This blog is part of the series “The power of the female athlete.” View the complete series at the links at the end of this article.
As athletes prepare to compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, female athletes are breaking barriers with the strength of their bodies and minds.
According to a statement from the International Olympic Committee, female athletes make up almost 49% of the competitors in this year’s Olympic games, making this year’s competition the most gender-equal in history.
Women from various sectors outside of athletics, including the tech industry, can learn valuable lessons from the grit and determination of these amazing athletes—lessons that they can incorporate into their own lives and work.
The challenges that Olympic athletes face help them to develop the qualities that enable them to compete against the best in their respective fields. And these are the same qualities you’ll find in successful female employees.
This year’s female athletes exemplify an array of highly desirable and sought-after qualities that female employees can use to build upon their own career paths and milestones. This July, as you’re watching from your couch, or maybe your second screen, take some cues from the best Olympic athletes and apply the lessons you learn to your own situation.
Allyson Felix showed that you can speak up when you face discrimination
Allyson Felix is an American track and field sprinter who has won nine Olympic medals—six gold and three silver. She’s also single-handedly responsible for pressuring the footwear manufacturer Nike to change its maternity policy for female athletes.
When Felix gave birth to her daughter in 2018, she was renegotiating her sponsorship contract with Nike. The company offered to pay her 70% less than they paid her before she became a mother, Felix said in a number of interviews.
For Felix, this was unacceptable, and she became a vocal advocate for mothers in sports.
“Pregnancy is not messing up; for women it can and should be able to be part of a thriving professional athletic career,” she wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times.
Today, Felix is partnering with her new sponsor, Athleta, to create a $200,000 grant to help women athletes with their childcare expenses. She’s also launched her own brand of shoes.
Nike, meanwhile, changed its policy toward female athletes following her outcry.
The lesson: Women can use their voices to create change
Felix showed that it’s unacceptable for companies to penalize working parents. But sometimes, parents still need to raise their voices and demand equality. Even after the passage of laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 or the 1963 Equal Pay Act, discriminatory practices still exist. Regardless of the policies enacted in each country or company, women often must continue to demand fair treatment.
In a world where gender equality isn’t always a given, the lessons drawn from Felix’s experience can apply to women in almost any field.
Lindsay Flach showed you don’t need to give up your career when you’re pregnant
The 31-year-old track and field athlete Lindsay Flach competed in the Olympic trials in 100-degree heat while 18 weeks pregnant.
Flach competed in the heptathlon, a 7-sport competition that is known for being one of the most physically demanding. The heptathlon includes two days of high jumps, hurdles, and sprints.
More and more women today are continuing to work and work out during pregnancy. According to data analyzed by the Pew Research Center, around 66% of women in the US now continue to work while they are pregnant.
Doctors recommend that women exercise during pregnancy, but some women feel it is risky to take on too much strenuous exercise. Still, more and more women are choosing not to give up on their fitness goals or put off competing until after giving birth. Serena Williams competed in the Australian Open while pregnant. Seven-time Olympic medalist Dana Vollmer also swam the 50-meter freestyle at a national competition while she was six months pregnant.
But Flach showed that it is possible to take on even the most physically taxing work while carrying a baby.
The lesson: Women can continue to pursue their dreams through pregnancy
Flach decided to compete during her pregnancy because she trusted her understanding of her own body and the advice of medical professionals. She chose not to listen to other people’s opinions on what women should or shouldn’t do during pregnancy.
“Women and moms are so strong—their bodies are very capable,” Flach told Today Parents. “You are the only one who knows your body.”
Women in other industries can learn from Flach’s example by trusting themselves and their capabilities. If you drown out the noise and believe that you know better than anyone else what you can accomplish, you can go far.
Jen Hill, AVP for Brands and Corporate Social Responsibility at RingCentral, continued to rock climb until she was 38-weeks pregnant.
She is so passionate about climbing that despite a car accident leaving her with numerous injuries and then later on pregnancy, she couldn’t bring herself to ever give it up. What’s more, she had certain climbing goals that she wanted to meet, and she knew she wouldn’t break her personal records anytime soon if she took a break during a nine-month pregnancy.
According to Dr. Richard Bruce, Programme Lead for the BSc in Sport & Exercise Medical Science at King’s, and researcher in the Centre for Human & Applied Physiological Sciences, “To succeed in sport at an elite level, athletes need to make a huge physical and mental commitment. The perseverance to train and perfect a skill requires deliberate and consistent practice over and over. This mental toughness is what gives elite athletes the ability to perform at their very best on all occasions.”
For Hill, motherhood taught her just how resilient women’s bodies and minds can be and how important it is to trust your instincts and do what’s right for you. Hill’s determination and decision to continue her training plan was one that made sense for her. She ordered a special harness that fit over her baby bump so that she could rock climb with her growing belly and even hit a personal record on the day before she gave birth.
“Rock climbing has become my outlet and my zen. It’s centering and peaceful, almost like dancing on the wall,” Hill describes. “Because it nurtures so many areas of my life, I decided it would cause more stress to stop climbing than to keep doing it during pregnancy.”
Coco Gauff showed that your age doesn’t have to hold you back
Cori “Coco” Gauff is an American tennis player and, at 17, is the youngest player to make the Women’s Tennis Association’s top 100 rankings. She’s also the youngest tennis player in decades to qualify for the US Olympic team.
In 2019, Gauff made history when she debuted at Wimbledon at only 15 years old, beating the legendary Venus Williams. Venus and her sister Serena, both of whom are renowned tennis players, are Gauff’s idols and are the reason she started playing tennis as a very young girl in the first place. Now she’s playing on their level as a teenager.
Gauff demonstrated that your age doesn’t have to stop you from pursuing your goals with her entry into the Olympics. Unfortunately, she will not be competing in this year’s Olympic Games after testing positive for COVID-19.
The lesson: Age doesn’t dictate your professionalism
Regardless of whether you are the youngest or the oldest person in the room, your age doesn’t have to have any relevance to your performance or the work that you do. If you trust in yourself, your skills, and your experience, you can perform at top levels while continuing to learn and grow.
RingCentral’s Hill is used to being one of the youngest women in a leadership role, and she has had to demonstrate unwavering belief in herself to be taken seriously.
“I’m a female, I’m a minority, and I’m typically younger for my roles. And in addition to being younger, I tend to look younger,” she explains. “Being in tech, an industry run by white males, I started to do this thing that helped me. I put a post-it note on my mirror that I look at every morning to remind me that I’m worth it.”
Torri Huske showed that everything you need is inside of you
Torri Huske competed in the Olympic trials during the same week as her high school graduation. As she prepares to head to the Olympic games, she recalls how her internal motivation spurred her forward.
Her biggest motivation has always been seeing the direct connection between her improved swim times and the amount of work she put into practice. Speaking to a local newspaper in her hometown of Arlington, Virginia, Huske’s coach said that her work ethic and internal motivation made Huske stand out from other players.
“There are a lot of kids in the swimming world that don’t do everything,” her coach told City Paper last year. “They’ll sit out a 100 [yard or meter repetition], or they’ll go to the bathroom in the middle of a set or something like that. She’s not like that. She does everything and has always been like that. So her work ethic has always been really good. She has a very intense internal motivation, probably more than anyone that I’ve ever seen.”
To be an Olympic athlete, Huske understood you need to work harder than everyone else. Every day. For years. You need to have an intense work ethic in order to be great at anything. If you want to succeed, you have to go above and beyond what others are doing. You must work when others aren’t working.
Huske shows that intense dedication and focus can be the secret to success.
The lesson: Your work ethic and determination will propel you forward
Whether you are in the swimming pool or the boardroom, you can be your biggest competitor and your greatest champion. Putting in the hard work and setting goals for yourself is what will set you apart from your peers, and your competition, and lead you to career success.
Capri Wells, a customer success manager at RingCentral, says she has found success by focusing on gratitude and dedication to the job. Wells’ sentiment of being thankful for every opportunity was instilled in her by her father, who competed in the 1981 Olympic Games as a weightlifter.
“My dad always encouraged me to be the first one to show up and the last to leave,” Wells says. “It’s about showing respect for the work and appreciation for the opportunity at hand.”
As an Olympian, Wells’ father showed her that you must put in a lot of effort to get a lot out of life. That’s a lesson she’s applied throughout her life and that she continues to bring to her job on a daily basis.
Like an Olympic athlete, Wells holds herself to a high personal standard. Of course, athletes have coaches and support staff who help them meet their goals and do what others had not thought possible, but in the end, they are the ones who first believed in themselves and strive every day to reach their personal best.
“Thanks to my dad, my personal brand is now that of a confident woman who welcomes a challenge and refuses to give up until I see things through to success,” Wells says.
Sha’Carri Richardson showed that you can be honest about your humanity
The 21-year-old world-class sprinter and fastest woman in the US at the time, Sha’Carri Richardson made it to the Olympics, only to be disqualified after testing positive for marijuana.
Instead of conceding defeat, Richardson took to Twitter to take ownership of her actions. “I am human,” she tweeted.
Richardson explained that she had used marijuana to cope with stress and grief following the death of her mother. What’s more, many observers were quick to point out that marijuana is not a performance enhancer, and consequently Richardson shouldn’t be penalized as if she had been using a steroid.
“I’m sorry, I can’t be y’all Olympic Champ this year but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year,” she wrote on Twitter.
“All these perfect people that know how to live life, I’m glad I’m not one of them!” she added.
Lesson: Your vulnerability doesn’t have to hold you back
Although she learned a hard lesson in humility, the public met Richardson’s honesty and openness about her vulnerability with empathy and sparked a conversation about the use of cannabis as it relates to mental health. She was also offered a lucrative sponsorship deal with a vaping company.
That experience showed that embracing vulnerability and asking for support doesn’t have to be a speed bump in your career.
RingCentral’s Hill recommends that people reach out to their colleagues and friends if they are struggling or overwhelmed by life.
“You can reach out to someone,” Hill says. “Here at RingCentral, we have various support networks for working women, but you can turn to people in your community or your neighborhood and talk to them. They could be a support network that you never knew was right there. Don’t be afraid to ask.”
Strong, powerful women show up in athletics and at work
Women are showing up in the Olympics, and within leadership roles at organizations, in a strong way—despite the challenges and adversity they’re often faced with including sexism, misogyny, and gender discrimination.
Olympic athletes are the very best of the best and have trained for the majority of their lives for their moment. We, as women in the workforce, can lean into our “training” and pull from female Olympic athletes’ core skill sets and preparations to one day find ourselves amongst the best of the best—be it in our individual roles, leading teams, or landing ourselves at top organizations across the globe. Our time is now to tap into our inner warrior to push beyond our comfort zones and channel our inner Felix, Flach, Gauff, Richardson, or whatever female Olympic athlete we’re hoping brings home gold.
Read more from The power of the female athlete:
When 42% isn’t enough: Gender equality matters in both business and sports
5 examples of powerhouse women pushing back in business and athletics
Originally published Jul 27, 2021, updated Dec 30, 2022