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Friday, April 22, 2011

New Shrinking and Pinking: "Don't let my stilettos fool you. I still want to win."

This was syndicated on BlogHer on April 26, 2011 as "Don't Let My Stilettos Fool You. I Still Want to Win." Check it out HERE!

New female sports heroes alert! Continuing my "Shrinking and Pinking" series I started last month...

Number one on the list? Desi Davila. Davila finished second in the Boston Marathon on Monday, just two seconds out of the lead. She set a new personal record and became a hero to the next generation of American runners.  I followed the race a bit online, and when I realized that I might see an American win Boston for the first time since 1985, I turned on the television.  This pretty much describes my reaction: "At this point, I imagine if you were watching Boston all across America, you spontaneously did what I and Alberto Salazar did- you stood and screamed at the TV/computer screen." (You know this is actually pretty typical behavior for me if you have ever watched a beauty pageant, a gymnastics meet, Michelle Kwan compete at the Olympics, or the Kentucky Derby with me!)

Aside from her impressive performance as an athlete, it appears Davila also performed well as a teammate and a human being.  Kara Goucher, another top female marathoner from the US, ran to a somewhat-disappointing fifth place finish (given that she gave birth seven months ago though, I'd call it pretty amazing).  Goucher wrote on her blog: "By 16 miles I was completely out of contention. The real race was ahead of me. Then Desiree Davila went by me looking amazing. I knew she had a chance to catch the leaders and maybe win. As she passed me, she encouraged me. 'Keep your eyes up,' she said. Now that’s classy."

I also love that Davila would actually rank in the Top 100 of male marathoners in the country this year. It's nice to see a woman beating most men at the same exact event! Finally, on a more personal note, I love that for the past seven years Davila has trained in Rochester Hills, MI-- about thirty minutes away from where I grew up.  Everyone knows the Detroit area needs as much positive news/attention as it can get. Davila will be throwing out the first pitch at the Detroit Tigers game on Tuesday, April 26th.

Another new female sports hero of mine who can beat the men at their own game: Nancy Lieberman.  This week's The New Yorker had a wonderful profile on Lieberman, "Queen of the D-League." Lieberman was: 1) the first woman to play men's professional basketball; 2) the oldest female professional basketball player (twice, once in 1997 and again, at age fifty, in 2008); and 3) the second female coach to lead a professional men's basketball team. She also was a Harlem Globetrotter, who has played under various nicknames over the years-- like "Fire," "SuperJew," and "Lieb the Heeb."

Lieberman was clearly an impressive athlete (she played in college and in the Olympics, in addition to playing professionally), and she seems to be an impressive coach.  But what I really love is the spunky attitude that comes across in Ben McGrath's profile.  One of my new favorite lines? "Don't let my stilettos fool you. I still want to win."  I also love how Lieberman seems to know when and how to use the fact that she is a female coach to her advantage. For instance, when a key player was nervous in an important game she knew she had to get him to loosen up. So she called him over: "He doesn't know how I work. It's our second game together. I say, 'Antonio, look, this is serious. Do you like my hair?'"  Lieberman is not ashamed that she gets her nails painted, or that she gets her fiery red hair done. She is a female athlete, a female coach, and a mother, and none of these are incompatible in her world. I wonder if she paints her nails pink?

Another female athlete not afraid of pink? Cindy (Battlecat) Dandois.  I read about Dandois in this week's Sports Illustrated, which reports on page 18 that Dandois withdrew from a planned MMA fight in June because she's pregnant. I suppose that fact on its own wouldn't be worthy of a mention in SI; what makes the story impressive/scary is that when Dandois fought (and won!) last month, she was actually two months pregnant. According to this article Dandois had taken a pregnancy test, when she had trouble making weight, but it came up negative.  She hopes to reschedule the fight after the pregnancy-- and Kara Goucher has shown you can be in nearly top-of-the-world form only a few months after delivery.

[Note: If you read SI, be sure to check out "Shin-Soo Choo That's Who" on page 63. It touches on a topic related to my other research, on early specialization in young athletes. Choo went to a baseball academy high school in his native South Korea and has some interesting things to say about the experience.  Choo is now one of the top five-tool players in MLB, but he is the only successful Korean position player in US.]

Davila and Lieberman show that female athletes can be among the best in the world, playing with and beating men.  But Goucher and Dandois remind us that female athletes have to deal with very different issues from their male counterparts-- like, oh, pregnancy. (True, MLB now has a 72-HOUR paternity leave for players-- which has been getting a lot of attention this week, but the body of the male athlete clearly isn't effected the same way).  Given such physical differences between male and female athletes, I'm interested in learning more about a new proposal in Minnesota to increase girls' athletic activity and keep them healthy by offering all-girls' gym classes, which you can read about here.  Again, pinking of sports can be okay at times, but shrinking never is, even though at times there are clear physical differences between men and women.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Resignations and Circumnavigations: Miss Maine USA and Abby Sunderland

As I read The Boston Globe this morning I came across this story at the back of the Metro Section: "Missing Out, Happily." The story is about Emily Johnson, Miss Maine USA 2011 (not to be confused with Miss Maine, who represents the state in the Miss America system). Johnson was crowned Miss Maine USA 2011 on November 27, 2010.  Two months into her reign, on January 25, 2011, the Miss Maine USA organization announced that Johnson had resigned due to a "personal family matter." The news was reported in some pageant publications, like Beauty Pageant News, on January 29, 2011.  The new Miss Maine USA 2011 is Ashley Lynn Marble (who was also Miss Maine Teen USA in 2000).

Over the past two days this story seems to have exploded. This is the most detailed article I found, out of Maine.  The Portland Press Herald reporter wrote a great first line, "For Emily Johnson, family trumped Trump." Why did this story break now? Did the Miss USA organization wait to release the story to drum up more publicity (in downtime from the other pageant crowning scandal of the year-- the dethroned Miss San Antonio legally fighting to keep her crown after being told she had eaten too many tacos to represent the system)? With The Donald at the helm, the organization is pretty savvy when it comes to working the media.  Yes, I guess I do believe in pageant conspiracies.Otherwise, I can't think of another reason why the story would break in the mainstream media almost three months later.

Second question, does anyone buy Johnson's reason for relinquishing her crown? The stated reason is that the pageant date of June 19, 2011 conflicts with her sister's wedding. The Miss USA Pageant, traditionally held in April, has been moved to June in Las Vegas to accommodate the television broadcast. Given the change, Johnson felt she couldn't miss her sister's wedding (and I guess it couldn't be changed so late in the planning stages). Some are praising Johnson for having her priorities straight, while others are criticizing her for not fulfilling the terms of the contract she signed when she won and representing her state.  Methinks there is more to this story... Feel free to suggest your own interpretation below!

Because I love random pageant facts, here are a few out of this story:
* The new Miss Maine USA 2011, Ashley Lynn Marble, now holds the record for length of time between holding Teen and Miss titles at eleven years apart.
* According to The Portland Press Herald, the past three Miss Maine USAs have all been college basketball players. I found that very interesting, but it makes sense given the focus on athleticism/fitness, which means the women likely look to be in great shape for the swimsuit competition, not to mention I assume they are all pretty tall, which helps carry an evening gown well. And, of course, having a lot of competitive drive and knowing how to work hard, two things collegiate sports emphasize, does not hurt at all!
* The third to last basketball-playing Miss Maine USA, Ashley Underwood (Miss Maine USA 2009), is currently a cast member on Survivor: Redemption Island. (PS. If you watch this, go Boston Rob!)

Speaking of television pop culture, as I was reading the paper and found the Miss Maine USA story this morning I was actually watching last night's House episode on my DVR. House has been a favorite of mine for a few years; not only is it smart but it is set in the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro hospital (when I was a Princeton grad student I lived in Plainsboro, so it's always given me a special thrill). The patient in this past episode, "The Last Temptation," was based on a story ripped from last summer's headlines.  Kendall Roberts is a fictional sixteen-year-old girl who collapses a few days before setting off to try to break the record as the youngest person to sail around the world.

This plot line was based on the story of Abby Sunderland, who had to be rescued last summer from her own solo circumnavigation after her boat was severely damaged in a storm. I wrote about Sunderland in a USA Today op-ed on kids and reality tv after it was widely speculated that the incident may have been a set-up for a family show (after this summer's rescue Abby's father canceled their contract with a production company and no show is currently in the works).

Sunderland is back in the news for another reason-- this time with her autobiography entitled Unsinkable, which was released last week. My copy is in that mile-high pile of books to be read that I have mentioned before.

Which would you prefer: winning a pageant beauty or sailing solo around the globe? My vote is that both sound great, as long as I'm not the one doing either activity...

Monday, April 18, 2011

All is Fair in... Science?

I never participated in a science fair, but I've been thinking a lot about them lately. In the past week I've (pretty randomly) ordered two new books on science competitions from Amazon and read three articles on them. I suppose it's science fair season, but it's also left me wondering if science fairs/contests are gaining in popularity?

In my mind I group together science fairs, girl scouting, and moms who have fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies ready for you when you get home from school-- various aspects of "traditional," and perhaps historical, American childhoods that you are more likely to encounter in children's literature than in real life.  According to this piece by Daniel Barth, Science Fair programs started in the US in 1921 and organized competition went national in 1941. This timeline is very consistent with historical patterns of organized competition for kids in the US. In my research on the history of organized, competitive afterschool activities I label the time period from the Progressive Era through the Second World War the "seeds of competition" and the time period post-WWII through the 1970s the "growth of competition" (since then, into the present, we have the "explosion of hyper-competitiveness").

Dr. Barth also points out that the traditional science fair model has become more about ego for parents and kids and "the validity of work and the experience of doing real science takes a back seat to grades and prizes – and vicarious glory."  However, another article on Lyman High School in Florida, published earlier this month in Education Week, suggests that integrating competition with the science curriculum helps students remain engaged and excited about science and can help increase creativity as well.  I would agree with teacher Bill Yucuis, with an important caveat.

Young superstar scientists exist.  An article, "The Next Nobels," in this month's O Magazine (not yet available on the web, so click HERE to see a scanned PDF from my copy) highlights four high-achieving young scientists; they are also four of the twelve kids featured in Science Fair Season, which will be released tomorrow.  Probably the most famous "science fair" remains the Westinghouse (now Intel, since 1998) Talent Search, and it's kids like those featured in the O piece and the book who will be competitive for this highly prestigious event.  But what about all the kids who are not great enough to compete at such a high level? I'm convinced by a variety of educational and psychological research that in-class competitions can help kids get excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) by giving them a goal and getting them engaged.  Competitions held outside of school are trickier though. When you go up against a superstar and constantly lose, it can be discouraging and lead to drop-out (what I call the "problem of the high-achieving child"). That means we may be losing the really good science students who could eventually catch up to some of the great science students if given the time, instruction, and opportunity.  What to do about this is not at all clear and in this case, big, public competitions could exacerbate the problem.

It appears that one teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, has found a way around this problem (incidentally, Abo-Shaeer is the first high school teacher to ever win a MacArthur "Genius" Grant).  Abo-Shaeer uses robotics competitions to make science "cool" for students as his school-within-a-school.  His team's story is the focus on the just-released The New Cool: A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts by Neal Bascomb. I just got the book and it's in my mile-high tower of books-to-be-read-soonish, so I'll let you know if I discover his secret. The book has been getting great reviews so it seems to be worth checking out.

What strikes me is that Abo-Shaeer appears to focus on robotics competitions.  Robotics is obviously a part of any STEM curriculum. And I can see how the technological aspects of robotics is particularly appealing to kids and adolescents. But what happens to the other parts of STEM? Are those more likely to be covered by superstar young scientists? I'd be interested to know if anyone knows of any research on this-- or how various parts of the STEM curriculum break down by sex.  If it is a trend to focus on more specific types of competitions (like robotics, or mathematics) as opposed to general science fairs, that's very interesting, and consistent with increased specialization in careers and the educational system.

As for specifics, can someone please answer this question for me: What is the difference, if any, between a science fair, a science competition, and a science talent search? I guess they are all the same thing essentially, so why the different names? Or is a fair more school/locally-based, while competitions and searches are more national?