Categorized | Women in Sports

Rough Stuff

Sonya Lamonakis trades punches during a 2009 bout. (Associated Press)

Women athletes show their toughness

By SUNIL JOSHI

After training with men for a decade, Prairie Rutledge decided in December to open a Muay Thai and kickboxing gym for women in Brick, N.J., east of Philadelphia. After securing start-up financing and a training space, she called an insurance company to obtain coverage.

The insurance company representative said that the club could secure coverage, provided the activities in the gym did not involve contact. Rutledge, who began training in Muay Thai a decade ago, told the representative that her goal was to teach women combat techniques, necessitating contact. Rutledge remembers the insurance company representative telling her that the company did not cover contact sports.

“Just because a woman’s saying we’re doing kickboxing, [that] doesn’t mean we’re doing cardio,” Rutledge said in a telephone interview (all interviews in this story were conducted by phone). She then said she was able to obtain insurance from another company at the same rate as gyms that cater to men.

By starting her gym, Rutledge wanted to appeal to a group of women who seek out contact sports. Female participation is growing in these activities, which stretch from the common, like boxing, football, ice hockey and martial arts, to the esoteric, like roller derby. Women who were contacted for this story say that they get more out of the sports than simply fitness. In challenging the traditional gender norm that women should not participate in rough-and-tumble activities, women say that they find a sense of power within themselves that they never knew existed.

“If anything, it has empowered women,” Rutledge said. “It’s empowered them in their everyday life. Some of my daintiest girls are turning into pretty bad-ass chicks.”

Leah Cohen said that she felt empowered when she took up boxing while writing a book about three young female boxers titled “Without Apology: Girls, Women, and the Desire to Fight.” For Cohen, who is now an English professor at Holy Cross, boxing affirmed her sense of vigor and inner fortitude. “I had an experience finding power through different channels and a way of being,” she said. She added, “It’s incredibly revelatory and liberating for women who didn’t have that experience growing up.”

When women begin boxing, Cohen said, they are often greeted with paternalistic refrains like, “You have a pretty face. Why would you want to mess it up?” She added, “A common message that women receive is that her currency is her looks, and not her virility I didn’t meet anybody who did anything but laugh at that.”

Cohen, who has since stopped boxing because of the injury risk, said that women are aware of the potential damage from contact sports, but women who flock to them are drawn by something else. “It’s not that women are scoffing at the reality that there might be marks on their face,” she said. “Everybody I met was there because of a need … to connect with a part of themselves. That need supercedes trivial concerns like walking around with a black eye.”

Still, Cohen said that because of the injury risk, she wouldn’t let her daughters participate in boxing. She compared the sport to smoking, saying, “It’s almost like cigarettes before the studies. I’m glad I got my boxing in while I was in a state of blissful ignorance.”

As men do, however, women face the prospect of serious injury when playing contact sports. Becky Zerlentes, a 34-year-old female boxer in Colorado, died after she suffered blunt-force trauma to her head during a 2004 Golden Gloves bout. In the third round of what was to be her final match, Zerlentes, who was the 2002 Colorado Golden Gloves champion, was hit on the left temple by her opponent, Heather Schmidt, and knocked unconscious. She died several hours later.

“There’s risk in contact sports, and there’s a tendency for an increased problem in women,” said Louis Bigliani, an orthopedist at New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center. Bigliani then added, “Contact sports are things women can and should do.” He said his daughters play lacrosse.

Bigliani’s colleague at Columbia Presbyterian, Dr. William Levine, said that certain injuries are endemic to different genders, and thus playing contact sports can exacerbate those tendencies. For example, Levine said, women are significantly more likely than men to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament, something that can become far more probable when they play contact sports. Statistics bear this out: Female athletes are 1 ½ times more likely to tear their ACL than males who play the same sport, according to a study published in 2007 by West Point orthopedists Sally B. Mountcastle, Matthew Posner, John F. Kragh Jr. and Dean C. Taylor.

Levine agreed with Bigliani, however, that contact sports are safe for women, despite the increased incidence of ACL injury. “If you’re properly padded,” he said, “and if you’re fit for whatever the activity, you should be perfectly fine.”

Fitness is something that Rutledge’s pupils take training just as seriously as their male counterparts, she said. She added that she has seen a few injuries but nothing out of the ordinary, compared to men, and nothing as serious as the dislocated elbow she suffered when training against men. But that doesn’t diminish the ferocity of the competition. “They really are serious and hard core,” she said. “They beat the crap out of each other.”

Indeed, even in women’s ice hockey, a sport where checking is nominally banned, players still regularly come into contact with each other, causing injuries. Among female college hockey players, 42.1 percent of in-game injuries between 2001 and 2004 occurred because of contact with other players, according to a 2007 NCAA study, which also concluded that most of the remaining injuries came from contact with the boards (28.1 percent) and contact with the ice (22.8 percent). Concussions, which accounted for 21.6 percent of all injuries or 2.72 per 1,000 games played, were the most common injury suffered by female ice hockey players, the study concluded. Internal knee derangements, a term that encompasses injuries to tendons, muscles, ligaments and bones, were determined to be the second most common type of injury during women’s hockey games, accounting for 12.9 percent of injuries, or 1.63 per 1,000 games.

“Because women’s ice hockey is an emerging sport, he variance in skill level between the top teams and the bottom teams is probably great,” concluded study authors Julie Agel, Randall Dick, Bradley Nelson, Stephen W. Marshall and Thomas P. Dompier. “The less-skilled players may have found themselves in certain injury scenarios because they were unskilled skaters, not very familiar with the game, or not accustomed to competitive play.”

In other contact sports with growing participation, however, training is prerequisite. Prospective roller derby players, for example, must pass fitness tests and learn strategy and techniques before they are allowed to see game action.

“We want people to be trained, so they don’t go out there and hurt people or hurt themselves,” said Karen Kuhn, a representative for Suburbia Roller Derby, a league in Westchester County, N.Y. “They learn how to fall, how to get hit properly.” She added that women with varying levels of athletic prowess participate. “It’s nice to see a sport where you don’t have to have a specific body type,” she said. “You don’t have to be a great athlete.”

Kuhn, who skates under the pseudonym Dixie Whiskey, said that new recruits undergo a fitness and training regimen that builds up their skating skills, then they undergo strategy training, which includes a written examination. Kuhn said that training can be completed fairly quickly, though she has seen it last for a half-year. Despite the training, Kuhn said that the sport comes with its risks. She’s seen women suffer whiplash, tear ACLs and experience other aches and pains that accompany stressed joints and limbs.

After seeing roller derby players skating in a 2007 Halloween parade, Kuhn said she was drawn to the sport. In addition to women’s leagues, roller derby is increasing in popularity among men, and Kuhn said that leagues for both girls and boys have even begun to form. Kuhn said that her husband likes the sport so much that he followed her in, signing up for a male roller derby league. If her local club incorporates youth roller derby, something that exists in a small number of leagues, she will sign up her daughters. The greatest restriction to the sport’s growth potential, Kuhn said, is the lack of available rink space.

While roller derby won’t be an Olympic event any time soon, women’s boxing will debut at the 2012 London games. This has prompted growth in the sport’s popularity, said Sonya Lamonakis, a female fighter who recently turned pro after achieving the top amateur ranking.

“I don’t know how anybody thinks they can get into a sport two years before the Olympics and expect to compete,” said Lamonakis, a four-time Golden Gloves champion in New York.

Lamonakis said that female boxers are evaluated using the same criteria as men, and that women need more than athleticism and intelligence but heart to succeed in the ring. “It’s a man-dominated sport,” she said. “So for a woman to get inside the ropes, it takes a lot of heart.” She said that she hasn’t experienced much pushback from men because she is a woman and added, “Maybe because I win.”

Still, she recalls the beating she took in her third amateur bout, after which she had to undergo emergency surgery because of a facial hematoma and a deviated septum.

Lamonakis teaches Humanities to seventh-graders at Family Academy, in Harlem. “Whenever I have a fight, [the students] make me cards and wish me luck,” she said. “I let them wear [the Golden Gloves championship] belt and the gloves.” Lamonakis is famous enough that the head of the local post office hung her picture after seeing her fight, and now, “Everybody’s a fan.”

Andra Douglas became a fan of football while watching the University of Florida and Miami Dolphins with her father while she was a child in Florida. Douglas said that she grew up playing neighborhood games as a youth, them played flag football in high school and college, continuing once she entered professional life. She jumped at the chance to play tackle football in 2000 when the Independent Women’s Football League formed; moreover, when the New York Sharks struggled to find an owner, Douglas stepped in and bought the team, splitting duties as the team’s owner and quarterback. IWFL teams play an eight-game schedule, on Saturdays in the Spring. The league consists of three tiers, based on market size, with the first tier containing 19 clubs in markets as large as New York and Los Angeles, and the third tier drawing from eight cities, including Cape Fear, N.C.

Tackle football isn’t an inherently better game than flag football, Douglas said, but she admitted that she enjoyed the physicality of the former. “[Tackle is] what you grew up thinking, ‘That’s what football is,’ “ she said. “It’s really a thrill to get out there and hit people,” she added. Douglas said that between 25 and 30 members of her 45-woman squad return from year to year. “They just enjoy the sport, the camaraderie that comes from being part of a team,” she added.

Kuhn, the roller derby player, said that while she loved the rush of competing, she also loved the bonds that she’s formed with her teammates. “I had friends, but I didn’t connect with people until derby,” she said. “You become a family. We squabble and love each other. Derby is the most amazing, supportive family I’ve ever met.”

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