The Woman Who Wouldn’t Back Down
This is The Story… of how one woman escaped the trap of others’ opinions and became a true original.
And now… onto The Story
The woman held her finger over the doorbell of her parents’ house.
After decades of uncertainty, she had to go through with it.
She’d kept the secret for her entire life. It had led to an eating disorder, and an extreme isolation from those she wanted to connect with. Now, at fifty-one years old, she had to tell them.
They had to know. She had to be the one to say it.
She felt nervous, but she no longer felt ashamed. It was time, and she was proud of her life, who she was, and who she loved. It was time to let her parents know.
She rang the doorbell.
Inside a light came on, and she could hear footsteps shuffling towards the door…
Tensions with her parents hadn’t always been that high. Forty-five years earlier, The Moffits were a happy, little family…
Like many children, the young girl spent her early years following in the footsteps of her parents. They were both athletes. Her father played basketball, baseball, and ran track. Her mother was an expert swimmer.
The little girl followed the path of her father and played basketball like him. Then, at ten years old, she took up softball. Her talent earned her a shortstop position on a team of players that were all four to five years her senior. She excelled.
But in the early 1950s, at only 11, she was feeling pressure from everyone around her to choose more “ladylike” pastimes.
She wanted to find something that would make her parents proud. So she said goodbye to softball and decided to explore a more respectable female sport. First, she tried golf, but it was way too boring. Then, she tried swimming like her mother. No matter how hard she tried, the young girl wasn’t comfortable in the water.
The only sport left that those around her thought was, “ladylike” enough was tennis. So she gave that a try.
It only took one lesson for her to realize that she had found the sport of her dreams. She wanted to play professional tennis. Soon she was scheming about how she would get her very own racket, play in real matches, and win.
At the start of any great adventure, society is likely to push back.
The young girl came from a middle-class family, but tennis was a sport for the elite. Living in Long Beach, she had access to public courts. It was there that she completed the majority of her early training. Despite her love of the game, her parents couldn’t afford to buy her a racket or traditional tennis uniform. She worked for her neighbors in order to save up and buy her first racket for $8. After she started going to the court every day to play, her mother made her a uniform.
Today, most kids would cringe at the thought of wearing a sports uniform made by their parents.
She wasn’t like most kids. When her mother’s hand-sewn blouse and shorts were ready, she put them on and walked on to the Southern California Junior Championships. Domination ensued.
When it came time for the photo session, an adult asked her to please not join the group in the photo.
It was because she was wearing a hand-sewn tennis outfit. Without the proper uniform, the girl did not belong. That moment crushed her.
But playing tennis had become her obsession. Soon, she was out on the courts in the early mornings practicing by herself. The rate at which she was improving was steady. At home one night after a long practice, she calmly mentioned to her parents that someday, she would play at Wimbledon. And she would win.
At age 17, after leaving plenty of blood, sweat, and tears on the courts, she made that claim a reality. The girl teamed up with Karen Hantze, and made it to the doubles championship at Wimbledon. They won, and in 1961, were the youngest pair to ever hold the title.
That same year, she began her first semester at Los Angeles State College. Despite her glowing record at Wimbledon, finances were tight. To make ends meet, she worked as a part-time playground instructor making $100 per week. College was a bore for her, and she dropped out to focus on tennis.
The only good thing that came from college was that she met somebody. His name was Larry, and the two began dating. He was an attorney and supportive of her passion for tennis. Things moved fast, and the two got married. One year later, she won her first major singles championship. She defended that title for two years. And in 1968, she became the #1 women’s tennis player in the world.
She had fulfilled her dream. But her story was only beginning.
Despite her success as a tennis player, her personal life was complicated. To the outsider, the couple was happily married. But to her, she was conflicted. She realized she was interested in women.
This was a taboo in her family. And taboos weren’t something to be discussed. Ever.
The world champion felt silly and ashamed. In her mind, she didn’t feel like a tremendously accomplished adult. She felt like the 11-year-old girl who had won, but wasn’t accepted because she didn’t have the right uniform.
The idea of talking about her feelings with her family or publicly, would threaten everything she had worked so hard to build.
So she kept the secret to herself.
Despite her secret and struggle, she continued progressing in tennis.
In 1971, she became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money. As a result, she was recognized by President Nixon. The recognition and income was a relief, and spurred her forward. In 1972 she competed in the U.S. Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. She won all three.
Due to her success on the court, she felt tremendous pressure to be a role model for other female athletes. She knew the pressures they were up against. Later, she would look back and say:
“…we had to make it acceptable for people to accept girls and women as athletes. We had to make it okay for them to be active. Those were much scarier times for females in sports.”
In that same year, the men’s U.S. Open winner took home $15,000 more in prize money than she did, and she took notice. She asked why she didn’t receive more prize money. When the answer wasn’t satisfactory, she threatened to back out of the 1973 tournament. When things still weren’t fixed, she formed the Women’s Tennis Association, becoming the first president of the union. Other women joined her cause, demanding that the U.S. Open increase the prize money for women. Soon, other prominent women’s tennis stars threatened to drop-out. Not only was she a winner on the court, but she was a winning negotiator.
The U.S. Open was forced to increase their cash prizes for women. Eventually, they would become the first tournament to offer equal prize money to men and women.
Throughout the negotiations and her rise to becoming a leader in her profession, she kept her secret. If it was out in the open, her movement and how it was perceived might lose its momentum. She didn’t want to let her personal life prevent others from accessing opportunity, so the secret stayed hidden.
While she was leading the way for women in the sport, a brash, male tennis star named Bobby Riggs was trolling the women’s movement.
Riggs decided to challenge any women tennis players who thought they could beat him. He played one match against a woman star and won.
Soon, the woman tennis star with the secret heard rumors… Riggs was going to challenge her.
Then her phone started ringing.
It was Riggs. He was fresh off his victory over a woman on the court and hungry for another… along with all the sponsorship money that would come with it.
He was challenging her to a match.
Fear entered her mind, she said no, and hung up the phone.
She was afraid of losing or letting down the growing movement of women who were exploring their athletic skills. Plus the extra public scrutiny of the exhibition match might risk exposing her secret.
Riggs was a nuisance. He was trying to destroy everything she had built over the last decade. He wanted to distract her from the mission, her push to inspire female athletes.
Riggs called again, she listened, and this time… his offer was tempting.
Now she saw the opportunity in his offer. If she won, it would supercharge her movement. The only catch was that their match would be televised in front of tens of millions of people.
This time she said yes.
She felt the fear, but found the courage to do it anyways. That courage came through years of deliberate practice. Soon, Riggs mounted a PR tour, and now everyone knew.
The date of the match was drawing near, and there was no way to escape. All the women she was inspiring knew about the match. They were all counting on her.
And she showed up ready to play.
She… was Billie Jean King.
And on September 20, 1973, Billie Jean and Riggs faced off at the “Battle of the Sexes”, in the Houston Astrodome.
An estimated 90 million viewers tuned in to the match. It was a battle, and in the end, Billie Jean pulled it off and crushed Riggs 6–4, 6–3, 6–3.
Billie Jean King was light years away from the insecure girl in her homemade uniform.
It was an empowering moment for women of all ages and professions. Millions of women who never watched tennis tuned in to see if it was possible… could a woman beat a man at a professional sport?
“I thought it would set us back fifty years if I didn’t win that match,” King said. “It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
After the match, King founded Women’s Sports Magazine and started the Women’s Sports Foundation. She went on to form the World Team Tennis Coed Circuit, where women and men played side by side. And she became one of the first women to coach male tennis players.
In 1975, in a poll by Seventeen, King was one of the most admired women in the world. That same year, she won her sixth Wimbledon singles championship. She held the #1 rank in women’s tennis six out of ten years between 1966 and 1975. Professionally speaking, she was on top of the world. Due to injuries, she made the tough decision to retire from tennis at age 40.
Tragically for her, retirement didn’t turn out to be what she expected. A few years into retirement, her ex-girlfriend sued her, which caused a firestorm of press. King became the first prominent professional female athlete to be outed publicly. The outing cost her an estimated $2M in lost endorsement deals and legal fees. It also led to a divorce from her long-time husband.
Her family was devastated, and she lost nearly all of her once-loyal tennis sponsors. Society disowned her. She was totally rejected by the world. Now, her pain was compounded by the weight of the public’s response.
Once again, Billie Jean King dug deep and found the strength to keep moving forward. It wasn’t until she was in her fifties that she was able to feel comfortable in her own skin again. At that point, she had found a fulfilling long-term relationship with her former tennis partner, Ilana Kloss.
King pushed through the public humiliation and disapproval and embraced her value. Today, Billie Jean King is a powerful voice all over the world. Looking back on how many years she had to conceal her sexuality from the world, she had this to say:
“I wanted to tell the truth but my parents were homophobic and I was in the closet. As well as that, I had people tell me that if I talked about what I was going through, it would be the end of the women’s tour. I couldn’t get a closet deep enough. One of my big goals was always to be honest with my parents and I couldn’t be for a long time. I tried to bring up the subject but felt I couldn’t. My mother would say, “We’re not talking about things like that”, and I was pretty easily stopped because I was reluctant anyway. I ended up with an eating disorder that came from trying to numb myself from my feelings. I needed to surrender far sooner than I did. At the age of 51, I was finally able to talk about it properly with my parents and no longer did I have to measure my words with them. That was a turning point for me as it meant I didn’t have regrets any more.”
King’s career both on and off the court was an inspiration to millions. She remains on good terms with her ex-husband Larry, and she and her partner Ilana are godparents to his children.
King’s story proves that champions don’t all come from the same mold. Do your own thing. If the family, friends, or culture you’re surrounded by can’t handle who you are in all your glory… keep secrets. It’s okay. When the time is right, you can always tell them. The beauty is, you get to decide. No matter what, just keep playing.
One of King’s most famous one-liners sums it up best. She says:
“Champions keep playing until they get it right.”
That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?
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