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Get to Know Olympic Gold Medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley

Get to Know Olympic Gold Medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley

Benita Fitzgerald Mosley truly represents what it means to be a trailblazing athlete. In 1984, she made history as the first African-American woman and the second American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 100 meter hurdles.

That same year Fitzgerald Mosley also graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with a bachelor degree in industrial engineering. Today, she serves as the CEO of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA, a group founded on the inspiring words of Nelson Mandela: "Sport can create hope where once there was only despair."

Read our conversation with Fitzgerald Mosley, where she reveals everything from the minute she realized she would never turn away from sports and instead become "the one to beat" to her ideas on the major rewards, challenges, and benefits facing young female athletes.

Q: What was one of the most challenging experiences of your life? How did you overcome it?
A: I struggled in middle school with being accepted by my peers and determining who my true friends were. Then in seventh grade, I began to run track. I won my first race and I never looked back. The recognition and acceptance I gained from my accomplishments on the track helped to elevate my self-esteem and also helped me to choose my friends more wisely.

This experience has repeated itself many times throughout my life as I’ve gone through a divorce, dealt with office politics, and working through conflicts with friends and family.

Q: What was it like to train for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team? Could you give us a run-down of what you did during your days leading up to the Olympics that year? How did you mentally cope with the challenges of training?
A: Training for the 1984 Olympic Games was a great opportunity for me to understand what it takes to be a winner. Going into that year, I had already finished competing in intercollegiate track and field for the University of Tennessee, so I was able to thoroughly focus on training for the Olympic Trials.

I also developed more self-confidence leading up to the 1984 Olympics. I participated in the first-ever World Track & Field Championships in 1983. I made the final, but I didn't place. I was young, and felt slightly overwhelmed when competing in a big stadium against other world class athletes.

Almost a year later I'd made the 1984 Olympic Team, and I was at practice one sunny afternoon in Knoxville. It was in that moment when it dawned on me that I was capable of winning the gold medal. That the gold was mine for the taking. That I was indeed just as good as those athletes that had intimidated me in the past. I recognized that the idea of representing my country at the Olympic Games was a huge honor and responsibility. I was ready to prepare myself physically and mentally so that I could bring home the gold and I went into my competition with an attitude that "I was the one to beat" and it really paid off. 

Q: What would you say was the key factor in helping you win the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdle in 1984?
A: Besides having strong mental fortitude, the best thing for me was having a great support system including my coaches, family and friends. My coaches from the University of Tennessee, Terry Crawford and John Miller made sure that I was in the best shape of my life. Also, competing in Los Angeles on home soil helped to maximize my performance. The American fans were great…waving the U.S. flag and hearing them chanting 'U-S-A' before and after my performances was such an amazing experience!

Q: What was your family and community’s reaction when you received the title?
A: I grew up in Dale City, Va., right outside of D.C. My parents were both educators and were heavily involved in our church and in various boards and community organizations.

Once I returned from the Olympic Games, the town had a parade in my honor, and I was the grand marshal. My high school band played. All of the store marquees displayed my name with congratulatory messages. Prince William County also named a street in Dale City after me: Benita Fitzgerald Drive.

My mother helped to integrate the schools in Prince Williams County, and as a result of her courage and accomplishments, the county named a school after her named Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary School. It's an extra special honor because that school is located on the street named after me at 15500 Benita Fitzgerald Drive!

Q: What would you say is the one obstacle facing women in sports today?
A: As athletes, we're still denied opportunities to participate in sports on all levels. In the suburbs there many opportunities for girls to play sports in school and in their communities, but in underserved communities, girls of color do not have those same opportunities. There are far fewer opportunities compared to their suburban counterparts. Their levels of obesity and inactivity are higher and the girls aren’t reaping the other social, physical, and personal benefits from playing sports.

On the professional side, being a woman is still a huge obstacle. When Title IX was passed in 1972, approximately 90 percent of the coaches of women’s sports were women. Today, fewer than 50 percent of the coaches of women sports team are women. As women’s sports have become more popular and lucrative, which is great, fewer and fewer women coaches are leading those teams.

Q: What are some of the benefits of sports when it comes to women’s health, both physical and mental?
A: One of the reasons I’ve been such an advocate for girls to get involved in sports is due to the lifelong health benefits they enjoy. Girls who participate in sports are less likely to use drugs and alcohol or become pregnant prematurely and they lower their lifelong risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis. For all of those reasons, girls should have the opportunity to participate in sports regardless of their socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity.

That is what’s amazing about the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, Girls have the same opportunities as the boys to participate in sports an physical activity. The programs are designed to create sustainable change by addressing key social issues that youth are facing across our country, including health and social outcomes such as reducing obesity and juvenile crime. All of these changes are possible because of the power of sports.

Q: What are some of the benefits of women’s sports when it comes to advancing women in their careers and in society?
A: A recent study by EY (formerly Ernst & Young) shows that over 90% of women executives participated in sports when they were younger. I’ve experienced this myself. The same hard work and mental fortitude that it took for me to be compete as a world class athlete has helped me to be successful in building my career. The understanding of teamwork and drawing on my colleagues' strengths has also helped me to be a better leader and manager.

Q: How can sports become a tool for social change? Can you give an example of a way sports became a tool for social change in your life?
A: I was blessed to grow up in a middle-class household with two well educated parents who were able to provide many opportunities to my sister and to me. Yet in still, as an African American female sports has opened up many doors for me. I went to Russia at 16 years old to compete on the U.S. Junior National team; I received a college scholarship to run track where I received a degree in industrial engineering — that was something that women didn’t do. I then became the first African American woman to win a gold medal in 100m hurdles.

For all of those reasons I think being African American, being female and being thrust into the limelight has given me the opportunity to serve as a role model to inspire and motivate other young women to pursue their dreams as well, which is by I’ve chosen to accept the position as CEO of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA. Laureus is an example of how sports can indeed be a tool for social change by supporting quality, sustainable programming that leads to positive social, health and education outcomes for youth in underserved communities. Nelson Mandela said at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair." This is Laureus' mission statement and the driving force behind its work. Given my background, this is a mission that resonates deeply with me.

Q: If you could give young women a piece of advice from your life what would it be?
A: My advice would be don’t shrink to fit. You may find yourself in an organization that doesn’t appreciate or leverage all of the talents and experience you have to offer.

That's not their problem, that's the organization’s problem. The ultimate job is one that allows you to bring your whole self to work every day. You shouldn't feel isolated because of your gender, culture, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The goal in anyone's career should be to find that sweet spot that allows you to be all that you can be, so find an organization that allows you to make an impact, and in return you will help the organization grow. 

Q: Since you've retired, what is one piece of progress in the world of women’s sports that did not exist when you were an athlete?
A: One of the main areas in which women have gained more parity is in Olympic sports. Again, in 1972 when Title IX was passed in the U.S., only 15 percent of all of the athletes competing in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, were women. However, because Title IX fueled participation of women in sports here in our country, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in London actually had more female athletes than men for the first time in history. Women are now represented in all of the same sports at the summer and winter games but not necessarily in every discipline, weight class, or event.

For example, in the 2014 Sochi Games, women's ski jumping was added, but men did both the large hill (120m) and the normal hill (90m), and women only did the 90-meter jump. We've made some great progress, especially here in the U.S., but there's still a lot of work to be done.

Q: What are your next steps in your personal and professional life? Any upcoming goals you’d like to achieve?
A: I achieved one of my top goals when I accepted my new position as CEO of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA. It's a chance for me to grow personally and professionally, and I can take my skills and past experiences and help young people.

NEXT: Mia Hamm »

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Photo Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images