Donna de varona
Published 8:52 am, Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Donna de Varona is a born fighter. At 13 she was the youngest athlete to have competed in the Olympics, the first female sportscaster in the United States and an activist for “clean” athletes and gender equality on the playing field, particularly in the Olympics. So you would expect to meet an intimidating international woman of strong opinions, yet a first impression of her is anything but that. In fact, she is very easy going, quick to see the humor in life.
She greets me at the door wearing comfortable gray slacks, T-shirt and gray wool duster that she doffs in a few minutes.
“My husband likes the house hot,” she says and leaves you to finish the thought as if we’re old friends.
In her family room that overlooks a beautiful expanse of lawn at her Greenwich home, you get a true sense of who de Varona is.
Two Olympic gold medals hang behind twin glass frames in a far corner of the room, tucked next to a bookcase overflowing with books and photographs. The photographs picture de Varona and her husband, John Pinto, with their two grown children, John and Joanna, and with the likes of the Clintons, senators Ted Stevens and Ted Kennedy, Frank Gifford and Joe Namath, her actress sister Joanna Kerns and close friend Prince Albert of Monaco.
Along the same wall as the medals are trophy shelves, overwhelming in their scope of awards: five honorary doctorates, silver Olympic order for leadership in the Olympic movement, outstanding radio commentator and sports journalism award. De Varona casually picks up a small sculpture and runs a finger over it as if she were brushing away a few motes of dust. “Ah, that’s my Emmy,” she says.
De Varona has long been an advocate for the participation and recognition of the right of women in sports. When she first competed in the Olympics, perhaps 20 percent of the athletes were women. Now that figure stands at 48 percent or more. Months and years lobbying Capitol Hill to get Title IX implemented taught her how best to puzzle out of a maze to achieve results.
As a toddler growing up in California, de Varona was ever the explorer, so much so that her father tied bells on her shoes so he could find her as she wandered about. She told him, “I want to see the world.”
She reached for a world that was not the common ground for girls her age, becoming the bat girl on her brother’s baseball team, although she would have preferred swinging a bat. In a quirky way, the experience led her to swimming and finally to her 1964 Olympic golds in Tokyo when she was just 17. She became the world’s top female athlete with 18 world records, scoring covers on Look, Life and Sports Illustrated magazines.
While still a teenager and thinking ahead, de Varona persuaded the powers that be at ABC to hire her as the first female sportscaster in the United States. She continues to have the same drive and persistence to navigate Capitol Hill in her battle against doping by athletes and the countries that foster doping, particularly Russia.
De Varona has never been afraid to stand up for her convictions; she crusaded for years for effective anti-doping measures, working closely with the World Anti-Doping Agency, the International Olympic Committee, world leaders and members of the U.S. Congress. Her dedication has her flying off to Rio, Geneva, Peru and Monaco, all in the pursuit of fairness in play on an equal footing for all athletes.
“I have friends all over the world, because of the Olympics,” de Varona says. “It’s my family. I wanted to be in a place where I felt valued, and I could give something back. I’ve worked on the Hill, in television, in the movies, but this is my constant. Olympic athletes are the soldiers for a philosophy of connection and common ground in the world. I want to be part of that.”
As we cross into the open kitchen from the family room, de Varona hands me two glasses filled with water, no ice, as she plates two overstuffed sandwiches, one brimming with roast beef, the other with chicken salad, and leads me past a tower of newspapers on the counter into the dining room.
Here’s a simple diorama of how prepared she is, come what may. The table is Emily Post perfect, all set for a formal dinner: white linen, crystal glasses, silverware and napkins.
When I register surprise, she explains: “I’m always ready. If someone calls and says they’re in town, I invite them immediately for dinner.”
All she has to do is cook — or call the caterer.
Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.