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The next generation makes history

3/3/2009
Bethany Hamilton has continued surfing despite losing her left arm in a shark attack in October 2003. Steve Cohen/Icon SMI

A 13-year-old girl paddles her surfboard off the North Shore of Kauai in Hawaii and dangles her left arm in the clear water, awaiting the perfect wave. A 15-foot tiger shark glides up and bites her arm right off. She's bleeding from the shoulder, a quarter mile from shore, an hour from a hospital.

History, you'd think.

Bethany Hamilton is indeed history, one believe-it-or-not chapter in the new history of women's sports being etched today by a generation of young women who view sports as a birthright. After all, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law nearly 37 years ago -- practically the Middle Ages to women born in the '90s. You mean there was a time when 10-year-old girls didn't suit up for five-day-a-week travel soccer? Or dream of winning a scholarship to wear orange for Ms. Summitt at Tennessee? Survive a shark attack to become one of the best female surfers in the world?

"For me, losing my arm was definitely worth it," Hamilton, now 19, said in a recent interview with ESPN. "I can still surf. I get to inspire people who don't have hope in life. … I'm just really glad that I can do something bigger than just live my life for myself."

This March, ESPN will celebrate Women's History Month by bringing you "Her Story," a contemporary collection of stories of empowerment and inspiration, struggle and triumph. These stories will appear across ESPN platforms, including television and ESPN.com. The stories include a profile of an emergent supergirl, Candace Parker of the WNBA (now preparing to dunk for two), who will appear on the cover of the March 23 issue of ESPN the Magazine. In that same issue, and on March 8 on "Outside the Lines," senior writer Peter Keating expands his ongoing investigation into sports and concussions by examining the ramifications on female athletes. He finds that in sports that both men and women play, women suffer more concussions. They also recover more slowly, Keating says, and that puts female athletes at even greater danger because they are just as eager as men to return from injuries.

On March 27, ESPN will air a one-hour special, "Her Story," with "SportsCenter" anchor Hannah Storm. The special focuses on fresh stories about young athletes. That includes Hamilton's extraordinary comeback, as well as reporter Shelley Smith's astute look at what it means to be a Hispanic athlete. Hispanic girls are among the fastest-growing demographic in this country, but for Hispanic athletes, barriers -- both economic and cultural -- have delayed their participation in sports. A Spanish language version of the story will air on Deportes, and ESPN.com senior writer Elizabeth Merrill will explore what life is like for Hispanic girl athletes at a high school in western Nebraska.

And then, there is the "entitled generation," as researchers now call today's tweens, teens and 20-somethings. On fields of play, these young women are exercising such entitlement in record numbers.

Some of these young women will be featured this month in vignettes that will air beginning March 8. Athletes such as Jessica Long, a double amputee swimmer who won gold at the Paralympic Games in Beijing (not to mention the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete back home), and Darienne Serna, a spectacularly agile wide receiver who helped her Texas team win the girls 12- to 14-year-old NFL flag football championship by channeling her hero, Larry Fitzgerald.

On ESPN.com, the "Her Story" page will include stories, columns, videos and links to all kinds of content from television, ESPN The Magazine and ESPNRISE.com. There's a special Community space, where users can join conversations or blog. The page will include an archive of previously posted pieces related to women's issues. Readers and viewers also can help document the new history by telling us their own inspirational sports stories. The "My Story" section of the page will let anyone with a camera produce a short video clip about themselves, a coach, a teammate or a team. The winning clip will air on the "Her Story" television special on March 27. On this page, you'll also find links to TV programming and ESPN360.com.

And what of those pioneering women who led the march across the frontiers of equal prize money, equal access and equal opportunity and thus laid the groundwork for today's high-expectation generation? On March 14, ESPN Classic will feature an 11-hour marathon showcasing many of them and their significant moments, beginning with a documentary on Title IX and including the smackdown match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

But if history is what happened on a makeshift tennis court in the Houston Astrodome 35 years ago, it is also what happened yesterday on playing fields across the country. The goal of "Her Story" is to begin introducing a new generation of icons and to preview some of the greatness to come. That these assured young women are already demanding a piece of the mantle is a victory in itself. Jai Ho, indeed.

Kristin Huckshorn is a senior news editor at ESPN and coordinated all production elements of the "Her Story" project across platforms. She can be reached at kristin.huckshorn@espn.com.