In celebration of Women's History Month, espnW presents "In Her Shoes," a series of essays and features highlighting women, their journeys and their perspectives on sports.
I remember the moment the whole country stopped to watch Merlene Ottey make history at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. My aunt kept saying over and over, "Show them how we do it, girl! Show them how a Jamaican woman run a race!" Ottey became the first Jamaican and the first English-speaking Caribbean woman to win an Olympic medal.
She went on to win nine Olympic medals and 14 world championship medals (the last one at age 40) and holds the record for the most Olympic appearances (seven) by a track and field athlete. My Auntie Olga, a contemporary of Ottey's and a die-hard fan of track and field, often said the sprinter's groundbreaking career was no happenstance -- speed was encrypted in her blood. Her parents were gifted athletes in their youth, according to my aunt, and Merlene Ottey was born to run.
Twin tales are often told about the sisters Venus and Serena Williams as tennis competitors. So inspiring are the two sisters together that it's easy to forget that Venus walked the winning road first. I remember the first time I watched Venus play. She was at once graceful and full of force. I have no memory of her opponent, but I remember her braids -- flying as fast as the ball, whipping the faces of the crowd back and forth, hypnotized, perplexed by this slender black girl exuding a grace that belied her age. Venus entered the professional arena at 14 years old. Since then, she has won title after title: seven Grand Slam titles, four Olympic Gold medals, 13 women's doubles titles and two mixed doubles titles.
In 2005, she became the first African-American to achieve the No. 1 ranking. She was the first black woman to dominate the sport of tennis. Before her, black girls across the globe did not imagine ourselves, or our daughters, winning on tennis courts. But Venus' presence gave way to a whole new generation of dreamers in colorful outfits and beaded braids with tennis rackets in their hands. It's easy to be moved by the incredible stories of these improbable heroines, who became ceiling-shatterers. It's easy to see why we tell their stories over and over again.
But what remains striking to me is not who they were at the acme of skill but who they continue to be today. More than 30 years later, these women continue to compete, win or lose. Ottey had the longest career as a top-level international sprinter, concluding with her anchoring the Slovene 4×100-meter relay team at the 2012 European Championships at the age of 52. At 39, Venus continues to compete. That's in addition to living with Sjögren's syndrome, the autoimmune disorder that causes fatigue and chronic pain. In 2017, she made it to the final of two Grand Slam tournaments and the semifinal of a third. Although she didn't do as well in 2018 (losing in the first round at both the Australian and French Opens), she remains present at the elite levels of the game. This month, Venus' opening win against Dalila Jakupovic at this year's Miami Open marked her 20th appearance since her 1997 debut.
To remain a winner in the eyes of the public and in the annals of history, most athletes bow out when they begin to lose the ability to dominate. When you grow up, you stop competing. But neither of these women has quit. Both Ottey and Williams seem to love the game too much to stop playing.
And I suppose we have to admit that that is a better metaphor for a successful life than quitting after being crowned the best. If you have a lot of talent, an incredible amount of drive and a bit of luck, maybe you have a shot at winning a medal. But to commit to something for one's whole life, to get up, day after day, when you can no longer be titled the most skilled, requires the very best of who you are. To combat the narrative of the has-been, to see value in enduring, the external has to be secondary, you have to be listening to the roar of your own intent. You have to heed the call of your own internal compass.
Staceyann Chin is the author of the memoir, "The Other Side of Paradise," and is currently touring "MotherStruck," her critically acclaimed solo theater piece, directed by Cynthia Nixon, and produced by Rosie O'Donnell, chronicling her incredible experiences about motherhood, which opened in New York, in December, of 2015. Follow @staceyannchin on Twitter and Instagram.