Three women with a combined eight Olympic Gold medals were on stage at the CEMEX Auditorium Wednesday night for the fourth event in the Gender and Sports: Beyond Equality speaker series. Julie Foudy’s ’93 interview with two Olympic swimmers, Simone Manuel ’18 and Katie Ledecky ’20, was taped as the ninth episode in Foudy’s podcast series, “Laughter Permitted” with Julie Foudy.
Rev. Dr. Joanne Sanders, the Associate Dean for Religious Life and Patti Hanlon-Baker, the Associate Program Director of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, have put on the speaker series throughout the academic year and will host their final event, Champions of Respect: Achieving LGBTQ Inclusion in Sport, with Nevin Caple, next week. The series has been sponsored by Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Office for Religious Life, Physical Education and Recreation, Residential Education, Vice Provost of Student Affairs, Clayman Institute, American Studies, The Center for the Legal Profession and Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education.
In introducing the event, Sanders noted, “[Sports can be] a path and a way to ourselves. Aspire, inspire, and advocate for the changes we want to see.”
The podcast, which came about after two years of prodding from Foudy’s espnW colleague, Lynn Olszowy, has cracked the top 200 of Apple’s podcasts. Olszowy, a Notre Dame graduate, was onstage wearing a Stanford shirt, much to Foudy’s delight.
“It’s more about the person,” Foudy said. “I’m going to bring up all of their accolades, and we will talk a little bit about that, but this is more like ‘I want to know who she is as a human. How is she wired?’” For Manuel, that sometimes means thinking about what she is going to eat after she gets out of the pool.
“In front of an audience, it’s hard to get into the inner mind of someone,” Foudy said before the show. “We try to do it in a way that is super meaningful and fun.”
Foudy had no problem on stage, eliciting responses from Manuel and Ledecky that are typically only found in the banter following an interview. Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medalist, talked about her immense fear of cats, which was tested when she was with the Stanford team in a dryland practice in Hawaii preseason, and three stray cats appeared. The Olympic gold medalist bolted.
Ledecky and Manuel, who met in 2012 and roomed together in 2013, are both now professionals and signed to the same swimsuit brand, TYR. When Manuel signed her contract, she included an inclusion rider, the first of its kind in professional sports, that stipulates that her “partners extend meaningful opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups and that diversity be reflected in the creative efforts.”
Manuel spoke of protecting herself from doubts, both other people’s and her own, about competing in a sport that is predominantly white.
“Can’t see it, can’t be it,” said Manuel, who is now able to ask for black hair stylists when she does photoshoots.
When Manuel won the 100-meter freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she became the first African-American swimmer to win a gold medal. “[It was a] culmination of all these moments of protecting my dreams,” she said. “It’s a lot of weight.”
Before the pair were professionals, they had to follow strict NCAA amateurism regulations, which evoked a funny anecdote from Ledecky about demanding the receipt at Howie’s Pizza when she was out for dinner with her family. “No, you have to give us the receipt,” Ledecky recalled saying.
Manuel and Ledecky continue to compete together as teammates, swimming under the tutelage of Stanford women’s swimming coach Greg Meehan, who is also the 2020 U.S. Olympic Women’s Swimming Head Coach. “There’s a beauty in doing it together,” Manuel said.
Under Meehan, Stanford women’s swimming snapped a twenty year title drought in 2017, the first in an ongoing three-peat, finishing one place ahead of Cal. While Foudy repeatedly joked, “And who came in second?” Manuel was quick to respond, “Greg always says it’s important to be a good sport.”
With the podcast, Foudy is hoping to share a message in a consumable manner.
“If you’re doing it authentically, then it resonates with people,” Foudy said. “So many female athletes are so smart, authentic, grounded, and have all these talents that people just don’t know.”
For example, Ledecky, who is a psychology major and conducts research on campus, learned to play All Right Now on the saxophone in her one week with the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band.
“The opportunities that I have had are because of people like you with Title IX,” Ledecky said. “We need to continue to celebrate female athletes.”
Foudy served on the Commission on Title IX and remains a staunch supporter. For the first event in the speaker series, Foudy teamed up with Marlene Bjornsrud in a conversation titled “Women in sports after 46 years of Title IX: Rev Up.” While only one in 27 girls played sports before Title IX, after the legislation the ratio improved to one in 2.5.
Throughout its existence, however, Title IX has been attacked for causing reductions in university athletic departments that were mandated to provide women’s sports.
“Stop blaming Title IX for cuts,” Foudy said. “That’s not a Title IX issue, that’s the school needing to work on its budget.”
Ledecky said she looks up to swimmers that came before her, such as Chris von Saltza Olmstead, who competed in the 1960 Olympics and medaled four times, but was unable to compete at Stanford because the university did not offer the sport prior to Title IX. Unlike Olmstead, Ledecky’s mother, Mary Gen Ledecky was able to swim in college for the University of New Mexico with the vast changes that the 1972 legislation brought about.
U.S. soccer, however, is not covered by Title IX, so the women’s national team has waged an ongoing fight for equality. “It’s not just equal pay, it’s equal staffing, equal investment and equal marketing,” Foudy said. “We forced U.S. soccer to build out that market when we fought them twenty years ago.”
Foudy also tackled the issue while working for the Women’s Sports Foundation for nine years, including serving on the Board of Directors for seven years. “As Billie Jean King once said, ‘I hope one day we don’t have to have a Women’s Sports Foundation,’ but we do,” Foudy said. “Until we have equal access and opportunity, we have to fight for it.”
Progress has been made in women’s sports on a global scale as well. Foudy has experienced the development herself, “From me playing there and them going, ‘What are you doing as a woman playing soccer,’” Foudy said, to calling a USWNT game on ESPN and thinking “the Spanish team was so good.”
Of course, closer to home, Foudy keeps an eye on Stanford women’s soccer. “I follow,” she said. “I get to call the College Cup.”
Although Stanford lost in the semifinal game last season to eventual champion Florida State, Foudy announced the Cardinal’s championship the year before over UCLA.
“I try not to get too maternal when I call,” she said.
Foudy, who was accepted into Stanford medical school but deferred and eventually passed on the offer, provoked a conversation about what the two swimmers might want to do after swimming. Ledecky, whose grandfather was a doctor, envisioned herself following that path at a young age. Manuel, on the other hand, is certain that her life following her swimming career will not be in the pool. “I know when I retire I’m not going to want to go swimming,” Manuel said.
As the pair looked to the future, they also reflected on a shared experience in the past. Before the two were peers, teammates and friends, Manuel and Ledecky were waking up jet lagged in a Spanish hotel room to eat Cheez-Its and play cards as teenagers at the world swimming championships.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.