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."
Fast and Female was actually started in 2005 by Chandra Crawford (2006 gold medalist) and the Canadian women's cross country team. Her younger sister, Rosanna Crawford was in Park City Sunday encouraging girls to investigate the sport of biathlon (target shooting and cross country ski racing).
This is the second year in a row the group has hosted a clinic in Park City. Among the women working with the girls was the first World Champion in women's ski jumping, Lindsey Van, and Adaptive skier Danelle Umstead, who won a bronze medal in paralympic Alpine ski racing in 2010.
The women shared their thoughts on sports, while offering encouragement and maybe a bit of inspiration to the girls, who stood in line after the camp to collect autographs and high fives.
Sophie McDonald is a 16-year-old Park City High student who is also a cross country ski racer. She is lucky on this breezy Sunday afternoon because the athlete she admires most is at the camp — Randall.
"It's just really motivating to see all the (women) who are all very successful," said McDonald. "I like it just being girls at the camp. It's good to tell girls they can do things like this."
Randall doesn't hesitate when asked what she's gained from years of competing in sports.
"I've gained confidence in myself to achieve whatever I set my mind to," said the 29-year-old, who was born in Murray, Utah, but moved to Anchorage at age 3. "I have this incredibly strong, fit body and I have the energy and ability to do anything I want to. And I just love the energy of (sports)."
Liz Stephen organized Sunday's event in Park City, and said the key to convincing girls to embrace sports throughout their lives is simple — they have to enjoy the games.
"They have to really fall in love with it as kids," said Stephen. "This is so rewarding at the end of the day. You look around at the girls are dancing in a bunch of pink, and there is never anyone frowning. The energy we get as athletes working with these kids is amazing."
And while all the athletes acknowledge women have made significant progress in the last 40 years, they're quick to point out that women still need education, support and opportunities.
"We've definitely come a long way since Title lX, in terms of our participation," said Randall. " But we still have a long way to go to make sure everybody stays active."
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