McEnroe’s comments spark questions of gender in sports

  • FILE - In this Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 file photo, United States' Serena Williams makes a backhand return to her sister Venus during the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook are among the finalists for best male athlete at the ESPY Awards. Tennis star Serena Williams and gymnast Simone Biles are two of the finalists for best female athlete. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File) Aaron Favila

For the Monitor
Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The question John McEnroe has raised regarding just how many men Serena Williams could beat in tennis, and where she would rank among men is, in and of itself, a strange indicator of the great revolution we continue to see in sports.

Sheer performance is breaking down stereotypes and forcing us to reconsider so many of the categories into which we try to shove each other.

McEnroe’s question reminded me of experiences I once had as a high-level college athlete pitted against, and then humbled by, truly world-class athletic talent.

The year was 1996. I was 18 years-old, and on the verge of enrolling at Kenyon College, a Division III NCAA swimming powerhouse whose men’s program had just won its 16th consecutive national championship, an all-sports, all-division record at the time (Kenyon would go on to win 14 more including four during my time on the team).

I had graduated from Oyster River High School in Durham having won multiple individual state swimming championships. I had been the New Hampshire High School State Swimmer of the Year. With my brother and two good friends, I had led the team to its first state championship in over a decade. I had qualified and swum at a national championship meet in Nashville, Tennessee. I was skinny. I was strong. I could swim a mile of butterfly without breaking stroke. I was quite sure of myself in almost every way.

And even though I was a dude, I was not fast enough to beat Olympian and World Record Holder, Jenny Thompson, home from Stanford University to visit her mother and train with her swimming team of origin.

The scene was the musty municipal Dover Indoor Pool. Olympic Swimming Coach Mike Parratto (who was also head of the vaunted Dover swimming club, the Seacoast Swimming Association), had led us through nearly six hours of swimming, spanning over 20,000 yards/meters (over 12 miles). The lead pack included a scrum of exhausted athletes who were ready to be done for the day. One final test stood in our way: a 500-yard freestyle for time from the starting blocks. Twenty lengths of the pool, in heats, with the fastest of us in the final heat.

I’m not sure how I would have reacted if Parratto had come over and put his hand on my shoulder and said something about how I was the only guy in the final heat. Anyway, he didn’t. Thompson occupied the middle lane – who was going to put her anywhere else. Jessica Tucker-Mohl, the top-ranked swimmer in the nation in four events coming out of high school (including the 500 free) was on her right. She was headed to Stanford in the fall. I was on her left. Jamie Cail, who would go on to qualify for Team USA and swim at the Pan Pacific Championships was in the heat.

When the dust settled, I finished third among these athletes, clocking a 4:55 after 20,000 yards (for me, very fast). That was five seconds faster than I’d gone to win the state championships in the same event in March. Thompson won at 4:52 (an astonishing time). Tucker-Mohl touched just behind her at 4:53 (also astonishing).

There was absolutely nothing surprising to me about this result. In a sport where time is merciless and performance is the all-defining quality, gender, or any other category means less and less and less with every passing yard. And perhaps that is the great gift of sports.

McEnroe’s hypothetical question is remarkable for many reasons, but it is remarkable to me in this way: Even as we run road races side-by-side with men and women in wheel chairs, while older men and women pass us or zoom out ahead, and even while people of all shapes and sizes finish Ironman Competitions, or Ultramarathons, and even as Nadal and Federer blast through the age barrier this year to win grand slam events in their 30s, and even as we watch the remarkable story of two inner-city-raised women rise the ranks of the greatest of all time in a sport that is both great and extremely insular, we continue to cling to strange, unwieldy and unhelpful categories of personhood.

Perhaps the categories themselves are valuable as a means of testing our stereotypes about them in sport. Whatever their value, the true tests of performance are great equalizers, and accomplishment above all else will determine the extent to which their continued existence has value.