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 Playboypictorial 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."

But Wilson and Prince can't get all the credit for the advent of power tennis. "It's not just a function of bigger rackets," says Mary Carillo, former French Open mixed-doubles titleist and now an announcer for CBS. "It's the bigger athletes."

Davenport is the perfect example of today's tennis player. Four years ago, when she won that gold medal, her first major victory, Davenport had great shots, but was woefully out of shape. Indeed her weight was a don't ask/don't tell matter: the WTA media guide listed her height but omitted her weight—then over 200 pounds—entirely.

Then in early 1998, her new coach Robert Van't Hof made her a modern-day Martina Navratilova; Davenport started training seriously, shed weight, gained muscle, and suddenly found the speed to complement her power. "Davenport had to get used to her body," says Carillo. "She improved her serve and her footwork and it's why she's number one."

And indeed the biggest threat to Davenport's top spot, Serena Williams, upped the game's athleticism quotient yet again. Although shorter than Davenport, or her sister Venus, Serena hits harder and runs faster than any woman, ever. She served notice by taking out Davenport and Martina Hingis in quick succession in last year's U.S. Open, only her seventh Grand Slam tournament.

The key to her success? It might be her work at the gym, as much as her work on the court: Serena's more muscular than any woman in the game, and most of the men. In response to the streamlined Davenport and buffed-out Williams, all of the established stars have started pumping iron and some, like Mary Pierce, have even bulked up with the help of supplements like creatine. "If you go to the French Open or Wimbledon, you'll see women come off the court and go right to the weight room," says Etcheverry. And this fitness revolution has left some former champions struggling in its wake. "Monica Seles used to be the hardest hitter in the game," says Austin. "But now everyone's raised it up a notch, and she's in the middle of the pack."

Of course, there are exceptions to the specialized-body theory. Martina Hingis, who was the world's top player in 1997 and '98, is no smaller than Graf was. But Hingis seems to be fighting a losing battle in trying to play a finesse game against bigger and more athletic rivals—since the 1998 U.S. Open, her head-to-head against Serena Williams and Davenport is 3-9. "It's her brain against their bodies," says Reed. "And look at the records."

And Olympic silver-medalist and reigning world champion Michelle Kwan has evolved from a jumping bean to an artistic skater in the spirit of Kristi Yamaguchi, but she's continued her run in spite of her body, rather than because of it. Indeed a growth spurt probably cost her the '98 Olympic gold medal. She grew a couple inches and gained 10 pounds in the two years before the Nagano games, and the added weight hampered her jumping. "Even if it's a little bit of weight, it throws you off," Kwan told Brennan. "If you gain one pound, it makes the jump lopsided. It's harder to get through the long program now than it was before. When I was 13, it was like, 'Let's do another one.' Now I'm winded."

And although Kwan won the last three world championships, skating insiders wonder aloud whether her artistry and competitive fire is going to be enough against the next generation of jumping beans—notably 14-year-old Naomi Nari Nam and 15-year-old Cohen—in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Ironically, as silhouettes of the athletes in each sport have diverged, tennis and figure skating have almost swapped places in the public consciousness. In its current turbo-charged form, women's tennis has never been more fun to watch. And interest is at an all-time high, with more fans tuning in to see Venus, Serena, Martina, and Lindsay than Pete and Andre.

More important, the new emphasis on power and speed in women's tennis has cured one of the game's big problems—the influx of 14-year-old pros—more effectively than any rules change could. One look at Serena Williams's physical strength and all-court game, and most teeny-boppers understand that being steady from the baseline won't get you to number one any more.

In skating, however, the emphasis on antigravitational athleticism has turned the sport into the domain for preadolescent prodigies. The most obvious result is that these young skaters are putting unnatural stresses on immature bodies. The skaters from the Class of '98—Lipinski, Kwan—were constantly skating through a variety of injuries, while Cohen has actually experienced problems with the growth plates in her right heel. And the social costs may be even worse.

"It's rewarding all the wrong things. These little girls are going crazy," says Brennan."Their parents are going crazy. They think they don't have much time." Brennan cites the example of the 4-8, 82-pound Nam, who at age 13 finished second at the 1999 Nationals behind Kwan to become the sport's new "It" girl. Her performance landed her everything from her own Web site to an endorsement deal with a Korean electronics firm. But one year later she finished a disappointing eighth, while the equally athletic 15-year-old Cohen usurped both her silver medal and the unofficial mantle of heir apparent.

"Sometimes I want to go to a friend's birthday party, but a competition is coming up and I can't," Nam told Brennan in USA Today. "I can't do anything active. If they're going swimming or to an amusement park, I have to say, 'What if I hurt myself?' "


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