They turn 40 together this year, and they come to the milestone strong, vibrant and still making an impact on women's sports. Title IX and Olympic gold medalists Lisa Leslie (basketball), Mia Hamm (soccer) and Summer Sanders (swimming) all came into the world in 1972, and though there will be no joint birthday party, there is a bond nonetheless. "I'd like to think I've made a difference, been a role model for other women athletes," says Leslie, who was a three-time All-America at USC in addition to winning four Olympic golds and three WNBA MVP awards. "But Title IX has made the biggest difference of all."
Leslie, Hamm and Sanders were born at the perfect time to take advantage of opportunities the law helped create. Like Leslie, Hamm, who won four straight national championships at North Carolina, and Sanders, who won six individual NCAA titles at Stanford, used their athletic success and popularity to earn lucrative endorsement deals. In retirement they have been committed to helping both girls and boys discover the power of sports. Leslie, born on July 7, 1972, six days after Title IX became law, runs a camp in Los Angeles for children ages seven through 18 that combines basketball coaching with lessons in leadership.
Hamm, born on March 17, runs her eponymous foundation, located in Chapel Hill, N.C., which works to enhance athletic programs for young women. "When I was playing for the national team, we had the feeling that we were doing it not just for all the young girls in the stands, but also for their moms and grandmothers who didn't have the same opportunities we did," Hamm says. "I think that feeling still motivates a lot of athletes of my generation."
Sanders (Oct. 13) is an ambassador for Right to Play, an organization based in Toronto, Calif., that brings sport to developing countries and children who have been affected by war. "You can teach kids so many things through sports, things like conflict resolution and working together," she says. "Not to mention inclusion—teaching boys that they can include girls in their games."
May 7, 2012
Even with the existence of Title IX, Leslie remembers inequities, like the men's team at USC staying in hotels the night before home games and having much better meals. She realizes that although conditions have improved, the legislation hasn't solved everything. "We still have farther to go in terms of the commitment of athletic programs to women's sports, and in terms of coaches' salaries," she says.
Leslie was a ninth-grader at Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., when she read about Title IX in her textbook. "Going to college on a full scholarship, playing in the Olympics might never have happened for me without it," she says. "I was lucky to have it in place during my era. I don't consider myself an activist, but it's important I try to help other young women the way that the people who pushed for Title IX helped me."
There's a pause. "You know what?" Leslie says. "Maybe I am an activist."
Maybe they all are.