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Championing equality: Pioneering the future of women’s sports

Female athletes reflect on their careers, motherhood, and the future of women’s sports.

“I had to work harder because it wasn’t given to me, and nothing in sport is given to anybody. I had to find my opportunity, and I think that made me a better athlete.”

Joan Benoit Samuelson isn’t just a better athlete, she’s elite. Her resume reads like a laundry list of top accomplishments; she’s a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, former world record holder, National Track and Field Hall of Famer, Boston Marathon champion, and legend in the world of distance running. If all those titles weren’t enough, Benoit Samuelson is also a mom — arguably her most important title — a role she took on in the midst of her record-breaking career.

“I refer to my life and my career in two phases, BC and AD,” says Benoit Samuelson. “BC meaning before children and AD meaning after diapers.”

A mother and adult daughter embrace and lean on each other after running a race
Joan Benoit Samuelson and her daughter after completing a race.

In just the last century, being an athlete and mother was atypical, as societal judgment, lack of support, and prejudicial rules and regulations kept women and mothers on the sidelines. While Benoit Samuelson was an anomaly at the time, she and other pioneering advocates for female athletics laid the groundwork for women to be able to still play the sports they love after having children. 


The evolution of access for female athletes

“In my early days as an athlete, acceptance was the big deal,” says Benoit Samuelson. “Lack of opportunity and accessibility to sport was the first challenge, and then it was gaining acceptance, and most recently it’s trying to gain parity.”

Female athletes have become a part of our cultural identity over the last 50-plus years, thanks in large part to Title IX. This wasn’t always the case, but athletes and advocates have worked tirelessly throughout the decades to improve representation, access, and equity for women’s sports and female athletes. 

An older woman with short, gray hair wearing a blue blazer  poses for a professional headshot.
Donna Lopiano

Donna Lopiano, PhD, former chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation, has been nationally and internationally recognized for her leadership advocating for gender equity in sports by the International Olympic Committee, the National Collegiate Athletics Association, and more. She was also an excellent athlete and coach in her own right and is enshrined in the National Sports Hall of Fame and National Softball Hall of Fame. But if you ask her, her most important work has been off the field.

“Truthfully, I was never discriminated against until I tried out for baseball, got drafted number one, and then they told me I couldn’t play because I was a girl. That was brutal at the time, and it probably was the defining moment of my life,” Lopiano says.

“I just want people following in our footsteps to experience something much better. It isn’t about excess, it’s about the basics.” — Donna Lopiano

It is getting better. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than 3.3 million girls participated in high school athletics from 2022 to 2023, a three percent increase from the year before and on par with pre-pandemic numbers. At the collegiate and professional level, media coverage for women’s sports has almost tripled over the last five years. These figures are signs of improvement, but women still face obstacles in athletics in terms of scholarship dollars, participation opportunities, and more.

“I think it’s coming, but we still have a long, long way to go,” adds Benoit Samuelson.


Sustaining a professional sports career and raising children: a juggling act

Now in her 60s, Benoit Samuelson is less in the throes of motherhood and more in the realm of “grandmotherhood.” But at the height of her professional running career, her children, Abby and Anders, required her attention and forced her to find new ways to stay at the top of her game in both of her primary roles. 

“Before I had children, I scheduled my day around running because running was my focus, but after having children my priorities shifted and I started scheduling my running around my day,” she shares. What she is describing is the universal challenge for most mothers, athlete or not; trying to give their best effort in the many different roles they play.  

“I think that’s the hardest thing for a woman, trying to strike that balance and be the best mother, partner, role model, co-worker, and everything else we need to be. But, I think finding that balance helps with those issues, and is so vitally important to one’s physical and mental health and to the success and self-esteem that women need.” — Joan Benoit Samuelson

Benoit Samuelson was able to find that balance and pursued her athletic career while her children grew and discovered what their passions were. Abby took to sports like soccer and cross country before ultimately becoming a competitive distance runner, while Anders was more interested in snowboarding, although he did run the Boston Marathon in under three hours with his mom and sister.  

“What’s really great is when your children have a passion that’s different from yours and when they can do something that you can’t do,” says Benoit Samuelson. “If they have the exposure and the opportunity, they’re going to figure it out — what it is they really love. Because if you don’t have passion, you don’t have fire, and if you don’t have fire, you can’t ignite anything.”


Raising the next generation of female athletes

Honestly, I never really faced challenges due to gender which I am very grateful for. I played on girls’ teams right away and never felt like there wasn’t a place for me.”

Christine Carucci, 36, is part of the generation of female athletes who benefited from the work of Benoit Samuelson, Lopiano, and those who fought for equality in women’s sports. After growing up in Canada playing soccer, hockey, and softball, she went on to play both club soccer and hockey at Northeastern University. Now raising two daughters of her own, three-year-old Emma and one-year-old Lily, she is grateful for the athletic landscape her girls will be playing in.

“I mostly looked up to Olympians or women who were the best of the best at their sport, but now there are so many more places for female athletes of all skill levels and ages to play that my daughters can look up to,” shares Carucci. “My girls will never have to wonder if there will eventually be a college or professional sports teams for their sport because they already exist.” 

A mother wearing a beanie and sweatshirt poses with her daughter on the ice during hockey practice.
Carucci poses with her daughter on the ice.

Today, Carucci takes her talents to the Haverhill Valley Forum, where she plays in the Women’s Hockey League of Boston, an adult amateur women’s hockey league that currently fields 18 teams across all skill levels. “After having my older daughter during the pandemic, I found it very hard to prioritize my physical health,” she says. “But I found a women’s hockey league, and I look forward to playing every week – I go and forget about all the stress, even if it’s just for an hour.”

Carucci continued playing until she was about 20 weeks pregnant with Lily and went back when she was a few months old. This winter, however, Emma is the one lacing up her skates. “One of the best moments of my life was seeing her skate without a milk crate for the first time at two and a half years old — I was so proud,” she shares. “She worked so hard to get there and I can only imagine how much bigger that feeling gets as they get older and accomplish harder things.” 

Time will tell if hockey is the sport that Emma and Lily pursue, or if they’re more interested in volleyball, tennis, or something entirely different. Either way, they will be able to step onto the field, court, or ice without giving it a second thought.

“Of course, I selfishly hope she wants to play hockey, but even if she chooses another sport I will be happy because she will learn the value of hard work, gain confidence, and [learn] what it means to be a good teammate, which is what sports are really all about anyway.” 

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This content was written by the advertiser and edited by Studio/B to uphold The Boston Globe's content standards. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its writing, production, or display.