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Hispanic Heritage

Donna de Varona

Birth: April, 1947 in San Diego, California
Occupation: swimmer, Olympic athlete, television sportscaster, radio broadcaster

Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona has had a rich and varied career. She won two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics, and was one of the first women hired as a sports reporter for a major television network. A dedicated activist on behalf of women in sports, de Varona helped found the Women's Sports Foundation and has testified before Congress on issues related to women in sports. She has held advisory positions to five U.S. presidents since 1966.

Donna de Varona was born in April of 1947 in San Diego, California. Her father, David de Varona, was a Hall-of-Fame rower and an All-American football player for the University of California. As her first swimming coach, he encouraged de Varona to develop her swimming ability, and made sure that she attended meets. De Varona's mother, Martha, was also warm and supportive of her interests.

Won Two Gold Medals Before Twenty

Initially, de Varona wanted to play Little League baseball, like her beloved older brother David. She loved the game so much that in elementary school, she chose the desk closest to the door so she could be the first one out on the field when the bell rang to signal the end of class. However, because she was a girl, and Little League was only open to boys at the time, she was barred from any position other than "bat girl." She quickly became bored with spending her time at every game on the sidelines. As she told Marty Benson in the NCAA News, "Being that close and not being able to play hurt too much." When David injured a knee and switched to swimming, she followed him to a new sport.

de Varona's ability in the pool was readily apparent, since even as a young child, she had always been a strong swimmer. She entered her first meet when she was nine, and soon outgrew her father's coaching, becoming a protege of some of California's best coaches. She specialized in the difficult 400-meter medley, in which competitors swim four laps, each in a different stroke: freestyle, butterfly, breast stroke, and back stroke. In 1960, when she was 13, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in that event. She was the youngest member of the American team that year, and loved the excitement of traveling to Rome with the other athletes. Unfortunately, her event was canceled and she did not compete.

During high school, de Varona trained up to six hours a day, but managed to maintain a B average in her studies. In 1964 she qualified for the Olympic team again, and won a gold medal in the 400-meter medley. As a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay team, she then won another gold medal.

After setting 18 world swimming records, de Varona retired from competitive swimming in 1965. She retired largely because she was now in college at the University of California- Los Angeles, and the school, like most other universities at the time, had no athletic programs for women. With bills to pay de Varona had to spend her spare time working, and she began looking around for work that would use her interest in and knowledge of sports. Undeterred by the fact that at the time, all the sportscasters on the major television networks were male, she used her Olympic experience to her advantage, and became the first female broadcaster on the ABC network's Wide World of Sports. After graduating from college, she decided to make a career in broadcasting.

Became a Reporter and Activist

Despite her early success with ABC, it was difficult for de Varona to find work in her male-dominated field. She traveled all over the United States, filling in temporarily when regular anchormen became ill or went on vacation. Eventually, she found permanent work as an Olympic reporter with NBC and ABC.

During the 1970s, de Varona also became involved in activism for the cause of women's sports. She was a founding member of the Women's Sports Foundation, and in 1975 she served on President Ford's Commission on Olympic Sports. She also testified on behalf of Title IX legislation in front of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Title IX legislation ultimately ensured that girls and women received the same opportunities and federal funding in sports education that boys and men did. According to an article in Great Women in Sports, de Varona told a Women's Sports and Fitness writer, "I will always be an activist. That is a lifetime commitment."

De Varona began covering the Olympics in 1972, and would report on the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games for ABC. According to Great Women in Sports, she told a Women's Sports and Fitness reporter that the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia were the most difficult for her: "I was there by myself, no producer, no assignments. I hustled everything myself. I just went out, grabbed a crew, did spots and wrote stories. That was my test because I was just back at ABC and we were in a crisis situation with the problems of scheduling and snow."

Clashed With ABC

Though de Varona received critical acclaim for her coverage of the 1984 Summer Olympics, choice assignments were few and far between. She told Sally Jenkins in Sports Illustrated, "I don't feel the rewards [I should have gotten] came after that. You do good work, and then wait and wait for another good assignment." However, she also noted that despite the widespread discrimination against women in sportscasting, "It's too easy to play the victim. We're making progress. It's coming. It's just taking longer than I ever thought it would."

In 1988 de Varona continued her Olympic coverage when she reported from Calgary. She also expanded her career by working for Turner Network Television and Sporting News Radio. In 1991 de Varona won an Emmy award for her reporting of a story about a Special Olympics athlete.

In 1998 ABC let de Varona's contract lapse and, according to de Varona, encouraged her to leave. In People, de Varona told a reporter that the network was trying to attract more of the [age] "18-to-39 male market" and that network executives believed that she was too old to hold this audience's interest. In 2000 she filed an age-discrimination suit against ABC, arousing controversy in the sports broadcasting world. Of her decision to take legal action against ABC, she told People magazine, "It would have been much easier to walk away, but I felt I had to do it." The case was later settled out of court, and de Varona resumed working at ABC.

Shortly after declaring her candidacy for the presidency of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2002, but withdrew from the race six days after declaring her candidacy. According to Mer-Jo Borzilleri in an article provided by the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, de Varona said that "time and resources" did not allow her to give the job the attention it would require. In addition, she noted that it would probably create a conflict of interest for her to report on the Olympics at the same time that she was serving as president of the Olympic committee, and she did not want to stop reporting. However, she also said that she would reconsider running for the position in 2004. In 2003 de Varona was selected to receive the NCAA's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. The award, also known as the "Teddy," is given to a distinguished citizen who is a former college student-athlete and who shows a continuing interest in physical fitness and sport.

Controversy Over Title IX

Later in 2003 de Varona took a controversial position regarding the Title IX legislation she had been instrumental in creating during the 1970s. President George W. Bush had asked Education Secretary Rod Paige to establish a commission to determine whether the legislation should be altered. The commission recommended making certain controversial changes to the legislation; according to Women's E-News the Save Title IX campaign, which opposed the changes, said they would cost high school girls 305,000 opportunities to participate in sports; college women would miss 50,000 participation opportunities as well as $122 million in athletic scholarships.

Opposed to the changes, de Varona, who served on the commission, and another commission member, Julie Foudy, refused to sign the commission's list of propositions for change. As a result, Secretary Paige subsequently announced that he would only consider recommendations for change that won unanimous support from the commission.

In addition to her political work on behalf of women's sports, de Varona continues to work as a broadcaster for Sporting News Radio. On the radio network's website, a press release noted, "Each week [de Varona's] commentary explores and highlights the positive stories of athletes, coaches and the people who support them. She brings to light the behind-the-scenes achievements that often go unnoticed." Summing up her goals in life, de Varona told Marty Benson in the NCAA News, "My passion is to see as many opportunities as possible for as many people as possible, all the way from the grass-roots level to the colleges."

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born Donna de Varona in April of 1947, in San Diego, California; daughter of David and Martha de Varona; married John Pinto (a lawyer and investment banker); children: John David, Joanna. Education: University of California- Los Angeles, BA, political science, 1986. Addresses: Office--Sporting News Radio, P.O. Box 509, Techny, IL 60082.

AWARDS

Selected: Winner of 37 U.S. swimming championships, 1960-64; gold medals in swimming, Pan-American Games 1963; gold medals, 400-meter medley and 400-meter freestyle relay, Olympic Games, 1964; Associated Press and United Press International Most Outstanding Female Athlete, 1965; Emmy Award, 1991; Gracie Award from American Women in Radio and Television, 2000, 2001; Susan B. Anthony "Trailblazer" Award, 2001; inductee: International Swimming Hall of Fame; U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame; Women's Sports Hall of Fame.

CAREER

Swimmer, 1960-64; ABC, Wide World of Sports, Olympics broadcaster, 1968, 1972, 1976; NBC, Sports World, Today Show, broadcaster, 1978-83; commentator, consultant, writer, coproducer, contributor: Wide World of Sports, ABC News, Good Morning America, ESPN, ABC radio, 1984; Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports, ABC, assistant, 1983-86; NBC, Olympics, broadcaster, 1996, 2000; Sporting News Radio, radio sports commentator, 1998-; Sporting News, Olympics reporter, 2002.

FURTHER READINGS

Books

  • Great Women in Sports , Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Periodicals

  • Broadcasting and Cable , April 17, 2000, p. 69.
  • Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 19, 2002, p. K7770; February 25, 2003, p. K2941.
  • People , May 15, 2000, p. 89.
  • Sports Illustrated , June 17, 1991, p. 78.
  • Women's E-News , March 11, 2003, p. 0.

On-line

  • "Donna de Varona," NCAA News, www.ncaa.org (May 7, 2003).
  • "Donna de Varona," Sporting News Radio, http://radio.sportingnews.com/experts/donna_de_varona/ index.html (May 15, 2003).
  • "Sporting News Radio's Donna de Varona wins second-consecutive Gracie Allen Award," Sporting News Radio, http://radio.sportingnews.com/about/pres/20010426_donna.html (June 4, 2003).

SOURCE CITATION

Contemporary Hispanic Biography . Vol. 4. Gale, 2003.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.

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