Olympic track and field champion Allyson Felix thinks this year's celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day on Wednesday holds special significance. It is, after all, the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that bans sex discrimination in schools, whether in academics or athletics.
"It means a lot because I think it's just a great kind of awareness, especially this year with the excitement about Title IX and the anniversary," she said.
NGWSD began in 1987 as a day to remember Olympic volleyball player Flo Hyman for her athletic achievements and her work to assure equality for women's sports. Hyman died of Marfan syndrome in 1986 while competing in a volleyball tournament in Japan.
"National Girls and Women in Sports Day is a unique culmination of influential women and men working together as one team to thoughtfully discuss and address the inequalities that still exist in sports," Women's Sports Foundation founder Billie Jean King said. "While we have come a long way since the enactment of Title IX 40 years ago, it is important to recognize that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure there are sports, health and physical education opportunities in schools and in communities across the nation."
Felix joined the track team during her freshman year at Los Angeles Baptist High School. At the time, she had planned to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a teacher.
Then she discovered her special gift of speed and athleticism. It was her first foray into competitive racing, and one that would catapult her to Olympic success. Felix, now 26, won Olympic gold in the 4x400 relay in Beijing and silver in the 200 meters in Beijing and Athens.
As Felix's track career has flourished and brought international acclaim, she has set her sights on her original goal: empowering children.
Felix got her chance to do that two years ago, when she received a call from the White House asking her to join the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. It is an elite group of athletes, doctors and fitness experts highlighted by such luminaries as King, Chris Paul and Michelle Kwan. The co-chairs of the council are Saints quarterback Drew Brees and former Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes.
The key component of Felix's work with the council is spreading the importance of physical activity through an initiative called "Let's Move!". The concept is simple and self-explanatory at its core, but there is a quantifiable incentive, the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award. PALA is all about getting children between the ages of 6 and 17 active for at least 60 minutes a day. The activities can range from running to swimming to walking a dog. Once they achieve that goal for a period of six out of eight weeks, they earn an official letter of recognition from the White House. There also is an adult version of PALA, with a 30-minute-a-day requirement.
Felix's message has been successful and she is particularly proud of helping the council surpass its goal of motivating 1 million Americans to earn the PALA. In a year, from September 2010 to September 2011, 1.7 million people did so.
While earning the PALA certificate is impressive, Felix emphasizes good habits for the long haul.
"We encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle so it shouldn't feel like work. That's the key," she said. "But add the social aspect, as well. Meet up with friends and do these things and make it fun."
Felix gets positive feedback from children and parents almost everywhere she speaks and particularly loves the stories of families who are newly carving out time together solely for the purpose of engaging in physical activity.
The "Let's Move!" initiative is spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama, who is hands-on when it comes to physical fitness. Felix said Obama is "the first one to jump in whether it's jump roping or stretches with the kids."
"It has been great working with someone of that stature in pushing our initiatives," Felix said.
Felix's two-year appointment to the council ends on June 10, but she plans to continue to promote its message based on shared values and her love of empowering children.