One's a tiny gymnast, another's a towering tae kwon do master. The only thing they all have in common is an uncommon will to win. Mary Ellen Mark photographs seven of America's top female Olympians.
Tae kwon do master Lynnette Love's height (she's 6'3") and awesome leg speed helped her win a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Here, she focuses before practice at a park near her home in Temple Hill, Maryland. Makeup, Mel Rau.
At the winter Olympics in Albertville, nine of America's eleven medals were won by women, including all five golds. It was a startling sweep ‑one that will undoubtedly throw the spotlight on American women at the Summer Games in Barcelona, which begin later this month. Some of these women are already legends: heptathlete Jackie Joyner‑Kersee, for instance, will be striving to repeat her gold‑winning 1988 performances. "My desire is still as intense," she says. Others are relative unknowns who may return to the States as national celebrities, as Florence Griffith Joyner did four years ago.
What explains this feminine landslide? Most significant has been the watershed effect of Title IX, the 1972 decision outlawing gender discrimination in college athletics that pushed the acceptance of women as serious athletes. Over the last twenty years the number of high school girls participating in sports has increased fivefold; at the college level it has tripled. The generation of female athletes we'll be watching in Spain grew up expecting to participate in sports ‑and this self‑assurance shows.
From vastly different backgrounds and from all over the country, ranging in age from mid‑teens to mid‑thirties, the seven women on the following pages share one thing: an extraordinary mental toughness. For instance, it isn't only Lynnette Love's size (she's six feet three inches, 185 pounds), the bloodcurdling "Kia!" that punctuates her tae kwon do kicks, or her 1988 Olympic gold that so intimidate her competitors. "This is a mental sport," says Love, thirty‑four, who smiles during matches to ease her tension ‑and to faze her opponents. "If I can make you think I'm King Kong, I've won the match."
Sixteen‑year‑old gymnast Kim Zmeskal, four feet seven and eighty pounds, is an equally awesome adversary. For the past ten years she's worked with Bela Karolyi, the former Romanian coach who trained Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, and Phoebe Mills. To pursue her Olympic dream she's given up junk food, boyfriends, and high school (she takes correspondence courses). At the World Championships last year, she broke the Eastern Bloc's traditional stranglehold on artistic gymnastics by winning first place in the "all-around"‑vault, balance beam, uneven parallel bars, and floor exercise. It catapulted her into the limelight overnight. "At first, it was like 'Oh‑my‑God' weird," she says, in quintessential teen‑speak. "But then I got used to it."
"I've been told my diving looks effortless," says Wendy Lucero‑Schayes, twenty‑eight. In fact, her story is one of enormous effort and the occasional lucky break: coached primarily by her mother (who never dived in her life), supported by an anonymous businessman who read about her financial plight in a 1989 newspaper article, Lucero‑Schayes overcame a disappointing sixth‑place finish in the 1988 Olympics to become, today, one of the best springboard divers in the United States. "This time," she says of Barcelona, "I want medals."
So do the other women photographed on these pages.
Don't be surprised if they win them.
Wendy Lucero-Schayes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, performs a straight back dive –one of fifty daily practice dives.
Currently one of the fastest milers in the country, Suzy Hamilton, twenty-three, won an unprecedented nine NCAA titles while a graphic arts student at the University of Wisconsin. Here she cools her heels on the beach near her new home in Los Angeles.
Now thirty, heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee competed in her first Olympics in 1984, winning a silver medal in the seven-event sport (100-meter high hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter sprint, long jump, javelin throw, and 800-meter run). In 1988 she moved up to gold in both heptathlon and long jump. “As you get older, you get better,” she says. “You have to, because you can’t get away with all the things you did when you were young.” Joyner-Kersee trains at UCLA under the eye of coach/husband Bob Kersee. “Bobby’s under so much pressure and feels so anxious for me,” she says. “I’m out there having fun and he’s totally nervous.”
Kim Zmeskal, left, and Betty Okino, right, are best friends, teammates –and each other’s fiercest competition. Zmeskal, sixteen, has trained for ten years at Bela Karolyi’s World Gymnastics in Houston, Texas (where this photo was taken). Seventeen-year-old Okino emigrated to the United States in 1977 with her Ugandan and Romanian parents and joined “Karolyi’s boot camp” in 1989. Her specialty is the balance beam, where she’s even created a triple pirouette called the Okino.
Stanford sophomore Summer Sanders, nineteen, will be swimming the 200-meter butterfly in Barcelona. Here she prepares to make waves at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco.