Dara Torres, winner of nine Olympic medals, including four golds, will be the first American swimmer to compete in five Olympics, and the oldest American swimmer ever to compete in the Games. She has retired from swimming twice, both times coming back to set American and world records. As one commentator said, she "continues to defy the odds."
How many other athletes are always referred to with astonishment as a "41-year-old mom?" (Like being a mom and being an athlete are mutually exclusive.) How many other athletes have to hear statements about themselves that say, "Only so many swims in that 41-year-old body?" How many other athletes have to face persistent rumors about performance-enhancing drugs because it's just so impossible to believe that she could be outswimming competitors half her age?
Pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig will be 41 in September. I had to do a lot of digging to find an article that referred to his daughter, and I didn't find any that referred to drug use.
Here's the thing: Torres is fighting stereotypes and misconceptions more than she's fighting her age, her body or her opponents.
It's an accepted fact that older bodies don't recover as well from training and competition, but for Dara Torres, her body and her motherhood have taken on mythical status.
What lesson is there here for you and I as speakers?
People will misjudge you. People will stereotype you. People will decide who you are before you get a chance to show them.
You have a disability.
You're old or you look old.
You have a speech impediment.
You're young or you look young.
You don't have a lot of experience.
Your background isn't squeaky clean.
You're from another country or culture.
You're a man speaking to a women's organization.
You're a woman speaking in a male-dominated industry.
The best way to fight misconceptions is to be aware of them in the first place. Anticipate the assumptions your audience will make, and be prepared to address them -- right up front, if necessary.
I used to speak about domestic violence to high school students. It was generally assumed by the boys that I was going to walk in and start bashing men. So I addressed this issue right away.
I acknowledged their concerns, clarified where I was coming from, and gave them some hard facts in the first few minutes. They were more open to the message after that, and I was able to be up front about the realities of domestic violence without having to face a hostile audience.
Be prepared for the disbelief, the skepticism, the doubt and even the resentment. Addressing it and moving on is the best way to fight it.
In a recent Women's Health magazine interview, Dara Torres was asked, "How do you keep going?"
"I think about the end goal. When I feel like my body is exhausted, I focus on making my fifth Olympic team so I can push through it. They may become harder to achieve, but your dreams can't stop because you've hit a certain age or you've had a child."
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