Survival of the Fittest

The Specialization of Women’s Bodies for Specific Sports

Let's rewind a bit—go back a dozen short years into what, compared to today, was a dark age for women's sports. Check the videotape and you'll see that the two most celebrated female athletes in the world looked remarkably alike. Despite the very different demands of their respective sports, Olympic figure-skating gold medalist Katarina Witt and tennis gold medalist Steffi Graf could almost be sisters. They're both about 5-9, around 130 pounds, with bodies at least as curvy as muscular. (Let it be noted that Witt, whose hips were the source of much cattiness from skating commentators, appeared in a 10-page Playboy pictorial in 1998.) If they're not quite Everywoman—clearly they're much better athletes than Stone-Age champions like Peggy Fleming and Tracy Austin—neither has a figure that would call much attention to itself in a step-aerobics class.

Now let's fast-forward a mere two Olympiads. The gold in tennis at Atlanta '96 goes to Lindsay Davenport, while Tara Lipinski is crowned Olympic figure-skating champion in 1998. You'd be hard pressed to find two athletes built more differently. Davenport is 6-2 and currently tips the scales at 175 pounds. "There's been a big change," says Austin, the 1979 U.S. Open champion. "I'm 5-4. Martina Hingis is 5-7, and she's one of the smaller women on the tour. Lindsey's tall. But she's also a great athlete."

Lipinski, by contrast seems half Davenport's size. At 4-10 and about 85 pounds when she won the gold, the 15-year-old champion sat precariously perched on the brink of puberty. Her parents reportedly breathed a sigh of relief when a doctor told them that Tara wouldn't reach five feet—all the better to land a triple salchow.

Now bring it up to today, when the likes of last year's U.S. Open champ Serena Williams (and her super-toned 5-10, 165-pound frame) is the signature player on the women's tennis tour, while the 4-9, 80-pound Sasha Cohen is the U.S. heir apparent in figure skating.

What gives? Well, it's the kind of specialization that's been taken for granted in men's sports come to women's athletics with a vengeance. Male athletes have long picked their sports to match their body types—tall guys play basketball, beefy guys gravitate to football, and short skinny guys become jockeys. "That kind of self-selection has been happening on the men's side for generations," says Susan Reed, senior editor at Women's Sports & Fitness. "But it's only been happening with women over the past few years."

Indeed, until recently women's sports has been dominated by medium-sized, all-around athletes—Jim Thorpe equivalents—but that's not the case anymore. To become a champion in women's sports today, you've got to have the right body to match your game. And if a better athletic performance is the sole yardstick, then it's clearly working. For all their surface differences, Davenport and Lipinski have one thing in common: They've closed the gap with the guys. By all accounts, Davenport hits her groundstrokes as hard as Jimmy Connors in his prime, while one of her main rivals, Venus Williams, has cracked a serve an astonishing 127 mph. That's as fast as a typical delivery from Pete Sampras. And Lipinski? In her golden days, she could do five of the six triple jumps that male skaters do, often in combination.

Certainly, the revolutions in these two sports were pushed along by external factors. In skating it was a rule change. In 1990, the International Skating Union took the "figures" out of figure skating. Under the old rules, the first part of the competition consisted of school figures—meticulous tracings of predetermined patterns on the ice. This painstaking discipline, which had nothing to do with jumping ability, favored older, more experienced skaters. "A body shape like Witt's was fine because you weren't jumping, you were tracing figures," says USA Today's Christine Brennan. Indeed, Witt would invariably enter the flashy short and long programs with a substantial lead on her less experienced but more athletic rivals.

When the figures went the way of Sonja Heine, things changed dramatically. "You had a generation of teenage jumping beans," says Brennan, author of Edge of Glory, a penetrating look at the road to the 1998 Olympic figure-skating competition. "They would spend all their time practicing their jumps." In consecutive Olympics, athletic youngsters with bodies less like Witt's and more like an Olympic gymnast's—16-year-old Oksana Baiul in '94, and 15-year-old Lipinski four years later—beat older but more earthbound foes.

In tennis, the spectacular shot-making on the women's side can be attributed in part to the introduction of the oversize racket in the mid '80s. The new rackets allowed players to hit harder, but also allowed players to hit with more spin to keep the ball in the court. Almost immediately players on both sides of the draw grew. "It used to be that the top men players were 5-10 and six feet," says Pat Etcheverry, a former Olympian turned conditioning coach, who has worked with top players like Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. "Now it's not uncommon for the women to be over six feet, and while it used to be that the tall women couldn't run or bend, now they're as fast as the smaller women used to be."

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