|Thursday, June 20
Summer of '72 changed everything
By Greg Garber
There were no organized sports teams in the Tekamah Public School system when Barbara Hopewell was growing up in the 1950s and '60s. In fact, overcrowding in the rural eastern Nebraska town of 1,000 led to the elimination of physical education after her freshman year of high school.
The next fall Hopewell and her friends gathered signatures and visited the superintendent with a request for a powder puff football team. "We can't do that," he said. "What if someone gets hurt?"
While Tekamah didn't have a single stoplight, it did have a municipal pool, and Hopewell worked to earn her lifesaving certificate. That was the extent of her high school swimming career. When she was 16, two local boys invited the summer lifeguard to make the 40-mile drive into Lincoln to practice for an elite team. She declined.
"Honestly, I thought I was too old," Hopewell said recently from her Las Vegas home. "Based on my experiences growing up, I lacked self-confidence. I never thought I was coordinated enough or athletic enough to do sports.
"I've since found out I'm very coordinated."
Well, yes. Today, well into her 50s, Barbara Hopewell is a heavily decorated open-water swimmer. She was on the team that won the Maui Channel Relay, has participated in the Waikiki Roughwater Swim and numerous races in and around San Francisco.
Her latest prize is a few months in dry dock after surgery; her aggressive stroke was too much for her right shoulder. Her bursa sac was removed and the rotator cuff (three tears) and labrum repaired.
This, as it turns out, is true of the daughter as well. You may have heard of her. Her name is Summer Sanders, and at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona she was America's best swimmer, winning two gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Sanders was born on Oct. 13, 1972, almost four months after Title IX first guaranteed girls and boys equal opportunities in athletics.
The opportunity for Hopewell, who now goes by her maiden name, finally came in the summer of 1977. She signed up her son Trevor, a 7-year-old, for the Sugar Bears swim team at the Roseville, Calif., recreation pool. Naturally, 4½-year-old Summer wanted to swim, too.
"I thought my brother was so cool," Sanders said. "I wanted to be wherever he was. They said to my mom, 'If she can swim a lap, she can swim in the 6-year-old age group.' "
That first year, a few of the swim mothers swam laps while their kids practiced. The next year, when there were no lanes available, they started swimming earlier (5 a.m.) with the AAU team. Hopewell learned how to swim the butterfly and do flip turns. While Summer was setting age-group records (17.6 seconds in the 25-yard freestyle as a 6-year-old), her mother came close to placing in her second meet ever -- the Masters national championships in Mission Viejo, Calif.. In the 1,650 freestyle, Summer counted her laps for her.
Summer, meanwhile, swam all year and even played co-ed water polo when she got to high school. She won three gold medals at the 1990 Goodwill Games and enrolled at Stanford, where she would win six individual NCAA titles and four relay championships. At 19, she made a big splash at the Games in Barcelona. Today, she works in television, most notably for NBA Inside Stuff.
"The things you learn from sports -- setting goals, being part of a team, confidence -- that's invaluable," Sanders said. "It's not about trophies and ribbons. It's about being on time for practice, accepting challenges and being fearful of the elements.
"Oh my, God. I'm addicted to the feeling of challenging myself and succeeding. There's nothing like it. One of the things I'm proudest of is running the New York Marathon in 1999, almost ahead of the Olympic medals."
"The people who are in my generation are very fortunate, for several reasons," Sanders said. "Obviously, because we had opportunities to play sports in grammar school and high school and to earn scholarships in college. My mom made me constantly aware of how lucky I was. When I become a mother, I'll probably mention the Billie Jean Kings and the Donna de Varonas.
"There were no high school sports for girls in their generation -- none. And yet they persevered. My mom didn't make me feel guilty about it, but I feel fortunate. I knew growing up it wasn't always like this."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.