Catherine Whitehill poses for a photo in her Boston Breakers jersey in 2013. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/KazLovesPinoe)

This is the first of a series of articles for Women’s History Month spotlighting female empowerment through sports. 

“You can’t put women in a box. You can’t put us in a mold. It’s important to bring out whatever personality you have, whatever beliefs and values you stand for. Stand up for who you are. We need more female leaders out there to encourage women to be proud of who they are.”

Emory women’s soccer assistant coach Catherine Whitehill’s words about women’s athletics reflect the unfortunate reality of the obstacles female athletes face and struggle with when navigating the sports world. As a former soccer standout who played for the University of North Carolina, the United States women’s national team and the squad that captured the gold at the 2004 Olympic games, Whitehill knows better than anyone that female athletes are repeatedly forced to pave their own paths and prove they deserve all of the opportunities male athletes receive. 

“I got to play with household names — Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Christina Lee — and one of the first things that you could notice was that they were not finished with just being World Cup champions,” Whitehill said. “They wanted to develop their own league because playing professionally was always a dream of ours, but it wasn’t there. They wanted to create something for the next generation.”

Jenny McDowell celebrates with the Emory women’s volleyball team during a game in 2017. (Courtesy of Emory Athletics)

Women’s head volleyball coach Jenny McDowell, a three-time, all-region and all-captain honoree at the University of Georgia (UGA), also experienced challenges as a young athlete who had few female role models around her.

“Growing up, I always played on boys teams,” McDowell said. “Basketball, baseball and volleyball were coached by men. There were very limited opportunities for girls.”

When reflecting on her time as an athlete at UGA, she remembers the women’s teams experiencing challenges regarding traveling, budgets and facilities.

“We traveled in 15-passenger vans to other SEC schools, now [teams] are able to charter flights,” McDowell said. “We stayed four to five girls per a hotel room, they now have two in a room. We were allotted $5 a meal, but now nutrition and health is a major priority for their athletes.”

After competing in the United States Olympic Festival in 1985, McDowell began her coaching career at her alma mater, where the team qualified for the national tournament every year of her six-year tenure. After arriving at Emory, she led the Eagles to their first NCAA Championship in 2018, and has recorded 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. 

Her successes and achievements since her playing days far outweigh any negative experiences she may have had, as McDowell said the inconveniences she faced never took away from her experience as a female athlete and the value it had in her life. 

Amy Bryant coaches the Emory women’s tennis team during a match in 2019. (Courtesy of Emory Athletics)

McDowell’s experiences, however, were not isolated incidents. Emory women’s tennis head coach Amy Bryant (96B), who played tennis at Emory, said women’s sports took a backseat to the men’s during her time as an Eagle.

“It was cool to be a female athlete, but not many people came to our matches or followed our program,” Bryant said. “The women always got the early games and the men got the games under the lights.” 

While at Emory, Bryant became the first NCAA women’s tennis player to earn all-American honors in singles and doubles, and she played on the varsity soccer team for a year as well. Putting in work day in and day out to obtain success, often in two sports, and then not being given the same treatment and opportunities as the men’s teams was infuriating for Bryant and her teammates.

“It’s okay for our emphasis to be on resources for women’s sports,” Bryant said. “Let’s put the money where the success is.” 

Bryant, McDowell and Whitehill all said they had coaches, senior teammates and other female mentors who contributed to their success. For McDowell, who played solely on boys teams with male coaches for most of her life, having her first female volleyball coach in high school was an exciting opportunity.

“It was a game changer to have a female role model,” McDowell said. “She was incredibly tough on us, knowing we could handle it. She had extremely high expectations, because she knew what we were capable of. She pushed us physically and mentally because she wanted us to become the best we could.” 

Bryant said that her older teammates had a major impact on her athletic career, and she still admires their athletic and professional achievements.

“Many of my role models came from older leaders,” Bryant said. “I really looked up to some of the upperclassmen. Specifically, one of my former teammates, Mandy Jackson, who played both tennis and basketball, and always had her priorities straight. She is currently a renowned doctor.”

As a result of playing at such a high level beginning at a young age, Whitehill said that she had multiple female mentors she looked up to, including one who continues to inspire her everyday: her under-21 national team coach and Emory women’s soccer head coach Sue Patberg. During her time as a broadcaster at ESPN, Whitehill also had aspirations to be like Robin Roberts, who was one of the first high-achieving female broadcasters advocating for women’s issues.

Above all, Whitehill stressed that all her female idols were sources of empowerment who taught her to be proud of who she was and persevere in the battle for equal representation, a message she hopes to impress upon her Emory athletes. 

“All of the female mentors I learned from and continue to be surrounded by to this day, saw where my potential was, gave me a platform, pushed me to become the best version of myself and taught me not to be afraid of using your voice to stand up for who you are and what you believe in,” Whitehill said. “[That’s] part of who I want to be as a coach and as a person. I want to empower the next generation as well.”

Pilar Rossi (she/her) (author) plays under Whitehill on the Emory women’s soccer team.