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Anita DeFrantz: Pioneer in athletics, civil rights

College athletics pushed DeFrantz to Olympics, world stage

Anita DeFrantz grew up in an era when women weren’t often viewed as athletes, although her athletic prowess proved too good to ignore.

A native of Indianapolis, DeFrantz attended Connecticut College, where she competed in basketball and rowing. She graduated in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy. Her rowing ability propelled her to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and she competed for the U.S crew that earned a bronze medal.

After receiving her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1977, DeFrantz succeeded in multiple roles – as an attorney, coach, board member of the International Olympic Committee and president of the LA84 Foundation.

At every step, the lessons learned as a college athlete – mutual respect and fair play – have guided her.

Opportunity

At Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, where DeFrantz attended, there were few opportunities in organized sports for women. Her team activities included marching band, orchestra, choir and madrigal singers.

That would change once she enrolled at Connecticut College.

“College gave me the introduction to sports and team sports,” DeFrantz said. “I had to learn how to work together with people that I might not have otherwise crossed paths with, then work toward a common goal.”

In the classroom, DeFrantz learned to ask questions and get help when she needed it. Faculty members were accessible and she built great relationships with them. She was disciplined and it showed in her studies and athletic competition.

“People relied on you to be at a certain place at a certain time. Be there and be prepared,” she said. “It was necessary for me to make that commitment to others and them to me.”

DeFrantz expected to play basketball in college, but during her sophomore year, she discovered a new sport – rowing.

DeFrantz had never seen the sport, and didn’t know what it took to be a crew member. But the rowing coach told her she would be a perfect fit. “Before that, I had never been perfect for anything,” she said.

Keeping her spot on the team took work. During her senior year, her effort slipped and she was demoted to the junior varsity. Humiliated, but not defeated, DeFrantz remembers the demotion as a turning point.

“My coach told me if I really worked hard enough, I could make the Olympic team,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t make varsity at a small liberal arts college and he is telling me I can make the Olympic team?’ I thought it was more than laughable.”

But DeFrantz persevered, and she became an example to her teammates. She learned that being a leader meant giving it your all, even when a situation seems like it’s working against you.

Passion

As a young girl, she became interested in protecting the rights of others. And like many in her family, she was devoted to education, civil rights and sports.

Her grandfather played college football until his helmet fell off during a game. The other team refused to compete against him, an African-American, and that day his football playing days ended forever. Examples such as this were driving forces for DeFrantz.

After graduating from Connecticut College, DeFrantz enrolled in law school at the University of Pennsylvania. She balanced school, work and training to make the Olympic team in women’s rowing – a sport dominated by white athletes.

As an African-American woman, she was accomplishing difficult and improbable things for that time. “I learned to do that in college,” DeFrantz said.

She went on to become captain of her Olympic squad, graduate with honors from law school and become an attorney in Philadelphia.

Leadership

DeFrantz had long been interested in serving youth and making sure everyone had an opportunity in life. Her proudest moment came in her first job as an attorney for the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia. She helped a girl get out of a bad situation and legally emancipate from her family so she could finish high school. To this day, DeFrantz serves on the board of the Juvenile Law Center.

After deciding to train another four years for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, she made the team once again. But DeFrantz was denied a chance to compete for a gold medal when the U.S. decided to boycott the games. She was outspoken about the decision, gaining worldwide attention for her disapproval. But her involvement with the Olympics didn’t end there.

During the 1984 games in Los Angeles, she was hired to coordinate the Olympic Village. Two years later, she was elected to the International Olympic Committee, becoming the first African-American and first American woman on the committee. And in 1997, she became the first female vice president of the committee.

After 28 years as president of the LA84 Foundation, which funds youth sports in California, DeFrantz started the Tubman-Truth Corporation in 2015. Named after Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth - two brave women known for their work to abolish slavery and gain the right for women to vote - DeFrantz hopes the world will one day be a place of mutual respect and fair play.

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