Nancy Hogshead Makar is an advocate; she’s the embodiment of Champion Women, the non-profit organization she founded in 2014 that advocates for girls and women in sports. A civil rights attorney, she is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on gender equity in sports participation, sexual harassment and abuse, pregnancy discrimination, legal enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as well as contemporary legal issues within the Olympic movement.
I have interviewed Nancy several times and I’m always impressed by her knowledge. But it’s her personal integrity, her passion and determination for fairness and her willingness to get involved, to always be a positive advocate for girls and women in sports that stick with me. To fully appreciate this dynamo civil rights attorney, motivational speaker and author – this champion woman, you need to know her story.
Before she became a champion woman, she began as a champion swimmer. Nancy’s dad moved his young family from Iowa to Jacksonville, Florida to accept a new position and, in addition to buying a new house, the family also bought a boat. As a precautionary measure, Nancy and her brother were required to take swimming lessons. Already a talented gymnast at this point, little did her family realize that Nancy would instead turn her attention to swimming and go on win Olympic gold.
As a true competitor, Nancy wanted to be the best swimmer in the world. At age 12 she was breaking national records in her age category; at 14 she was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 200 meter butterfly and at 18 she was a member of the 1980 U.S. swim team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics. She then went on to swim in five races and win three Olympic gold medals and one silver medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, becoming the most decorated swimmer of those games. She is now a member of 12 Halls of Fame honoring her athletic prowess and has been ranked by Sports Illustrated as Florida’s 13th greatest athlete overall of the 20th Century (third greatest female).
In a serendipitous happening, Nancy was coached at two different points in her career by well-known and respected brothers Randy and Eddie Reese, both of whom were big on technique, on stroke instruction. But she says they were also great motivators who knew how to make swimming fun, playing games and doing relays. She says that Randy had the ability to round up between 60-80 kids to swim at 4:45 in the morning before school started.
She believes the secret to their success as swim coaches was the fun factor that still produced swimmers with great technique who stayed in competitive swimming for the long haul. They didn’t push their young swimmers into early specialization, a problem Nancy sees with today’s elite swimmers who are pushed so hard to win in specialized areas early on that they tend to burn out, leaving the sport before reaching their full potential.
But for many Olympians who persevere to reach their potential, the end of a world-class athletic career after years of focused, dedicated training can be terribly difficult. After living the formative years of your life with hours of daily focused sport training means you’re essentially separated from everyday life as others know and are living it. Trying to enter a work-a-day world when it ends, working to find who you are beyond being an athlete and finding a meaningful life career can be very challenging.
Following a bronchial spasm during a race, Nancy had been diagnosed with asthma. Undeterred, she learned how to manage her condition and continued swimming. But after she retired from competitive swimming she became the national spokesperson for the American Lung Association. In addition to speaking to asthma groups across the U.S., in 1990 she also wrote a book, “Asthma and Exercise” that shared inspirational stories of other athletes who had learned how to manage their condition. Due to this experience, she discovered a love for motivational speaking to go along with her love for being an advocate.
After graduating from high school, Nancy was offered lots of college scholarships for swimming but she accepted the first swimming scholarship Duke University ever offered. In the fall of her sophomore year, however, while running between campuses Nancy was attacked and raped. Although she’s 5-10 and very muscular, a stranger chased her down, overpowered her and dragged her into the woods for an ordeal that lasted approximately two and a half hours, repeatedly threatening to kill her. Needless to say, the experience deeply impacted her life. But eventually she began to train again as she worked through her emotional trauma.
It was while a student at Duke that Nancy knowingly met her first gay friends, many of them athletes, many of whom are still dear friends today. She even shared that Greg Louganis came out to her before it was widely known that he was gay. However, it was a college internship that changed the trajectory of her life.
Serving as an intern at the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), Nancy discovered her true calling as an advocate. That experience, combined with her personal and athletic experiences really impacted her career path. She saw the true importance of Title IX and the need for equity in men and women’s sports. Realizing that to effectively advocate for equity in collegiate sports using Title IX, you needed to understand the law, after graduating from Duke she went on to Georgetown University Law Center and in 1997 was graduated with a Juris Doctor degree.
Nancy continued to work with WSF for 30 years, serving as a trustee and president as well as its senior director of advocacy over the years. Also a scholar and author, she spent time in private practice with Holland & Knight, many of her cases being related to Title IX. And for 13 years she was a tenured professor on the faculty at Florida Coastal School of Law, both the firm and law school located in Jacksonville. In addition to her legal and scholarly writings, in 2007 she co-edited the book “Equal Play, Title IX and Social Change” with economist Andrew Zimbalist.
In 2014 Nancy’s commitment to equity using sport as a vehicle for social change was recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). She was awarded the prestigious 2014 Women & Sports Trophy for the Americas in a presentation in Monaco by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait. According to the IOC, she was part of a slate of five honorees, “one each from Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.” The prize enabled her to found Champion Women and become its CEO.
Having already been named by ESPNW as one of 40 “Women Who Will Change the Way Sports are Played” in 2012, at Champion Women’s launch, Nancy shared the following: “Our most powerful and influential athletic institutions are falling short in addressing critical gender equity issues. Champion Women will engage its followers through its website at www.ChampionWomen.org, as well as other organizations to target equality, accountability and transparency throughout sports culture.”
Nancy has spoken out on the rape culture that exists on college campuses, most recently on the highly controversial light sentence imposed on Stanford swimmer Brock Turner by the judge, as well as having gathered international support for the world’s elite female soccer players to be able to play on natural grass rather than turf. She has also led the fight to eliminate predator coaches who sexually abuse young athletes under their tutelage. Her efforts have already led to substantial changes in the Olympic movement, including new U.S. Olympic Committee rules for national governing bodies that prohibit romantic and sexual relationships between coaches and athletes.
With all her involvement in improving the face of sports for girls and women, champion woman Nancy Hogshead Makar is also a happily married feminist. She and her husband Scott Makar, a judge with Florida’s First District Court of Appeal, are parents of a son Aaron, aged 15 and twin daughters Helen Clare and Millicent, aged 10 as well as a menagerie of pets.
To learn more about or to support the work being done by Nancy Hogshead Makar and Champion Women, please go to ChampionWomen.org.
By Connie Wardman
Photos courtesy of Nancy Hogshead Makar
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