Chelsea Clinton — ‘I feel a deep gratitude to women athletes for what they have proven to be possible’

“It’s not easy to be a girl athlete,” the first line of Chelsea Clinton’s new children’s book, “She Persisted in Sports” reads.

“Girls are more likely to be told sports are for boys. Or that they’ll never be good enough, fast enough, strong enough and that their athletic dreams are unacceptable, even impossible. Don’t listen to those people.”

If there were ever a group of women who lived by those words, it would be those at the 2020 espnW: Women + Sports Summit, which starts on Oct. 20. Clinton will be on a panel with Julie Foudy on Tuesday, and ahead of her appearance, we talked to her about why she chose to write this book, the role that athletes have played in social justice — and the athlete her own daughter, Charlotte, wants to be.

ESPN: What made you decide to do a sports version of “She Persisted?” And how did you pick the athletes for the book?

Chelsea Clinton: My grandmother grew up in a time when there were not many opportunities for girls to play sports. There was not an acceptance that girls would play sports, could be athletes or would want to be athletes. And I have vivid memories of my grandmother talking to me about how much it meant to her to have role models like Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Wilma Rudolph. These women that she saw compete unapologetically and fiercely and yes, often successfully. They really inspired her later in life to take up tennis and helped her feel like not only was it OK, but that it was great.

Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Olympics. AP Photo

So when I was choosing stories for the book, some of these stories are ones that I grew up with, and some were stories that I really remember feeling like I was a part of. When I was cheering on Kristi Yamaguchi — at home from my living room — or the moments when I was lucky enough to be there in person, like at the Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta.

I feel a deep gratitude to women athletes for what they have proven to be possible. And I think that translates not only to women who are athletes, whatever that may mean at any point in our lives, but also to inspire us off the court, off of the field or track too.

ESPN: Has there been one athlete in particular who you’ve been inspired by?

CC: I think about Wilma Rudolph a lot these days because she overcame so many infectious diseases as a child, and I think about her during these times of COVID. She overcame polio, scarlet fever and pneumonia all before she went to kindergarten.

I also think about her because when she came home from the 1960 Olympics after she’d won her three gold medals, and was the first American woman athlete to do so, she refused to participate in segregated celebrations of her victories. And athletes hadn’t done that — that had never really happened before.

So, I think about her a lot these days given all that our country is going through, with our centuries-long overdue reckoning with racial inequality and our COVID-19 crisis and how those two intersect.

ESPN: Have you been following the statements and protests made by athletes on racial and social justice?

CC: It’s not surprising that we’ve had such strong leadership from our women athletes right now. I mean, the WNBA in particular has really been a leader in standing up against racial injustice and of making a statement for racial justice and equity.

I think the “stick to your sport” crowd is so condescending and — obscene — almost. You don’t stop being a citizen when you go to work, whether your work is on a field or a court or in an office. Anywhere. I’m grateful that our women athletes haven’t been deterred by those who would rather they just dribble a ball.

Naomi Osaka was incredibly powerful in the US Open with how she played, but also the masks she wore and the statement she made every day by stepping out onto the court. I think our WNBA players have been amazing.

I also think just the sacrifices that the basketball players made living in this bubble, away from their families, to do their jobs and also to give those of us that are sports fans the joy of being able to cheer them on even from afar and to then feel connected in this moment when we really do need community.

ESPN: Are your kids beginning to play sports? What would you want for them in terms of a sports experience?

CC: Simone Biles hangs the sun, the moon and the stars for my daughter Charlotte. She is obsessed with her. She loves watching videos of her and she has little Simone Biles leotards that she wears every day and tumbles-stumbles around the house, “Just like Simone!” (We all have to start somewhere!)

Pre-COVID, my two older kids, Charlotte and Aiden, were starting to play sports and explore different sports. They were in soccer and took tennis lessons and ballet. Now they are doing some in the virtual space, and they really miss sports and frequently ask when can we go back. I very much want them to do sports. One, I think it’s very important to their health and mental health and well-being. Two, I think there’s something important about learning how to be your best for yourself and for your team, but also for me.

I did soccer and I took ballet and did a few other things along the way, and I was better at some things than others, but I was never great at any of it. Even when I worked so hard, I was good, but never great. And yet there was a real lesson for me in that. Sometimes we do work really hard at things, and we can’t be the best and yet that doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t love it and enjoy it.

ESPN: You’ve said recently, “Optimism is a moral choice.” Can you explain what you mean by that, and do you have any words of optimism for other women or Americans in general, as we go through a pandemic, the wildfires, and everything else?

CC: Yes, I think optimism is a moral choice. I think that we have to believe that our choices to wear a mask, to stay home when we can, to stay in touch with each other in whatever ways that we can, to talk to our kids in age-appropriate ways about what’s happening right now around the world, to help them develop a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong … these are all ways we are hopefully nurturing optimism. And hopefully we are making choices today that are going to create a healthier and more equitable future tomorrow.

There’s a lot of inspiration at this moment. In sports, in politics and in medicine and public health. I refuse to let go of that hope and inspiration, even with all of the anger I feel every day.

ESPN: You’ve talked and written about RBG in recent days and how she influenced you. Could you comment on that a little bit?

CC: As a parent, it’s really important to me that my children understand how important Ruth Bader Ginsburg was to helping move our country forward. Her work as a lawyer, then a judge and later a justice. When I told my daughter that it was because of RBG that women could have their own bank accounts in their own names and have their own credit cards, she didn’t understand how that had never not been true. It just made no sense to her. And I was like, “Yes, that is the place of fairness that I want you to be, but I also want you to understand that it wasn’t that long ago.”

It was less than 50 years ago when women could still be discriminated against in banking. So I’ve been trying to be quite intentional in how I talk to my kids about RBG both because I think she is such an important part of our history, and also because I want them to understand how progress happens in our country and how and why it doesn’t happen.

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