In honor of the FIFA Women’s World Cup I thought I’d write about some of my favorite romances starring female athletes. It’s not a huge subgenre (certainly not in comparison with male athletes), but they’re out there, and in larger numbers all the time.
I’m interested in how athlete heroines’ bodies are depicted. In Jennifer McQuiston’s Summer is for Lovers, poor Caroline Tolbertson’s broad shoulders look terrible in 1840s fashion, and she is taller than most of the men she meets. Her physicality and her athleticism are therefore at odds with what should be her goal in this time period – to attract and keep a husband. Raine from Elizabeth Lowell’s Remember Summer is more traditionally petite and pretty, but Lowell makes something interesting out of it by pairing her with an enormous horse. When Devlin’s Waterloo misbehaves at dressage, Raine explains to Cord that she scores higher than a larger rider would because her size makes her control over the large animal more impressive. Narratively, it all comes together – Raine is in danger because of eventing, so she must ride a powerful eventing horse, but she must also compete in dressage. To make the dressage interesting, Raine is made smaller.
Of course, I’d love to see the authors take up the challenge of letting these heroines beat their heroes fair and square. When Caroline outswims David, it’s by virtue of her superior stroke. In Juliana Stone’s Offside, Olympic hockey star Billie-Jo isn’t depicted as much better at her own game than Logan. I’d love to see a hero who gets and can handle and honest-to-goodness no-handicaps thrashing from his heroine.
Another topic authors steer away from is the frequent conflict between being at the top of their game as athletes and marrying. Characters in professional leagues travel frequently and are subject to trade at any time, which would require a supportive and adaptable hero. More difficult is the possibility of having children in the middle of prime competitive years (the recent Atlantic profile on USWNT mothers shows how difficult it is to balance childbearing and childrearing with motherhood). Maybe this is why so many athletes, like Billie-Jo, are shown at the end of their competitive careers.
Interestingly, the Olympics are often referenced as a heroine’s bona fide for athletic prowess. Not, of course, for pre-Olympic Caroline, but for Raine, Billie-Jo, and another athlete heroine I love, figure skater and gold medalist Amy Legend from Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Summer’s End (what is it about athlete heroines and summer?). Authors just have to name-drop pro leagues (even fictional ones) to prove to us that their heroes are top-notch, but they can’t even invent pro leagues for heroines that we will take seriously. It’s the Olympics that reassure us that the heroine is for real. I can’t help but see this as a commentary on our culture’s impression of women’s professional sports. Are there any romances starring WNBA women? I’ve never seen professional tennis or soccer heroines, but could Grand Slam events or a World Cup substitute for Olympics in our minds?
I’d also like to see authors take on some heroine types who are very common in the sports world but don’t seem to be showing up in fiction. If you’re writing sports, it’s simply inaccurate never to write tall, powerful heroines like the Williams sisters or Ronda Rousey, heroines of color like Michelle Kwan, Lorena Ochoa, or Gabby Douglas, and lesbian athletes like Martina Navratilova and Abby Wambach.
What books have you read starring athlete heroines? What works and doesn’t work about these books? Would you like to see more of them?