Molly Schiot on 'Game Changers' and honoring female athletes

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

American track and field sprinter Wilma Rudolph stands proudly on the cover of "Game Changers".

When filmmaker and author Molly Schiot typed "women" and "sports" into Amazon last year, the first three results were a "Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition" anthology and two academic books about the limitations of female participation in organized athletics.

Schiot was disappointed (but not surprised) by the dearth of books about the lives and careers of female athletes. So she decided to change the results.

Now "Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History," Schiot's new best-selling book about the women and girls who have changed the male-dominated face of sports, is doing just that.

Based on her wildly popular Instagram account @TheUnsungHeroines, "Game Changers" (released in October) features pictures and stories of female athletes from around the world, as well as referees, journalists and the people who spearheaded Title IX.

The author's first book is a thoughtful, exhaustively researched and long-overdue tribute to the women who have paved the way for the likes of Serena Williams, Abby Wambach, Simone Biles and more.

Schiot spoke with espnW about the inspiration behind the release, the importance of sharing diverse stories and how social media helped her change the face of sports.

espnW: How did you go about developing the @TheUnsungHeroines Instagram account?

Molly Schiot: I was doing some research in hopes of pitching a few ideas about female athletes to a sports network. I wanted them to be part of a documentary series. I started gathering these stories and pitching them, and none of them really got off the ground. I got really frustrated ... and I kept finding story after story, [but there was] no public space for these women to be seen. Then I was like, "No one is going to green light these ideas; I might as well just figure it out myself." So I started the IG account to give these stories a platform.

espnW: At what point did you decide to translate the account into a book?

MS: I had done maybe about 100 posts and then, just through a couple different connections, I got in touch with this really radical woman named Erin Hosier, who works at the Dunow, Carlson & Lerner literary agency. So she and I put together a pitch for the book, and the one thing that we'd say to each other all the time is, "Seriously how has this book not been made before?"

espnW: Many of the women in this book were big stars in their era but aren't household names now. Why have so many of their legacies been lost over time?

MS: That's the sort of thing where I want to walk out my front door and just stick my middle fingers up into the air and say, "Hey everyone, these stories have always been there, but nobody's telling them!" There is nobody that is approving or writing these stories or nobody in positions of power who's saying, "Hey, we really need to tell this story." You can say how have we never heard these women's names before, but why would we? You see documentary stories about male athletes [all the time], and everyone knows the intricacies of every men's sports team out there. People know those stories because they're being told.

Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Enriqueta Basilio carries the Olympic torch during the 1968 Summer Olympics.

espnW: The book also touches on gender and race discrimination, transmisogyny, homophobia, domestic violence and the financial hardships these female athletes faced. How much of that was an intentional part of making the publication diverse?

MS: It was definitely really important and, let's face it, a lot of times the most interesting stories are the ones that are of adversity, struggle and oppression. So I think it was pretty easy for me because I didn't want a book that was just about stats.

I wanted something inspiring -- whether it was [Japanese mountaineer] Junko Tabei, who became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in [1975], or [Mexican hurdler Enriqueta Basilio], who in 1968 became the first woman in history to light the Olympic torch. There's also the [African-American] women from Wake-Robin Golf Club in Washington, D.C. -- they actually had to build their golf course on a trash dump [in 1939].

I honestly feel like you could take any of these stories and turn them into a film, and it would have all of the components of a really incredible movie.

espnW: Do you think the world is evolving? Are women in sports going to be more celebrated and valued?

MS: I definitely think that it's changing. There have been really inspiring women that have started to make their mark in social media. There's this Instagram account called ShePlaysWeWin, and it's this photographer named Christin Rose and she has kind of dedicated her Instagram account and her photography to celebrating young girls' confidence through sports.

There's another IG account: Girl IsNota4LetterWord that's run by this pro skater named Cindy Whitehead, and she is a huge advocate for young girls that want to be skateboarders. And she sponsors them and just gives them a platform where they feel really special.

I think that that's really important. Because when I grew up I feel like I had no role models that were women. I wanted to be like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun" or Sylvester Stallone in "Rocky" or Daniel (Ralph Macchio) from "The Karate Kid." You think about '80s movies, and there's no women in places of power. Now girls can have their own role models.

espnW: Lastly, tell me about the cover of "Game Changers," which features a photograph of American sprinter Wilma Rudolph. Why her?

MS: When I was doing this book I came across a Jezebel article about Marley Dias, the 11-year-old from Jersey that started the #1000BlackGirlBooks movement. It was so interesting [to me] because my foreword is so much about how I had no role models and that all of my role models were men, and her interview was about the fact that she was always so frustrated because she was tired of seeing books about white boys and their dogs. And then she started that social media campaign.

I was just thinking about her when I was doing the cover, and I thought that the [photo of Wilma Rudolph would be] really strong. It's super powerful and I'm really grateful that I got that on the front.

Ann-Derrick Gaillot writes about sports culture, pop culture, and so much more. Find her on Twitter at @methodann

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