level.
That's not to say we female sports fans didn't have role models. Mia Hamm and the rest of the 1999 World Cup team had people scrambling for their soccer balls. Steffi Graf's dominance at the Grand Slams inspired a generation of tennis players. And we got to watch, excited, as the WNBA tipped off it's first season in 1996.
But when a men's sport gets to own a day of the week, while the only channels playing women's basketball were up in the children-shouldn't-wander-alone upper territory of TV listings, the message was pretty clear: Women's sports are, at best, marginal. Male athletes were the only ones worth watching, worth talking about, worth buying jerseys for. The women who I could look up to and aspire to emulate, well, those ladies couldn't hang with the big guys. And by extension, neither could I.
But on August 5, Team USA marched into Maracanã Stadium, with 292 female athletes, outnumbering their 262 male counterparts. They make up the largest group of female Olympians (at an Olympic Games that has more female athletes than any previous one) and are a force to be reckoned with. We've come along way from staying up late to catch highlights of the WNBA games.
Kerri Walsh Jennings walked in Rio the respected veteran and the most recognized face of beach volleyball. Simone Biles burst onto the largest international platform for her sport as the three-time reigning world champion. Simone Manuel raced for two gold medals, two silver ones, and made history. I'm fairly certain there are Olympic men's teams who would get beaten like a drum against Team USA's Women's Basketball.
I've been watching male athletes do incredible things for years. I've cheered and cried at each feat. But watching women athletes take center stage, and own that stage, means more.
Beyond just those headliners, Team USA's incredible women are making waves in other sports, and in other ways. Ibtihaj Muhammad made history as the first U.S. woman to compete wearing a hijab. Muhammad's post-match comments speak to what makes sports in general — and the Olympics in particular — so amazing. She represents more than just an Olympian, a fencer, and an athlete; she's breaking down barriers, showing aspiring young athletes and spectators alike what a champion looks like.
The Women's Rowing competition took a prime time slot last week as the U.S. Women looked to continue their dominance on the water. Aside from the final race itself, reporters and commentators gave the eight rowers and coxswain time, talking up and celebrating their dominance. Did you know the U.S. women's boat has won three-straight gold medals and every international competition since 2006? Every. Single. Race. That's a decade of being at the top of their game. You know what other teams have done that? None. Even the winningest teams of men's sports have an off-year.
Track and field took over Rio for the second week of the Games. Michelle Carter has already won a gold medal and made shot put fans of all of us. Tell me that wasn't an empowering sight: Carter, the first U.S. woman to earn a gold medal in shot put, taking her victory lap, waving the American flag.
As women, we're so often censored, told to remain quiet, don't stir the pot. Which is why it's so exciting to see Lilly King. She's 19 years old, a college freshman, and has more titles to her name than most people have Pokemon – and she not only called out a repeat doping offender, she got in the pool and backed it up. If you listen closely, there's plenty of old guard sports commentators miffed about all of this. The same commentators who will talk up the touchdown celebration dances of male football players, but are uncomfortable with an Olympian's logical arguments for a more stringent punishment process. But me, I'm old enough to remember things from the year King was born, and I still want to be like her when I grow up.
The commentators of these games have been called out (and rightly so) for crediting the successes of these female athletes to their male coaches. I don't think that's a new trend, looking to credit the men around the women. Remember Serena Williams' first U.S. Open, when the commentators kept talking about her father and panning to him? But the immediate and universally negative response to that tendency was a first. And just like watching all the women march into the Opening Ceremony, reading and listening to the commentary about how this kind of treatment was unacceptable warms my sports-loving feminist heart.
By no means has Rio been perfect. Michael Phelps's silver medal was the headline while Katie Ledecky was practically lapping people in the pool. There's been plenty of male-gaze and commentary about athletes and makeup. But the tide is changing. The response to crediting Katinka Hosszú's world record-breaking performance to her husband was swift and unanimous. We're watching and cheering for these women athletes, not their coaches, husbands, or managers.
Without a doubt, all these athletes are motivating the next generation of Olympians. How cool was it that Simone Biles, the most dominant gymnast in history, said Aly Raisman, the woman who just got inched out for a medal in London, inspired her?
This is what it looks like when a focused, strong woman goes after something.
But even to those of us who won't ever be Olympians, these remarkable women are inspiring. Literally, hundreds of women athletes are taking the world stage and showing us what hard work looks like, what it means to dedicate countless hours to a goal. This is what it looks like when a focused, strong woman goes after something. This is why not hitting snooze that fifth time is worth it, why putting in the time to get better at a thing will benefit you in the long run.
I've been watching male athletes do incredible things for years. I've cheered and cried at each feat. But watching women athletes take center stage, and own that stage, means more. These women are representing themselves, our country, and the dreams of millions of us who wanted someone just like us to look up to.
The Olympics always make me emotional. It's not a football Sunday, a baseball summer weekday, or a basketball Thursday night. With a few exceptions, these athletes aren't millionaires looking for a better contract or an endorsement deal; These are people who have dedicated their lives to a sport that gets on TV once every four years. And this year, a majority of those athletes were women. These Olympians aren't just additions to the main event, they are the main event.
Team USA and the Rio Games are sending an important message that will last long after the closing ceremonies: Women's sports are here and you should be watching.