Swing for Power Like a Girl: Women Creating Community Through Sports

By: Julia Carpent

Teams are the heart of all accomplishments. Whenever we succeed, there’s always someone we owe at least part of our success to. Any shared identity creates a team. Families are teams. Staffs are teams. Women are a team. So perhaps team sports are a reflection of all the ways sharing an experience with others brings us joy. But most importantly, they offer a sense of belonging and hope.

So how do sports bring people together? This winter, my college softball team travelled to South Africa through a program run by a team of former college athletes. We played against South African teams, held clinics for local children, and interacted with athletes of all ages.  The strength of the softball community sprung out of every athlete we competed against, met with, or coached. Nawaal, a leader of the program, had played with her sister her whole life. Their father introduced them both to the sport when they were young. Brothers and sisters attended our clinics together throughout the weeks. Softball was a community, rather than just a sport.

Participation in sports was certainly not limited to gender, age, or skill level – contrary to women’s general reputation in sports. We learn growing up that women are not usually allowed to be competitive or muscular, heavy or too confident. Playing alongside women from South Africa in their softball community opened my eyes to women’s participation in sports worldwide. I was in awe by how many women loved the same sport I did. Athletes surrounded us on the fields, in the stands, as our guides through the program. I learned that women could not only be strong and athletic; they could inspire each other across the world.

However, it is well known that participation in sports is not a one-size fits all. Access to sports varies depending on class, race, and geographic boundaries. South Africa’s history with sports, for example, was dramatically different during apartheid: it was illegal for black people and white people to socialize in society, much less compete in sports together. In 1967, the prime minister of South Africa said, “I, therefore, want to make it quite clear that from South Africa’s point of view no mixed sport between white and nonwhites will be practiced locally, irrespective of the standard of proficiency of the participants.” (Lapchick 3). Outside of sports, legislation took segregation to an extreme—the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 looked to eliminate all contact between whites and nonwhites (Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 2016).

So considering South Africa’s history with race, especially related to sports, it is hard to believe there could exist an athletic community like softball in Cape Town. Sports were not only a venue to be competitive and stay in shape, but a means by which to fight adversity. And in doing so—by going against history and establishing clubs and teams where gender and race didn’t define an individual—communities were formed.

I did some research into the competitive history of South African national teams, and was shocked by how successful their football teams (or soccer in the U.S.) and rugby teams became so quickly. Football became a symbol of nation building as the South African Football Association in 1991. The football program saw great success very soon after—in 1998 and 2002—the team qualified for the World Cup, and in 2010 South Africa became the first and only African country to host the event (History of South African soccer 2004). In 1995, the South African “Springbok” rugby team won the Rugby World Cup. While this is an impressive feat on its own, it also came at a time of political turbulence. South Africa had only just transitioned to a full democracy in 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Mandela used the symbol of Springbok and sport to encourage the “one team, one country” campaign, uniting South Africans of all races in their enthusiasm for their team’s success (The Early History of Rugby in South Africa 2016). And finally, in an interview with Dennis Brutus, Chris de Broglio, Omar Cassem, and Peter Hain, sports are likened to a national religion in South Africa—the four men were the main leaders for integrated sport in South Africa (1970). Long story short, South African sports are not taken lightly and serve as a historical symbol of unification and change.

All of these successes certainly speak to the resilience and passion of the people in sports, as well as the surrounding community. And while the rugby and football teams were made up of men, history shows how sports allow minority and oppressed populations a chance to be seen and participate in their community. Competition on the field, court, or any playing field weaken societal boundaries and unify populations.

Similar themes of teamwork and dedication played out in the South African women’s softball community. One of the first things I noticed at the clinics and even with the fans at the games we played, was that participation in softball was not limited only to women. At the younger ages co-ed teams are formed, which eventually branched off into separate leagues as the athletes grow older. Participation in the community started from a young age—kids from ages three to eighteen took part in the clinics, boys and girls alike. Sports were a place for them to belong, to learn new skills, and be a part of something bigger than themselves. And that goes for myself as well—as a coach at the clinics I was learning even as I was teaching. The young athletes taught me how communities grow out of sports, how athletics erase differences and create unity between people of different backgrounds.  

The stadium we played in was beautifully constructed and clearly a source of pride for the South African softball community. Before games, the complex had incredible energy as it came to life in a way that will always stick with me; the sun hit the dugout in flickering bursts of light as the sound of bats hitting balls worked itself into a song. Young girls and boys hung around the dugouts and stands using water bottles as microphones and interviewing players from both teams. They shared their own stories about sports and their lives in general; one little boy in a baseball cap sat outside the dugout, close enough to talk to our team during the game as he told us about his little sister who was born just a few days ago. They asked us questions about America, whether we knew Nick Jonas or had been to California. The older women on the club teams remembered learning to swing a bat before learning to walk. They recalled those memories of childhood thanking their parents for the opportunities, and looked to their teammates—their sisters—in gratitude.

I saw softball, and the athletic community as a whole, in a new light after this experience. As a woman in athletics, I appreciate the lessons I learned from women in sports worldwide. Coaching, socializing, and competing with the South African women showed me once again how sports stand for something more than ourselves. They give women the opportunity to be tough and brave and to show that they can occupy more than a traditional role in society. But most of all, the experience highlighted the importance of a team. Teams are created in any context—at school, on a field, in an office—and often the only thing we can do is embrace them. We work hard to maintain and appreciate them for all they teach us. Because at the end of the game when the dugouts clear out and the chalk lines fade, we are all just one big team. Two groups of women from opposite sides of the world, carrying different life experiences and privileges. And yet we were all just one team. Women playing a sport we all love.

I am very excited to become involved with Find Your Power to grow into my role as a member of this team. As always, though, I’m excited to be reminded every day that I am a part of a team that extends far beyond myself. We have the opportunity to learn with and be inspired by the women we interact with every day—our fellow teammates—across the world.

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