Gold medalist coming to Moscow
Courtesy: Idaho Athletic Media Relations
          Release: 04/26/2011
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Donna DeVarona had just won two Olympic gold medals in swimming. She'd been on the cover of three major magazines - Life, Look and Sports Illustrated.

And she was just 17 years old - an age when today's logic would tell you collegiate swim programs from across the country would be lined up with the hopes of being the lucky one to sign her to a scholarship to take their program to the next level.

That, however, wasn't the case. In 1964, athletic scholarships were not available to women.

"Fortunately for me," DeVarona remembers, "there was a gentleman at the time that felt young women Olympians didn't get a fair shake. He said, 'You can go to any university you want and I'll help fund you.' At that time, I made a commitment I would do something like that if I was ever in a position to do so."

Play it forward almost 50 years and you can look back over the decades and see that is exactly what DeVarona has done. DeVarona, who is in Moscow Wednesday as the guest of University of Idaho swim coach Tom Jager - a fellow Olympian, joined forces with tennis legend Billie Jean King to form the Women's Sports Foundation. Over the years, the organization raised more than $30 million for programs, advocacy and scholarships for girls and women in sport.

DeVarona presents Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the Haddock Performance Hall at the Lionel Hampton School of Music. It is free and open to the public.

As much as DeVarona earned fame as a swimmer, she, too, gained renown when she became one of the first women's sports broadcasters when she signed with ABC in 1965. She embarked on a career that included stints on Wide World of Sports and as an expert commentator during several Olympic competitions.

"I'd become very close to those guys on Wide World of Sports," DeVarona said. "I used to tell them what races to look for and what the strategy would be. They put cameras under my lane with divers. I became like a teammate in this process."

When she decided her competitive career was over, she called her friends at ABC.

"I said I could bear to leave the sport if I could be near it as an expert commentator," she said. "That was how it first began."

In those days, though, a foot in the door didn't mean in the door.

"When I wanted to do something else, it was, 'A women's voice doesn't have authority,' or 'We don't see you in another role,' " she remembers. "There were a lot of barriers to break down."

Break them down she did. Bold and competitive by nature, she did more than break down barriers in broadcasting. In joining forces with King, we sought to break them down in sport - hence the Women's Sports Foundation. She also served on the George W. Bush-era Opportunities in Athletics Commission.

"I still think we need to re-address what we're doing in sport," she said. "It's always such a big item of discussion because it provides such a great training round on so many levels."

DeVarona knows the impact well.

"I've known a lot of great coaches," said DeVarona, who ultimately graduated from UCLA. "They have one thing in common. That is: No matter what is going on around them politically, they stick to the principles of teaching. Teaching technique, hard work, consistency, honesty, going beyond what you're capable of, having goals, using defeats to learn something from.

"These are basic to all the great coaches. They live by those rules themselves. That was such a gift to me when I was able to work with those coaches."

All this stemmed from a little girl in San Francisco tagging along with her brother when he went to the local pool to rehabilitate an injured knee.

"I found my sport," she remembered.

DeVarona went from those little races at the local pool to the international stage in just a few short years. The memory of being on the podium to receive her gold medals is vivid.

"For my individual medley, which was my signature event, it was relief," she said. "I was expected to win. That kind of pressure is something; just overwhelming.

"But the second one, when I made the relay team and won the gold and broke the world record, that was a lot of joy because I was part of a team," she said. "It was a different feeling."

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