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From DIII to the IOC

Anita DeFrantz turned her college rowing career into Olympic success and a life spent at the highest levels of amateur athletics administration

As the United States’ senior representative on the International Olympic Committee, Anita DeFrantz objects when a political controversy prompts calls for a national boycott of the Olympic Games.

She experienced first-hand the heartbreak of missing the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to an American boycott in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. She and other athletes felt so strongly that politics should not interfere with the opportunity for Olympics participation that they unsuccessfully sued to overturn the Carter administration’s decision to withhold the U.S. team from the Games.

DeFrantz never has wavered from that view. In a 2004 commencement speech at her alma mater, Connecticut College, she told graduates that decisions to compete should be made by athletes, not governments – a stance she maintained through pressure earlier this year to boycott the Sochi Games in response to Russia’s “gay propaganda” law.

“What would that do? And who are you to say you are going to take away the hard-earned right to be called an Olympian from these athletes, and what will it accomplish?” she told The Associated Press. “I can tell you that, having the athletes (in Sochi), their experiences, the people they’ll meet, the world’s going to be a better place. That I know.”

DeFrantz knows the benefits of opportunity from personal experience, dating back to a chance encounter during her sophomore year at Connecticut College that put her on a path to become a force to be reckoned with in the Olympic movement.

She had played basketball at the school, but her curiosity was sparked when she saw a man carrying a rowing shell across campus. He was Camels crew coach Bart Gulong, who told the 5-foot-11 DeFrantz that she would be an ideal rower.

“Racing with the school uniform on was something that was magical to me, and I loved working really hard with the team,” she said in an article published by her alma mater’s college relations office after DeFrantz was inducted in 2010 into the National Rowing Hall of Fame.

After graduation, she attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania and joined the Vesper Boating Club, famous for producing world and Olympic rowing champions. Two years later, she was captain of the U.S. rowing team that claimed a bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and had set her sights on gold in Moscow.

Following the disappointment of 1980, DeFrantz served as vice president of the local organizing committee for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – a role that led to her current role as president of the LA84 Foundation, which has supported opportunities in sports for more than three million boys and girls.

More visibly, it also resulted in her appointment in 1986 as the first woman and first African-American to represent the United States on the IOC, where she since has served in increasingly important roles, including a term as vice president.

Along the way, her roots at Connecticut College have been honored by the NCAA, which presented her its Silver Anniversary Award in 1999, and with her selection for the College Sports Information Directors of America’s Academic All-America Hall of Fame in 2010.

DeFrantz introduced herself in her 2004 commencement address at her alma mater by recalling an experience that all of that year’s graduates could identify with – an undergraduate experience.

“I loved my time here at Connecticut College,” she said. “I was introduced to a new world of opportunity. And there were no constraints for me in becoming involved in new and different challenges.”