First Paying Job: Working as a towel girl at the local swim pool for 25 cents an hour.
Biggest Influence Never Met: Mahatma Gandhi
Childhood Career Ambition: "I thought I was going to be a singer."
Message for Young Women: "Never take 'no' for an answer, but be open to working very hard."
At 14 years of age, Donna de Varona was the youngest swimmer to compete at the 1960 Summer Olympics. Four years later at the 1964 Tokyo games, she won two gold medals, setting an Olympic record in the 400 individual medley, and a world record in the 4x100 free relay, emerging as the best known woman swimmer in the world. By 1965 she had broken 18 world records, collected 37 national titles, and became the first female sportscaster in the United States and the first woman to cover the Olympics for television. She has explained her successes in very simple terms: “When I see a barrier, I want to go through it. Why? Because I think that’s the next step.”
Growing up in San Diego, California, de Varona’s dream was to be a swimmer. After her success in 1964 Olympics, the Associated Press and United Press International named her Female Athlete of the Year. In 1965, she chose to retire from swimming and use her athletic successes to launch a career in sportscasting, which at the time was an all-male field. At the age of 17, she was the first female network sportscaster under contract at ABC. She was the first woman to cover the Olympics, and did so for three consecutive Olympic seasons in 1968, 1972, and 1976.
Prior to her professional career in sportscasting, de Varona had tried to obtain a swimming scholarship to attend college. Despite her Olympic medals, de Varona was unable to secure scholarships, because they did not exist for women during that time. As a result of that experience, de Varona became a passionate advocate for women in sports during her tenure as a sportscaster, and worked assiduously for the passage of Title IX of the Equal Education Amendment Act of 1972. From 1976 to 1978 she was a consultant to the U.S. Senate during the preparation of the Amateur Sports Act, which aimed to give women and minorities greater and better access to training facilities and money. She also co-founded the Women's Sports Foundation in 1974, and served as the organization's first president from 1979 to 1984. de Varona has said of the need to protect the advances of Title IX, "I grew up in an era when my Olympic medal didn't have the same value as it did if it were on a man," de Varona said, "We have had to fight for our protections, and we still do."
De Varona has been a member of the Women's Sports Hall of Fame, the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, and in 1991 received an EMMY for her work during the Special Olympics. She served as chairman of the 1999 Women's World Cup Soccer Tournament Organizing Committee, the most successful women's sporting event in history. De Varona was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, US Olympic Hall of Fame, Bay Area Hall of Fame, San Jose Hall of Fame, and Woman's Hall Of Fame.