On Monday, March 11, a high-powered panel extolled the power of athletics to change young women’s lives. The event honored the 35th anniversary of the Columbia-Barnard Athletic Consortium, as well as Women’s History Month. Barnard is the only women’s college in the country to compete at the Division I level.

Panelists included Meghan Duggan, three-time Olympic medalist and US National Women’s Hockey Team Captain, who led her team to gold in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and also led a strike for pay equity with the men’s team. She was joined by Judie Lomax ’10, a former professional basketball player and the first Barnard-Columbia women’s player to be named Ivy League Athlete of the Year; Caroline Nelson-Nichols, another former Olympian and the Columbia Lions’ head coach in field hockey; and Michele Roberts, the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association. The event was moderated by NBC News and NBC Sports reporter Dylan Dreyer, who covered the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang for NBC.

President Sian Beilock, an avid runner and former student-athlete who played soccer, noted, “Being part of a team teaches collaboration, cooperation, resilience, perseverance. It teaches you how to fail and to get up and try again. It’s something I use in all my life’s endeavors.”

Peter Pilling, Columbia’s athletic director, shared with the audience the success Columbia women's student-athletes and teams have accomplished over the last 35 years since the start of the Columbia-Barnard Consortium: 11 national team championships, 13 NCAA individual championships, 107 First Team All-Americans, 13 Olympians who have won five medals, 23 Ivy League team championships and 140 individual Ivy League champions. He added, “We’re grateful for all that our women do in competition and in the classroom, and how they represent these two great institutions."

“We believe in the power of sports as part of the educational experience,” Executive Director of the Ivy League Robin Harris said. “There are a lot of studies about the benefit of sports with teenage girls and with college-age student-athletes.”

“I was the leading scorer on my field hockey team. It was a brand-new sport at my school, and I scored five goals all season, but a stat is a stat,” moderator Dylan Dreyer quipped to widespread laughter.

The panelists agreed that competition among women is vital and healthy. “I try to be competitive in everything,” Duggan said. “I’d like to win a gold medal for washing my car.” Competition, they explained, means striving for excellence, pushing yourself and those around you to do better, putting in hard work and sacrifice. Practicing these habits early on helps women succeed in an inherently competitive world.

“Some of my classmates [in grad school] were hesitant to take chances and risks because they were afraid to fail,” Lomax noted. “But I was OK with failing, because I knew it was an opportunity for me to correct and to assess where I was and how to improve.” She added, “Learning a new move or learning a new play, you have the confidence to know that if you put in the time, ultimately you’ll be successful. That has translated for me to the classroom. Learning a new skill or learning a new type of therapy, I’m OK with not necessarily having to wait until I can do it perfectly.”

Nelson-Nichols added, “Failure is massive in sport. As a coach, you almost want [students] to fail so they get that experience…because they’re going to fail many more times in life. They’re going to fail in meetings, in boardroom settings, in interviews. And the only way they’re going to learn to pick themselves up after that failure is to go through it. The lesson they’re going to get from that failure is probably 10 times stronger than [what they’d learn from] you giving them the solution or from a path that might be easier.”

Roberts emphasized that sports help women go head-to-head with men. “I worked at a law firm, and those of you who have had the horror of working in a law firm know it is incredibly competitive,” she said. “And the sad reality is that the male associates who had no more experience than the women were very aggressive in identifying partners they wanted to work with and not at all shy about telling partners, ‘I can make you a better lawyer.’ But you’d almost have to drag women into your office to get them to ask for work! Unfortunately, there’s this sense of ‘I’m not going to compete; I’m not going to sell myself,’ that women struggle with more than men. If I had daughters, I would not only encourage them but insist they get involved in sports, because sports give you a confidence you will absolutely require professionally when you grow up and have to walk this earth.”

The panel also pondered the huge pay disparities between women’s and men’s athletics. Roberts acknowledged, “I’m not as depressed as some are about where women’s sports are because frankly, for a long time many of us just didn’t see women competing professionally at all.” She reiterated that sports is a business. “I hear people complain about the unhappy reality that women basketball players make less money than men, but I go to women’s basketball games and there’s no one there!” she said. “We have to increase the popularity of the sport, but we also have to support it, and that means buying a ticket.”

To enjoy women’s sports, the panelists suggested that we need to recognize that men’s and women’s athletics look different. Hockey, for instance, “is not as physical a game, but it’s a more skillful game because of the lack of those open-ice hits,” Duggan noted. Lomax chimed in, “I can speak for basketball. If you’re looking for basketball to be played in a way that’s a lot more sound fundamentally…” Roberts shot her a look. “You’re trying to get me fired, right?” After a little banter, Lomax continued seriously, “I think we need to look at each sport to see what it has to offer with fresh eyes and not let it be defined by the men’s game.” And Nelson-Nichols contributed, “If we want people to fall in love with women’s sports, we’ve gotta put it on TV. There’s maybe a bigger conversation here about how we engage producers and advertisers and get female names and images to the public, so we can all start to fall in love with the players and the sport.”

The panelists also talked about women’s sports increasing acceptance for the LGBTQ community. “I just got married in September to a woman,” Duggan shared. “It actually went viral. But the story wasn’t two women getting married; it was that my wife was a three-time Olympic gold medalist as well: We were rivals in sport and then we married each other. The feedback was 99 percent positive, but I was thrilled that the story was ‘hockey rivals wed,’ not ‘oh, a woman and a woman.’ The way it intertwined sports and the LGBT community was pretty powerful.”

— Marjorie Ingall