The following is a conversation between Donna de Varona, Olympic Gold Medallist and first president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: We love inspirational stories of trailblazers – those who have made the best of a situation they were in, as challenging as it was, and then worked hard and persevered in an effort to make it better for those who followed. One of the most remarkable of those stories is that of Donna de Varona, gold medal-winning Olympic swimmer, pioneering sports broadcaster, and the inspiration for the creation of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Good evening, Donna, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Donna: Thank you so much. It’s nice to be here.
Denver: You retired from swimming at just 17 years of age. Now, this is right after you won two gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics. What were the circumstances at the time – and we’re talking in the early 1960s – that compelled you to have to make that decision?
Donna: In my time in the ‘60s, young girls rarely competed in high school sports, and certainly not on the collegiate level. So at 17, going into my senior year in high school, along with my peers, I was looking at: Do I try to continue to swim and stay on top without an opportunity in college (because I wanted to go to college, but there were no programs)? Or do I retire and take advantage – and I was one of the fortunate ones – of all the things coming my way? A lot of things like Speedo swimsuits wanted to sponsor me. In those days, the minute you made a decision to use a sponsor, you were banned from your sport because we were true amateurs.
Denver: With the big “A”, not today where you have this fuzzy little line.
Donna: Yes. Right. So, I just said, “Listen. I’ve been on top since I’ve been 13. I don’t want to quit on the bottom. I want to pay my way to college because there were no scholarships.”
Denver: Say that again – there were no scholarships for women?
Donna: No. And I wasn’t a straight-A student that was going to get a scholarship. I was a pretty solid B student on a good day.
Denver: You had A’s in the pool.
Donna: I had to get straight A’s in my senior year to get into UCLA, but the truth is that I really had to quit. You take what’s given you in your life, and for me, actually, it opened the door for many other great opportunities.
Denver: What did you do then, at 17?
Donna: Well, at 17, I picked up the phone, and I said to ABC – because in 1961, they started Wide World of Sports. It was s a pilot, and they squeezed in my last race, and I broke a world record.
Denver: Eighteen of them you had, I recall.
Donna: Yes, I did, and I got to know the producers because a lot of the producers didn’t know anything about amateur sports. I had a great rivalry with my teammate, so every event they covered, they covered me. They made me into a little mini star. They would come to me and say, “What races should we cover?” And I said, “Well, you should cover this race or that race.” So, to make a long story short, I pick up the phone, and I said to Chuck Howard – and he worked, of course, with the great Roone Arledge –
Denver: He’s a legend in himself, along with Roone, but both of them are.
Donna: And I just said, “Listen. I can’t bear to quit. I really can’t. I love the travel. I love the sport… but I could if I could just cover it.” And they said, “Well, we want you to think about it because the minute you do that… we don’t want to be accused of turning you professional.”
So a week later, I call him back. Now, this was a process from October to February because I swam in one more competition. I picked up the phone and I said, “I want to do it.” So, they got me a work permit because I was 17. They flew me back to Yale University to cover the men’s swimming event live, sat me down next to Jim McKay –
Denver: Don Schollander or something like that.
Donna: Schollander swam.
Denver: Schollander, yes. I remember that.
Donna: Slapped a headset on me and said, “Okay, go. You’re a sports commentator.”
Denver: Well, Donna, this kind of blows my mind because I know what the sports world is like, particularly for women. We all know what the early 1960s was like, not that we don’t have a long way to go today. But the ‘60s were the ’60’s, and you’re a kid, at 17. What was it like?
Donna: I think it’s a good thing I didn’t know what I know now. But the truth is I did start with someone that – Jim McKay, again, I didn’t even know how great he was – but he was a gentleman’s gentleman. What my job was, which announcers don’t have to do as much now, I did all the research for him. Basically, I went down, got the sound bites, talked to the coaches, talked to the athletes. I would sit next to him before the races and feed him, “This is how the race is probably going to go.” I earned his respect, and I earned the producers respect, at least in my sport. What the difficulty was, was getting off the pool deck because they said, “Your voice works for women’s swimming now.” I started with men, and then they brought in a male announcer for the first Olympics.
Denver: So, you got pigeon-holed?
Donna: Well, I did for a while.
Denver: Yes, for a while.
When you were on the air, did you feel enormous pressure that if you screwed up, you wouldn’t be on the air for many a moon?
Donna: I had a very big, huge setback. I didn’t feel the pressure so much with the ‘68 Olympics, first Olympics, because I knew my stuff as a swimming expert. I think the challenge was the leaping out of the pool and getting a look… Actually, I was the first woman in this local market to cover sports. That was fine. But one time – remember when CBS had Jimmy the Greek and Phyllis George?
Denver: Sure, I do. And Brent Musberger.
Donna: Great show. And Brent. Phyllis was like – the camera loved her, and the athletes loved her. She played it safe. She did interviews and profiles. Well, Roone Arledge had the idea because he was very competitive – “I got my woman. I’m going to put Donna on those– scoreboard show!” That is one of the hardest shows to do in television. You have to have a very quick mind. I loved college football, but I didn’t know all the leagues and all this.
So, I studied all week. I was left alone. I had my cards. The night before I went on the air, they canceled my rehearsal. I should have said, “I’m done.” I woke up that morning – I never threw up before a swimming meet. This one, I went into the studio, I was given the score wrong, the very first thing. And this is when we were trying to break into the sport as announcers. I was terrible. I froze… live television. They started playing music between the scores. I came back to my apartment; nobody called me for a week.
Denver: You don’t exist.
Donna: I wanted to kill myself, really.
Denver: It’s trauma.
Donna: Because I said, “I’ve blown it. I’m never going to recover.” Luckily, Roone, he felt for me. He said, “Okay, we’re going to—”
Denver: Roone was a pretty good guy.
Donna: So, then they sent me to the Soviet Union to cover Russian or Soviet acrobatics, and I worked my way back up. Don Shula was so great. He was such a hot coach at the time. I flew down to Florida and did a great radio interview with him. So that was nice. But it took a long time still.
Denver: And a lot of people followed in your footsteps. If I recall correctly, didn’t Peggy Fleming start doing figure skating with Dick Button later in the ‘60s?
Donna: Yes. Roone was all about loyalty. He was about – sports are star-driven. You pick out that one person that carries the coverage. And especially in amateur sports at the time, we might appear twice or three times a year on television. We took up a lot of space because there were only three networks and the magazine’s coverage followed. But Peggy came on board; Dick Button came on board. Great personalities. Roone loved the personalities. Monday Night Football started under Roone, then later on Nightline.
I had a lot of journey back and forth with ABC, and at the end of my career with them, I wound up working directly with Roone. I had two jobs: one in management, and one on air.
Denver: You got to get board approval for that, right?
Donna: Yes. I will tell you that Pierre Salinger did it for news. We had one other person that covered boxing that really was an executive, but he wanted to be on the air. But I was the first woman ever to do that.
We have more women in sports broadcasting because of ESPN and because they opened the door wider. But if you look at the overall coverage and how many men are in prominent positions making the decisions about how women go on the air and how they’re featured, we’re still down and we’re still very minimal.
Denver: Donna, how would you describe the state of women in sports broadcasting today?
Donna: Basically, what’s happened: We have more women in sports broadcasting because of ESPN and because they opened the door wider. But if you look at the overall coverage and how many men are in prominent positions, making the decisions about how women go on the air and how they’re featured, we’re still down, and we’re still very minimal.
Denver: And you’re way behind on the news, would that be right?
Donna: Yes. Well, I called my friends at ABC. We got to do what the women did at ABC News. When Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters – they all went to Roone and they said, “Listen. This isn’t right.”
Denver: Fix it.
Donna: And they did. So, they’re doing much better than we are.
Denver: What about the coverage of women’s sports? It doesn’t get near what it should, and I could even take it to the local sports. When I watch the news, let’s say at 6:25, the sports news? I sometimes count. And you’ll get one story about a women’s team or a female athlete for every 25 stories or so that you get about guys.
Donna: The percentage hasn’t changed.
Denver: It really hasn’t changed.
Donna: One of the things that’s helping us a little bit in this, and I get pushback on it, of course. In 1996 during the Atlanta Olympics, NBC covered those games. I was an ambush reporter on the top of this Furniture Mart covering for Good Morning America.
Denver: There you go. You guerilla!
Donna: I was a guerilla. And actually, Dick Ebersol had been with ABC, and he was at NBC, and he wasn’t pleased about that. But now, everything in the Olympics is a venue, so if you’re an outsider, you really have to hustle. But, anyway, the point is we had two winning teams – women’s soccer and women’s softball – and NBC didn’t cover it. They did cover basketball in a very sophisticated way, mainly because of David Stern and his relationship with Ebersol, and that was the springboard for the WNBA. So, Nike did this wonderful thing about “Two great US women’s teams won gold and nobody saw it.” That was a Nike ad.
Denver: That’s nice.
Donna: And Dick and I would always argue about coverage. And so that helped, and then NBC did research and found that the viewing audience at the Olympics wants to watch women’s sports. So, it got a little bit better, but now, we’ve got the International Olympic Committee looking at those numbers. I’m on a Women in Sport Commission, so we’re pushing them to get the data on coverage. So, we found out that on the last day of the Rio Olympics, out of 24 hours, women only got 2 hours of coverage… and not that significant.
Denver: That sounds about right.
Donna: So now the IOC is saying to these rights holders that have paid a fortune, “You got to do better.” And of course, the pushback is, “Well, we paid all this money. We’ve got control,” and they’re not happy. So, we’ll see how this works out in Tokyo.
Denver: I can feel the tension. Well, speaking about Women in Sports, you, in 1970, along with Billie Jean King got together and formed the Women’s Sports Foundation. How did that come about?
Donna: This is murky, but after Billie Jean beat Bobby Riggs, she was huge. She still is. And, actually, I was with ABC when Roone said—
Denver: I think 90 million people watched that.
Donna: Roone said, “Should we cover it?” Roone always understood sports is about the bigger picture, and that’s what I loved about Jim McKay. I always say when Wide World was covered, it was a history lesson. But Billie Jean beat Bobby – she’s an amazing person, so inspirational – so I said I have to meet her. So Suzy Chaffee, the Olympic skier, who’s very creative, introduced me to Billie Jean. We talked about a World Sports Foundation. It ended up that she got a check for charity at the time. She didn’t make a lot of money then, if you look at what they’re making now. I think every current player should pay her… 10% or something.
She and her lawyers legally set up the foundation. She was trying to play tennis and was doing all these charity things and finally said, “Listen. I don’t have time to do everything,” because she had started the magazine; she had the WTA. And she said, “Donna, would you step up and be president and create something?” And so lucky for me, a woman named Eva Auchincloss who just lost two of her family – her husband and her son – in about a year and was inspired by Billie Jean said, “I’ll be your executive director for free.” And we established the foundation. Billie Jean is the official founder.
Denver: Right. But you were the one –
Donna: We were there. Well, it takes everybody.
Denver: Yes. It takes everybody. That’s right. You had been mentored by Eunice Shriver at Special Olympics, so you really kind of knew what to do.
Donna: Eunice was amazing. What I loved about Eunice was… she taught me, “You just pick up the phone, and you call.” After the first few Special Olympics—
Denver: She taught you to be fearless is what it sounds like.
Donna: Well, you have to be fearless and, luckily though, it was time, place, and circumstance. I was working local, “Eyewitness News” beat. We had great people in this community like Lew Rudin. You had Roone Arledge. You had Red Auerbach. You had the Knicks, the Nets, the great Olympic athletes, the Boys Club, Girls Club dinners. I did all the charities, and I could go and ask these guys to help me. I said, “We have to have something traditional in New York.”
Denver: You’re right. Well, you just had it the other day.
Donna: Yes, we did.
Denver: Tell us a little bit about the gala and what the foundation is up to. What inspired you at this year’s event? Or who inspired you?
Donna: Well, the room was full at the Cipriani. We have a new executive director, the fact that we’re still alive on our 40th anniversary—
Donna: –with the ups and downs after 9/11. We almost went under. We have a new executive director named [Susan Antoine, and we raised $2 million last night.
… research over the last few years showed the link between women in sport and women in the c-suite and corporations – 94% that make it in the c-suites say they had a sports background, and 50% competed in college.
Denver: That’s a good night.
Donna: What we do is there are shifting things in sports, but one of the most important things is data. I worked with Ernst & Young for five years, and part of our commitment to women’s sports was to do research. So, we do research, and that research over the last few years showed the link between women in sport and women in the c-suite and corporations – 94% that make it into c-suites say they had a sports background, and 50% competed in college.
The Women’s Sports Foundation under my leadership gave out travel and training grants. We gave money to people like Kristi Yamaguchi. Sometimes $2,000 or 1,500 makes the difference.
Denver: It could make all the difference in the world. It gets them out of the blocks.
Donna: And then we honor, which is important, we honor the top women. Megan Rapinoe was our team individual athlete. She came to the dinner. Claressa Shields, who’s a boxer, came to the dinner. We had a packed room. We do that research. We have a day in Washington where we educate our leaders about the importance of Title IX in health and fitness. But I think –
Denver: You consulted on that. You advised the Senate on Title IX as you were sort of cobbling a career together, a few bucks over here.
Donna: You have to do everything to stay in sports.
Denver: You have to do everything.
Donna: You have to pass a federal law so you can get in the locker room.
Denver: Somebody could pay a wage.
Donna: That’s right. We’re a home for women’s sports.
It’s really hard. I think transitions are hard for everybody. We’re all built differently. I don’t like them. But every time I think it’s the worst thing that happened to me, eventually, maybe, it’s the best thing.
Denver: You made an interesting point before about women and sports and getting to the c-suite, and that really leads to the question of transition. You kind of alluded to it in your own life before when you retired. What’s it like for an athlete to retire, giving up that life? How then do you help them make that transition to their next life?
Donna: It’s really hard. I think transitions are hard for everybody. We’re all built differently. I don’t like them. But every time I think it’s the worst thing that happened to me, eventually, maybe, it’s the best thing.
Denver: Well, look at the broadcasting. You retired; it was horrible. It was your life. Who knew?
Donna: Yes, it was. Who knew? But I think that when you start as a youngster… and they start them younger and younger… from one day to the next, the way you knew the world is over. You’re not a member of the herd anymore or the tribe. You’re out. You can’t take up the space in the pool anymore.
I remember when I couldn’t figure out whether to retire or not, I would walk down to the pool, and I’d swim one day and train, and then the next day I wouldn’t. And yap-yap the parents, “When is she going to make up her mind? She’s taking up space in the pool.”
Denver: You’re taking up time, but get outta your lane.
Donna: What we’ve done unofficially with the Women’s Sports Foundation, which I did with a lot of individual athletes… I would say, “Listen. Let’s jumpstart this black hole you’re going to fall in after you retire…because your body is different. You’re a Ferrari on a sidewalk now. You’re used to working out, so you have all that. You’re a focused, passionate person. You’re not going to be happy if you don’t have a direction. You’ve got to understand you had a coach. You think you can do life all on your own, seek out mentors? ” At the time, they didn’t really because we didn’t have a word for it. And if you’ve got psychological issues like Michael Phelps has been open about, seek help and get back.
So, I started this program along with Beth Brooke at Ernst & Young to help athletes transition to the next thing. We’re in partnership with their International Women’s Forum, which are all great women. The reason why I wanted to do that was we get mentors for our mentees out of the International Women’s Forum. They’re all professional women. They mentor our athletes for a year. And then our athletes get to go to this incredible conference… because women athletes are in a silo between men and professional women. And it’s a lonely place.
Denver: A little bubble there.
Donna: You want to say to women athletes that want to stay in the sports world, “Maybe you want to look outside because it’s so hard. And if you look outside, you can come back, in maybe a bigger way.” Because that’s what I did –
Denver: Absolutely. With a whole different skill set.
Donna: — by working in the Senate and leaving ABC – I left, did two round-trips, almost three. Roone, after I went to work in the Senate, went, “Wow. I look at her differently. She’s grown-up now. She’s not just a 17-year-old.”
Denver: Oh, my goodness. She knows stuff I didn’t know.
I was reading about – I can’t remember the guy’s name – but he was I think a New York Giant linebacker, and he retired. For a couple years, he drove out to the MetLife Stadium at the exact same time he left when he was playing. He would find a spot in the parking lot, couldn’t even get across the fence where the players would go, and would try to keep the same routine. So, it really was like – to your point, it’s tough.
Donna: It’s tough. It really is.
Denver: I do a lot of fundraising and charitable work. And I know what athletes are like, and you always want them at your event. But when they retire, unless you’re a famous athlete, nobody wants them anymore. They get maybe six months or a year, and they just sort of fade away.
Donna: That’s what I say to a lot of Olympic athletes. If you look back at the games in Sochi or the games in Salt Lake where, we had so many gold medalists, who do you remember? You’re going to remember Michael Phelps forever. How can you not?
Denver: You remember four – three or four, something like that. And after that, they just –
Donna: Yes. That’s it. And that’s the way we cover sports because it’s personality-driven.
Denver: That’s the way we cover everything. You have a disaster, it’s on the news for 36 straight hours or three days. And then, all of a sudden, we got another disaster. We got a tweet over here. Who cares about those people anymore? Or at least that’s what—
So, let’s talk about the Olympics. It’s going to be in 2020 in Tokyo, a place which has fond memories for you and also would have had fond memories for your dad, who would have been in the Olympics in 1940 if it hadn’t been for the war. Speak about the overall health of the Olympic movement today. What’s strong? What’s fragile? What do you think needs to be done?
Donna: When you think about it, just think about what Simone Biles just did this week.
Denver: It’s hard to even think about. That was just so remarkable. It is stunning.
Donna: So it’s such an attractive platform that it’s burdened with so much. I don’t know. You might compare it to the ancient games because they collapsed because of cheating, maybe sponsorship agents, the burden of being so attractive. Also because so much money is invested now, and the athletes aren’t paid. They’re waking up and saying, “We’re slave labor here.”
Denver: We’re seeing that in California with the NCAA and what they’re doing out there.
Donna: And these organizations are trying to scramble to deal with it because there’s a new rule now where athletes at the Olympics can honor their sponsors within a certain limited time. But for me, I’ve stayed involved because of the Simone Biles of the world, for what sports does for you, for the convening of athletes at the Games.
If you ever have the opportunity to really see inside the Olympic Village, there’s the 1%, or the less than 1% that are going to get on the podium. There are 10,000 athletes there. They’re going to go home with a whole different view of the world. And so, I stay involved, but I think the International Olympic Committee, on many levels, has a bad rap, but they have really cleaned up.
Denver: That’s good to hear.
Donna: Thomas Bach was an Olympic athlete, double gold medalist in fencing. He’s joining hands with the UN and is involved in many initiatives, is trying to clean up the corruption. One of the problems, however, is when you award an Olympics to a country like Rio, there was rampant corruption.
And so, these are the things they deal with constantly, but what you don’t see is the solidarity money that comes in; that goes into inner-city programs or rural programs, the initiative with the UN Women, the IOC has partnered with, the ability to reach into refugee camps and bring refugees. And maybe that’s exploitative, but it gives hope, and more and more people are getting involved in that. There’s so many NGOs that use sport as a tool to teach: Beyond Sport, Generations for Peace by Prince Feisal…. Peace and Sport by Prince Albert. They’re both IOC members, and they may be royal, but they do good works.
Denver: It’s a mixed bag is what it is. Like everything else in society, it’s a microcosm of the world.
Donna: Samaranch had been the ambassador under Franco to the former Soviet Union. When confronted with all this he said, “What am I going to do? How do I control somebody that’s going to really violate our rules?” But now there’s just bigger standards.
Leadership, power… you go into any room that’s convening sports leaders, you see very few women. It’s a product of the old system. It’s like the royal court of sport.
Denver: As you go around the world to advocate for women’s sports and these issues – Nike roundtable, a whole bunch of different things. What’s on the top of their agenda right now? What do they want you to do next? What’s their number one priority in terms of trying to create gender equity and fairness in the world of sport for women?
Donna: Their priority now is, because on the field of play, we’re pretty equal. Leadership, power… you go into any room that’s convening sports leaders, you see very few women. It’s a product of the old system. It’s like the royal court of sport. It is. And it was a bunch of, excuse me, “white rich guys” under Pierre de Coubertin who would turn over in his grave to know that women were this prominent on the field of play. That’s the problem, is the rub because once you’re an IOC member, mostly it’s for life, a third isn’t. You’ve got to be re-voted, but it’s such a powerful thing for some of these individuals.
Donna: Yes. I think there should be more turnover. I think that would be healthier for the movement. I think Bach realizes this because we’re having a generational turnover now. People are disappearing. They’re going to the big stadium in the sky, and we need young people that understand the complexities of the movement to be educated. So, in ‘81, I worked with a German to set up the first Athletes Commission to the IOC, and Bach came out of that. Seb Coe who ran London, great athlete, runs the IAAF Track and Field Federation, runs that, and will probably be an IOC member. So are they young? They’re almost in their 60s, but IOC standards they are. But we also have a group of athletes that are elected every year to be on the International Olympic Committee, and that’s very helpful.
Denver: Before I let you go, what’s up with you next? I know you’re on your way to Malta. Tell us about it.
Donna: I am, for a State Department or Department of State envoy. I am representing Special Olympics International. Eunice Shriver brought me onto that organization in the ‘60s when it first started. We have something called “unified sport” that we’re promoting all over the world. I know in California, it’s very robust, where you have athletes in schools that partner with Special Olympics to play in unified sport. In Malta, with the refugee issue and the inundation of different populations, and young people restless, we’re bringing children out of refugee camps to work with our Special Olympics and play on the field to play together.
Denver: That’s great. You just keep on rolling along, don’t you? Doing it, one thing after another. Good work.
Donna: Yes. It’s great stuff.
Denver: It really is. Well, Donna de Varona, athlete, broadcaster, and tireless advocate, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For those who want to dig into this issue a little bit more and get involved, what advice do you have for them?
Donna: Well, go online. I would love people to contribute to the Women’s Sports Foundation. That’s important. I think giving back is… gives me much more than I give, and I think that that, through my up and down career, my three round-trips to ABC and back, and working for NBC and working in the Senate, it’s just such a happy place to be with people that want to give back.
Denver: Well, you’ve had many more ups than downs, that’s for sure. Well, thanks, Donna. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show
Donna: Thank you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.