Women's History Month: 20 Question Tuesday with Jill Sterkel

Women's History Month: 20 Question Tuesday with Jill Sterkel

By Bob Schaller//Contributor  | Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Jill Sterkel won four Olympic medals over the course of three games. She also swam for the University of Texas and coached the Longhorn women from 1993 to 2007. She is recognized as a leader in the sport and for women. Though if you ask her about it, she’s quick to bring up other women who influenced her and didn’t get any recognition, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.

1. So you are getting contacted about Women’s History Month, what does that mean to you?

Jill: That (laughs) just means I am old! 

2. You are part of a distinguished group though, you realize that, right?
Jill: 
When you talk about women in history, there are so many people that we could mention. There are so many who did amazing things throughout the course of sport.

3. That’s a pretty good outlook -- those who came before you were also trailblazers, weren’t they?
Jill:
 This is going to sound kind of weird, but even before people had the opportunity to be recognized with the expansion of media coverage and the Internet, there are great people few have heard about. I feel my era was the middle-of-the-road era. I’m really thrilled to see today’s women athletes and how the coverage of them legitimizes what they have done.

4. Was Rio special for you?
Jill: 
Yes, but I don’t know how to express it, just watching them...something special for me..it was different watching the Olympics.

5. Different how?
Jill: 
I feel like there has been a turn in there being more fairness in coverage and how women are portrayed. There is a ways to go. But it has improved. 

6. The Rio Games were particularly a step forward then?

Jill: There was a celebration of the women’s swimmers. And the gymnasts as well. To me, that was really cool, just to watch it all unfold.


7. Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Maya DiRado, Lilly King -- the list goes on and on, doesn’t it? Do you know them all now?
Jill: 
Some of these people I sort of know. I used to know more. But now, I watch them tangentially, and I don’t always know them personally. But it was still something special to watch -- it was unique.

8. This group is particularly memorable, aren’t they?
Jill: 
Yes, they really are. I can’t even talk about Simone without crying. It’s just...watching that race unfold, and having my son sitting next to me...to me, that was so special on a lot of different levels.

9. Is special the right word?
Jill: 
Yes, and it was so inspirational on so many levels. 

10. What about Simone moved you so much?
Jill: 
Many aspects of it. I didn’t expect it -- the reaction. And when it happened, I was overwhelmed. Then I think I put this on Facebook, and maybe irritated some people, because for me the event was twofold: Simone’s race was so historical, because it was the first time a black female had won a gold in the 100 free, or a gold period. If you go back to ‘76, the first gold medalist had (widespread East German doping not occurred) was Enith Brigitha, who was of African American descent. So I loved what Simone did, and the record books shouldn’t be changed, but we can’t overlook the history of what had happened.

11. And that wasn’t just in the one event, was it?
Jill:
 The coverage leaves Shirley (Babashoff) out of the conversation. So while the record books haven’t changed, it’s important to give that credit to the others. So it all came full circle for me. I don’t want their (the East German’s) medals, but I feel strongly that the record should be set straight. Shirley should have gotten her medal. And the others.

12. The class that Katie Ledecky and others showed, did that affect you?
Jill: 
Yes, Katie and the others do it right. As far as performance if you are talking about Katie, she is just jaw dropping, it’s so amazing just to watch her swim. Anybody who watches her, who is in the sport of swimming, or understands swimming, when they see it, it is mind-boggling and you just shake your head 

13. It’s hard to explain how dominating she is to other people?
Jill: 
The rest of the world sees it too, but in a different light. Just like trying to explain Michael Phelps to people. They understand, but it’s hard for them to comprehend what they’ve done.

14. The group that came with or after you, Mary T. Meagher, Janet Evans, Tracy Caulkins, Dara Torres, Jenny Thompson, Amy Van Dyken, Natalie Coughlin and others -- how important was that, that it continued?
Jill: 
Well yes, they made us proud. To know them all - Dara, Jenny, Janet and the rest -- they are awesome. But I also get the privilege and the experience of knowing them as human beings. You put us all in the same room, and it’s not like a day has gone by.

15. So you see them all still?
Jill: 
I got the chance to hang with Mary T. and Tracy at the Collegiate Women’s Sports Awards. It was the 40th anniversary I think. We had a blast. We hung out upstairs after the event and were just able to talk and enjoy time together.

16. Your celebration of Rio, then, commanded a different perspective with your own experience and the history then?
Jill: 
Right, absolutely. I think it’s a combination of both. Holding your tongue is important at times. Trying to articulate how you feel or what the situation brings is also important. For me, with the East Germans, this is something that is easier for me to have grace for, because this is something that was done to them. They didn’t go out and choose to cheat. Someone did it on their behalf. My anger is directed at all the people who did that -- the system that did that to them. So people have to wrap their head around the idea that this was not their fault. But because of what happened, all of these other people’s experience was tainted. And it happened. So it is important that history set the record straight. Without bringing further damage to the East German women...so it becomes a balancing act. But the people who were in charge turned a blind eye. There has been every opportunity to right that situation. There are always all these excuses. It’s like, stop. Stop turning the blind eye. Put teeth into things. For years, I have said, I know what the truth is, and that has been enough. It would be nice at some level to be validated. 

17. Your time at the University of Texas turned into something special, didn’t it?
Jill: 
Yes. And I don’t know how to explain it to people. Had I not chosen to come to the University of Texas a million years ago...it was really a crapshoot that I even ended up here. 

18. How so?
Jill: 
There wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for women back then. But there was enough for me to make a choice.

19. But what you did with it turned into something amazing -- coming back to Texas and coaching and everything since, is that part of what makes it mean so much; that UT means so much to you?
Jill: 
I feel so blessed to have fallen in love with this place. I didn’t understand the impact it would have on my life -- going to the University of Texas and having those opportunities as a student athlete, and then everything you mention that followed.

20. That’s a pretty wonderful attitude -- your grace, and how you credit so many others -- you still seem so thankful, aren’t you?
Jill: 
I am so grateful. I got a great education. I was able to swim for this great university, and then have more opportunities after that. The University of Texas is so deeply woven into my life, and who I am. I think about what would have happened had I chosen a different path? I wouldn’t have had all these chances. So I feel very blessed.
 

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