Goooooooaaaaal! The 57 pieces of sportswriting in "Whatever It Takes" cover all breeds of women athletes: fans and philosophers, champions and role models, amateurs and obsessives -- usually several of those at once. In addition to being a good time, the book amounts to a history of women's sports from 1854 to 1999, since each piece is marked by date. All too often I find the anticipation of reading a book about sport more delicious than the reading itself, and now I know why. In your typical breathless, Sports Illustrated-style ego-pumping encomium, I am sidelined; here I am emphatically drawn in.
About halfway through, I started to wonder: How many elite male athletes write this well? There are no ghost pens in "Whatever It Takes," and only a half-cup of pieces (including extracts from "In These Girls Hope Is a Muscle" and "Venus to the Hoop") in which the narrator and the hero-athlete are different people. The vicarious thrill rate is off the scale. We get to climb the Olympic podium with oarswoman Anna Seaton Huntington (feeling her bronze disappointment); witness the febrile fandom of Susan E. Johnson, bewitched by a women's softball team in "A Peaches Fan For Life," her version of "A League of Their Own"; see runner Grace Butcher realize her wildest fantasy as she acquires world-famous Olympic champion Stella Walsh as her coach; and weather storms in the 2,225-mile Transpacific Yacht Race with Betsy Crowfoot. Crashing through pain barriers, breaking records, crushing taboos is no big deal to these women.
"We sail day and night, night and day. Our assignments: four women on deck, four off watch below, and one housekeeping. We call her the Bitch of the Day," Crowfoot writes. This great sports yarn is now a favorite of mine for its no-bullshit lucidity and for the way character and conflict emerge expertly from the narrative. There are others: "Baseball Is About Playing," centering on Wendy Patrice Williams' memories of her thwarted Little League ambitions; Pat Griffin's satisfying "Summer Showdown," in which she, the only girl on the baseball team, humiliates the boy bully; "Sidelines," with climber Amy Irvine feeling the crowd on her side for the first time; "Bench Press," Leslie Heywood's glimpse into the weird world of power lifting; and best of all, Teresa Leo's "Seconds," which quietly weaves the stories of her stellar running career and of a movingly ambiguous coach-student relationship. Personally, I don't feel as drawn to the poems or the more lyrical, soul-searching pieces, though the contrast is welcome, and I'm sure many would find a poetic memoir like Maxine Kumin's "Swimming and Writing" a big winner.
Most of the writers retain a sense of humor rare in a genre born of struggle and competition. There is a delicious dearth of false modesty, and there's -- hallelujah -- barely a mention of the fitness industry and its concomitant millstone of body anxiety. The exception is Ruth Conniff's fine 1993 essay "Awesome Women in Sports," which could be said to mark the watershed between, say, amateur ice skater April Martin's childhood experience ("When I grew up, athletes were boys") and the contemporary reality, which co-editor Joli Sandoz demarcates most effectively in "Coming Home":
At this turn of the century -- a time when women thrust shot puts, run marathons, hurl javelins, push weights, and fold themselves backward over a high jump bar as skillfully and seriously as men -- what's really happening? Isn't it time to drop the labels and admit that all the positive qualities we've ceded to men and called "masculine" belong also to women?
Reading "Whatever It Takes" makes me believe that time has finally come.