On the Water: Playing like a girl

Dunia hit the ice, inspired in large part by Hockey icon and Harvard graduate Angela Ruggiero. (Courtesy of Dunia Habboosh)

Dunia hit the ice, inspired in large part by Hockey icon and Harvard graduate Angela Ruggiero. (Courtesy of Dunia Habboosh)

On the Water is a weekly column written by Dunia Habboosh, CC 21’ , a member of the Columbia Women’s Rowing team. The column will offer an inside look at the day to day life of a student athlete.

When I was little, I wanted to be like Angela Ruggiero.

She’s one of the greatest female athletes of all time and I idolized her athletic and academic dominance. Named the best ice-hockey player in the world, Ruggiero won four Olympic medals (including one gold her senior year of high school), ten World Championship medals, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015. On top of all these accomplishments, she graduated from Harvard University.

Yet, despite all she has done, Ruggiero isn’t celebrated as much as dominant male athletes—the Kobe Bryant’s and Tom Brady’s of the world. Her accomplishments are equal to theirs in her respective sport, but her success isn’t as touted, her dedication not as admired, and her name not as known. Why don’t female athletes get the attention and respect they deserve?

Ruggiero was (and is) everything I wanted to be. By playing a Division 1 sport in the Ivy League, she was smart and successful, on and off the ice. Her determination inspired me, and now I’m fulfilling my dream by competing on the Women’s Rowing team at Columbia.

Every day I’m surrounded by girls who are committed to improving at their sport and put in the extra hours needed to be the best athletes they can be. Behind the athlete I am now, there still is a six-year-old girl who fell in love with sports and never looked back.

Every female athlete has an origin story—the moment that they became captivated by the sport they would cling to for years. My story began in 2005 on the Hamden High School turf field.

It’s late afternoon in spring, the sun's still shining, and the field lights have yet to turn on. I pick up my lacrosse stick (it has a gray metal shaft and a bright-pink head), pull on my goggles, and bite down on my mouth guard.

I will do this again hundreds of times over the next 13 years, but this first time will always stand out. I run onto the field with my friends and pick up one of the yellow balls pouring out of the bucket. My coach teaches us the basics—passing, catching, cradling. Lacrosse involves many new skills, but I love the challenge.

At the time, I had no way of knowing just how much lacrosse would shape who I am. Lacrosse gave me some of my greatest memories and pushed me to overcome the hardest obstacles. It built my tenacity through summer tournaments in hundred-degree weather on top of hours of practice and conditioning. It tested my leadership when my team was struggling and gave me pride when we came up with a big win.

In school and beyond, girls are pushed out of leadership roles by boys and are told they  cannot find success in positions of power. The gender gap in STEM exists partly because women are intimidated by the uneven ratio of men in these fields. Only 24 of the current Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and even they are paid less than half their male counterparts’ salaries.

There is inequality abound, but female athletics can help close that gap. Sports teaches women and girls to deal with non-believers, competition, and hardship. Games and practices can help to make them assertive and confident in boardrooms. Playing on teams that go through good and bad together forms female athletes into the ultimate team players—the ones who can create victory out of chaos. Instead of seeking permission to do something, female athletes do it, because they know their worth and power.

If you doubt the power of female athletes, look at the numbers. 65% of women on Fortune’s 2017 list of the Most Powerful Women played sports in high school and/or college. 80% of female Fortune 500 CEOs played sports in college.

Look at the names. Meg Whitman (Google). Susan Wojcicki (Youtube). Cathy Engelbert (Deloitte).

These women's winning intelligence developed on the fields, courts, and tracks. These powerful women are an example of what sports can do, how they can make you strong and teach you to never put limits on yourself.

Being an athlete pushes you to improve everyday, and ice hockey attests to that. Ice hockey’s first lesson for me, though, was fighting through adversity. When I first started playing, I was the only girl on my team and had to prove my place.

My desire to show the boys that I was as good—if not better than them—drove me to sprint faster and shoot harder. In the locker rooms I had the all too common experience of separation when I had to change in a different area. But on the ice, I made sure we were equals.

Some parents complained that I was getting too much playing time for a girl, but I let the comments roll off. In that way, ice hockey taught me to know my strength and not to let other people take it away.

I played for boys’ teams for years, and it only made me better. I remember during a game the coach from the opposing team yelled, “Catch her, she’s a girl, take her down!” I smirked as I smoked past his bench on my way to a goal. Can’t catch me.

When I switched to a girls’ team, everything changed. Suddenly I was surrounded by strong, powerful, and hard-working girls with the same dreams and ambitions that I had. We worked outside of practice, put up extra shots, and suffered together through endless sprints.

Nobody quit when it got hard. Every girl took on the challenge. Everybody fought through the early mornings and the late nights. Girls are strong, and girls in sports are unstoppable.

This brings me back to Angela Ruggiero. I finally got to meet her when I was 12. I was starstruck. She was in the middle of an interview, but I walked up anyway. I can barely remember what I said, but speaking with her filled me with awe.

When our conversation came to a close, I told her that I played ice hockey too and that she inspired me to give 120% every day. I told her I wanted to play Division 1 in the Ivy League and play on the national and olympic teams, too.

She smiled and told me to keep working hard.

Hard work is perhaps the most defining factor of any female athlete’s success. We work hard all the time—even when you don’t see it. At night under the lights or before the sun has even risen, we’re training to win.

Here at Columbia, I’m surrounded by some of the most dedicated female athletes I’ve ever met. We have morning practices that have us running to class and schedules that exceed the academic expectations of this Ivy League institution. My teammates are extremely smart and balance the demands of school and Division 1 athletics with a determination few will ever know. When tasked with long minutes on the erg, everybody sweats through it together and cheers on the room.

When lifts and practice leave the team sore, we still come in for some extra work. The women’s rowing team is a special place where character is tested and perseverance is built. Never doubt the fortitude of a female athlete.

National Girls and Women in Sports Day was February 6. You may have seen the Instagram stories that flooded in, filled with girls celebrating the strong athletes they and their friends are. (I even posted one myself.) But we deserve more than one day of celebration. Recognize the powerful women around you, respect their dedication, and know their power.

I can’t define myself without sports. They have influenced almost every part of my character. So don’t question my commitment, power, or work ethic. You can’t beat somebody who never gives up.

In fact, I’ll race you.

EssaysDunia Habboosh