Behold and recognize: Why these Olympics are even more meaningful for women

ESPN Illustration

Women athletes such as (from left to right) Lindsey Vonn, Chloe Kim, Nadia Comaneci, Maame Biney and Kerri Walsh have shown the next generation of fans what's possible.

This essay appears in GOLD RUSH: powered by espnW, a special collaboration with ESPN The Magazine for its Feb. 19 issue. Subscribe today!

"The only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet." -Nadia Elena Comaneci

My grandmother was making Cream of Wheat the day I fell in love with Nadia Comaneci. Grandmother was in her tiny kitchen, stirring vigorously to avoid scorching the grains, while I sat a few feet away in the living room, cross-legged, my nose inches from the television set.

"You'll go blind," my grandmother hollered, head peeking around the door frame.

I didn't care. Blindness seemed a small price to pay for witnessing something so alien, so miraculous it might as well have been an adolescent fever dream, akin to the sort that made teens weep and wail at concert stages back when the shake of a hip stirred in ways previously thought unimaginable. Watching Nadia -- a twiggy Romanian gymnast dressed in a basic white leotard, hair swept into a loose ponytail, no hair spray, no mascara, no glitter -- attack the uneven bars was similarly stirring, if more profound. She was not a rock star, not splashy or cool. She was simply a girl like me, gangly and knob-kneed, shy to smile, eager to please. A girl who, as I and everyone else watching the 1976 Summer Olympics would soon discover, had harnessed her body and will to achieve something no one before her had done and, more to the point, something no one believed possible.

So unlikely was her flawlessness that the traditional gymnastics scoreboard was not equipped to reflect a perfect score, and thus, when Nadia marched across the mats and matter-of-factly redefined what excellence meant, the sign read "1.00."

After a beat, the crowd understood and rose to its feet. Nadia had executed the first faultless routine in Olympic gymnastics history. Before the Games ended, she would score six more perfect 10s. She was 14 years old. And she had changed the world.

This winter, legions of girls will watch women compete in Pyeongchang, observing them at the moment of their peak exertion, at their strongest and most vulnerable, their ambition unapologetic, their claim staked, and they too will be forever changed.

To be a girl is to be besieged with unsolicited evaluations of your physical person from your earliest consciousness. To feel the weight and itch of them on you like wet fur. Before there are even words to put to it, girls carry the knowledge that their body is something for others -- to approve, to disdain, to rate, to take, to discard. In time, most of us begin to execute these evaluations ourselves, in our heads and mirrors, a constant merciless self-negation, a death by inches.

Well before I was 14, I'd already heard the expression "a perfect 10" from the boys at my school. (They were not talking about athleticism or medal counts.) Though I was still young, I sensed the expectation and impossibility behind the language. But then Nadia converted in my mind (in everyone's) what a perfect 10 could mean.

She did this via her resolve, her self-control, her desire, her faith in herself and what her body could do -- something alien to almost every teenager, never mind young girls whose insides jangle like pinball machines. Observing her mastery, I felt, for the first time, that I could be bigger than my circumstances. There, in my grandmother's modest house in Appalachia, surrounded by dust, despair and drink, people hemmed in by geography and fate, I saw, almost like a secret revealed just to me, that girls could do anything, be anything, that we could be decorated, celebrated, revered -- and all it took was trusting your body to catch you after you jumped. What Nadia did was no less than show me a way to love myself. My grandmother was right. I was blinded.

I would be similarly blinded many times after. By swimmer Dara Torres in all five of her Olympic Games, the last at age 41, when she proved her age was not nearly as important a number as her medal count (a dozen). By ice queens Cammi Granato, the groundbreaking captain of the U.S. women's hockey team that won gold in 1998 (and the first woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame), and Tara Lipinski, who at 15 became the youngest woman to top the podium in singles figure skating in 1998, and she did so with refinement and style beyond her years.

By basketball warhorse Teresa Edwards, who also competed in five Olympic Games, winning gold at 20 years old and at 36, and twice more in between. By elegant Jackie Joyner-Kersee and no-nonsense Bonnie Blair and full-throttle Lindsey Vonn and unstoppable Mia Hamm.

By judoka Kayla Harrison, who survived years of sexual abuse from a coach, then converted that powerlessness to strength and pinned her way to gold in 2012 and 2016. By the incandescent Simone Biles, who in 2016 became the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history and made me feel the same rapture I did with Nadia, all these decades later, a fresh beacon of promise and fortitude (a command even more gobsmacking now, given what we've learned about the predatory nature of the system and the craven ghouls who ran it).

By class acts Ibtihaj Muhammad and Dorothy Hamill, who elevated athletic prowess to cultural influence. By Kerri Walsh, whose height and ferocity called to me like music. By Kerri Strug, whose stuck landing reminded millions of spectators that women of all sizes are tough as railroad spikes.

In every case, in every sport, the very act of regarding these women was transformative.

This is what I want, they say.

This is what my body can do, they prove.

Behold. Recognize.

Before them, there were pioneers such as Joan Benoit, who made excruciation look like bliss, and Babe Didrikson, who never met a sport she couldn't tame like a house cat, and Wilma Rudolph, who grew up in the segregated South and then won three track and field golds in 1960. "Don't blink," the media warned of Rudolph. "You might miss her, and that would be a shame."

The media needn't have worried. Women Olympians don't allow themselves to be missed. They soar, bolt, lift, throw, stride, dunk, skate and flip their way into history, and in doing so, alter its course. No women competed in Athens at the first modern Games in 1896, their inclusion feared to be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." So stated founder Pierre de Coubertin, adding, "No matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks." (Childbirth not included, presumably.)

By 1900, women won access to the Games, initially participating in tennis, golf, sailing, equestrian and croquet, with gymnastics debuting in 1928. They added a level of what was initially curiosity but soon became genuine appreciation. Women, for our part, delivered, creating indelible, culture-shifting hero moments and bringing home the bling. In the 2016 Rio Games, women won 61 of 121 American medals and 59 percent of the U.S. golds, a dominance also displayed in London.

In Korea, women will again be the athletes to behold, to recognize -- something espnW is honored to celebrate in this issue of The Mag (and on the daily, for that matter). All eyes will be on out-of-nowhere long-track speedskating convert Erin Jackson, snowboarding prodigy Chloe Kim, hockey clutch Hilary Knight, figure skater Mirai Nagasu (gliding high on her well-deserved redemption arc) and, of course, Maame Biney, the 18-year-old short-track speed-skater who became the first black woman in U.S. Olympic history to qualify for the event.

After her 500-meter win, the teenager giggled uncontrollably rinkside, overwhelmed by the future she saw flowering before her.

"It's a really good feeling," she stammered. "I'm like, 'Holy cow.'"

Biney covered her eyes with her hands, could barely look at the camera there to capture the moment of her ascension.

She was blinded.

Me too.

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