Katie Perhai, USSA
PARK CITY — The third graders blew threw the front door of the world-class training facility like it was their own private clubhouse panting and giggling.
One little girl with a chocolate colored ponytail grabbed her friend's hand and puffed out three exaggeratedly loud breaths.
"Huh! Huh! Huh! That's what we sound like," she told her friend, who was dressed in pink from head to toe with stamps of a pig-tailed girl on each slightly sweaty cheek.
They laughed at their labored breathing, even as they tried to control it, and then hurried into the gymnasium where other girls were flipping on trampolines, simulating ski jumping, climbing ropes, kicking soccer balls and dancing to a song that screamed, "You don't know you're beautiful!"
And what that those little girls will learn in just a few hours is that silly sounding breathing is a beautiful noise.
The friends are just two of the nearly 100 girls, ages 8-18, who spent Sunday afternoon participating in the Fast and Female Champ Camp. It's a clinic organized and taught by some of the world's most accomplished elite female athletes, and it's designed to convince girls that their love of sports is something they should cherish and nurture.
It seems that would be an easy sell.
If girls are already participating in sports, why would anyone need to convince them that sweaty muscles are cool?
After all, weren't women the rock stars of the 2012 London Olympics — with record numbers of female participants and medal winners?
"I think it's really cool to see that success happening at the elite level," said Kikkan Randall, the U.S. ambassador for Fast and Female and a three time Olympian in cross country skiing. "But we need to take all of the good things happening there and turn it into role models. The statistics still show us that girls are six times more likely to drop out of sports than boys."
Randall, who grew up skiing and running with her family in Anchorage, Alaska, said the hope of Fast and Female officials is that women of all ages, all abilities will "embrace the healthy, active lifestyle."
The sad reality is that just when women could use athletics the most, they feel awkward, unsure and discouraged.
"One of the biggest challenges we face with girls is that when they get to that transitional period, and they're trying to figure out who they are, they're not sure if having an athletic body is a good thing or a bad thing," said Randall. "So we want them to know that being strong and athletic is cool; it's acceptable; there are like minded people out there and they can get together."
The Women's Sports Foundation offers some insight into why so many teenage girls turn away from the games of their youth, just when their male counterparts are embracing them.
Among the reasons that 40 percent of the girls who play sports as children turn away from them as teens are: lack of access; safety and transportation issues; social stigma; decreased quality of experience; cost; and a lack of positive role models."
Randall grew up in a city with a large, strong network of athletic women.
"It was just so natural to see women excel in sports, to see women come together and participate in sports, and to celebrate it," said Randall. "So for me it was just kind of second nature. When I started traveling and competing in other places, I started to realize, 'That doesn't actually happen everywhere else.' That's why Fast and Female is so important, so we can ignite the spark in all of these women."
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