In June 1972, Congress enacted Title IX which required educational programs receiving federal assistance to ensure women were given equal access to sports.  Later that same year I was born, so I am truly a Title IX baby, who fell in love with sports at an early age.  For my mother and grandmother, who raised me, it was a good way for me to channel all my energy, while also ensuring that I was engaged in safe activities after school.  For me, it was a complete game-changer that has impacted every aspect of my life.

By age 11, when I began competing in rhythmic gymnastics I firmly believed that anything was possible and that I was in every respect equal to my male peers at school.  Despite my modest upbringing I had very clear and ambitious life goals, and sports taught me the importance of setting goals, developing a plan, and savoring each and every win as it happens.  But in order to continue with my gymnastic endeavors, my mother made it clear that I could not allow my academic performance to suffer.  As a result, I became super disciplined and organized at an early age.  In order to get in 3 hours of training a day and longer on weekends that were not spent in competitions, I had to make school work a priority on my free time, which resulted in having very little down time but I didn’t care.

Athletes are trained for endurance, which is fueled by our passion and desire to excel.  But I always knew that my gymnastics would have an early end date (most age out by 21), and my longer- term goal was to be a well-respected attorney in a large city.  When my academic pressures began to conflict with gymnastics, I made the difficult decision to retire as an Elite Class I Rhythmic Gymnast at the end of my freshman year at Georgetown.  From that point forward, I mainly focused on launching my legal career, but I never gave up being physically active.  For me, it’s a necessary part of remaining sane, and coping with life.

The importance of sports in a child’s life cannot be overstated.  Everything I have managed to accomplish as an adult the past two decades living in the DC Area as a mother, full-time lawyer, business owner, media expert, former adjunct professor, and published author I attribute to the fundamentals instilled in me as an athlete early on.  Among the many wonderful lingering  benefits of being a young athlete and participating in sports, here are my top six (6) take aways:

1. HEALTHY HABITS– you need to try and exercise daily, get at least 7 hours of sleep, and eat healthy in order to be able to properly perform.  As we get older, this basic self-care routine becomes so much more important, and for those that fail to do so there are some pretty serious consequences.

2. WORK ETHIC– talent can only get you so far.  It takes discipline to practice, and not get discouraged at times.  Sports teach us that if you put in the time, you can usually see some immediate results.  That is not always the case in other aspects of life, but the point is you learn to persevere by creating strategies to keep you motivated.

3. COMPETITION-it is a natural part of life, so the sooner we acclimate to competing for schools, jobs, or romantic partners, the sooner we can develop healthy coping mechanisms for all that stress.  Rather than implode, you learn to turn that nervous energy into excitement, and you quickly realize that even if you lose one competition there will always be another opportunity.

4. COURAGE– athletes learn to be brave early on.  You have to take risks, and not be afraid to fall on your butt, literally in front of an entire audience.  Some people think I’m fearless, but actually the fear of failure is very real, it’s just that I learned to build up confidence gradually.  With each success, you then add on the next challenge because you are innately trained to test the limits of what you can accomplish, knowing you probably won’t Succeed every single time, but at least you tried.

5. CREATIVITY-As you challenge your body, you also challenge your mind.  I had to constantly change up my exercise routines, the motivational music mixes, and come up with fun games or challenges in practice to keep it all interesting.  These creative juices continue to flow to this day, and I have found them to be a huge asset in the workplace.

6. GRATITUDE-In order to achieve the best results in sports, we rely on the help of our coaches, support from our family, friends and teammates, as well as the challenges presented by our competitors that push us to perform at our highest level.  Each time I received a trophy or ribbon, I learned to bow down and acknowledge all those that played an integral part in my success.  To this day, I try to show gratitude each day, for all the blessings life has provided me– and never has this been more important than during COVID.

When this pandemic hit, and the gyms closed, I will admit there were a few dark months where I felt I had lost all my bearings.  I was forced to shift gears fast and find a new outlet for all my energy and pent-up aggression.  This is when I embraced the game of golf, which is the perfect combination of performing in solitude while being social (and safely distant).  Now some say “golf is a good walk spoiled,” but I see it as a good walk made better because you have the added bonus of a mental challenge, where the elements will force you to think strategically and you need to conquer your fears, mainly water and sand so the stakes are not too high.

Good golf requires you to accept what is in your control, such as your club choice after proper risk assessment and distance calculations are made, and what is out of your control, e.g. a bad bounce, poor pace of players in front of you, or sudden changes in weather.  This game requires you to keep adapting, and to play well you need to focus on your shot, and put everything else out of your mind.  It is really 5 hours of meditation on steroids while surrounded by nature’s beauty and completely unplugged.  This is an exercise in staying present while remaining calm and not letting a bad hole ruin your entire round.

Prior to taking up golf, I never appreciated how difficult this sport can be– especially because the pros on television make it look so easy.  For me, this has become an exercise in patience as I continue to learn proper technique and the capabilities of each club, as well all the history, the rules and a whole new vocabulary.  Although it has not been easy to learn a new sport that is predominantly played by men in my late forties, I definitely don’t plan on quitting and love that I can continue to play this well after I retire from the legal world.  On the course, no one care who I am, what I do, or who I know.  I just need to be polite and ready to hit when it’s my turn.  For the first time in my life, I am not expected to give a perfect performance, and it is a freedom that is truly precious and rare.

If it wasn’t for COVID, I probably would not have taken up golf for another decade.  Now I just wish I had started sooner not to compete, but because of all the wonderful people and amazing places that I have had the privilege to enjoy the past two years. So this truly is my COVID silver-lining.

To be fair, some old habits die hard.  I don’t just go to the range whenever and play occasionally.  I work with pros, am part of a ladies-only league near me that plays weekly, and almost every decent weekend during the season I will play with friends, who are all far more experienced than me.  They continue to teach me and embrace my silly side, which includes doing cartwheels whenever anyone gets a birdie or eagle.

With a few exceptions, most people have been super kind and patient, particularly one of my favorite golf buddies, who I jokingly refer to as my “golf husband” that played competitively through college and has a 4 handicap, which is at a level that less than 10% of golfers ever achieve.  To watch him play is a true privilege and joy (while at the same time super humbling), and each day we are fortunate enough to get a round in together we all watch him in awe while I provide the comic relief.

There is so much more I wish I could tell you about the incredible life experiences sports can provide, but words alone simply won’t do justice to the intense range of feelings that hit you while you are in action.  At the extreme ends you will have the most amazing highs, as well as moments of incredible agony, with lots of sweat, pain and sacrifice along the way.  Engaging in athletics forces us to experience our humanity to the fullest capacity, and I feel so fortunate to have been born right after Title IX was enacted, because quite literally it changed the trajectory of my life, and there is no doubt there are thousands out there that feel the same way.

Happy 50th anniversary Title IX!

By Regina A. DeMeo