Finding Equal Footing on Deck of a Sailboat

America 3's all-woman crew was all set to set sail Thursday off the coast of San Diego, to race against Cap'n Dennis Conner's boat in the 29th America's Cup.

Good morning and welcome to Wide World of Gender Benders.

The opening race in the defender series was postponed by bad weather, but I wonder if anybody truly appreciates what a precedent this all-female crew sets in international sport.

Men against women.

It doesn't happen in basketball. Doesn't happen in football. Doesn't happen in tennis. (Mixed doubles only semi-counts.) Doesn't happen in boxing. Doesn't happen in swimming. Doesn't happen in track. Doesn't happen in field. Doesn't happen in skiing, wrestling, body building or rhythmic gymnastics.

Individuals do compete. Young girls have infiltrated Little League and high school football. Grown women have steered horses in the Kentucky Derby and cars in the Indianapolis 500. There is a woman goaltender in pro hockey. Women run with men in marathons, but maintain their own classification--a women's winner is crowned along with a men's winner.

But this, this is a team sport. This is the longest-running competition in our nation's history, a boat race that dates to the mid-19th Century.

Back in 1851 when the Royal Yacht Squadron sponsored a regatta around the Isle of Wight, the thought of an all-female crew would have been as absurd to them as a female attorney general.

Only the boat was called she.

Not any more, boys. Sixteen women, skippered by Leslie Egnot, have come to do battle against men--no gimmicks, no handicaps, no head starts.

Making this a great week in the history of American women.

Or, as Egnot said on the eve of what was to be America 3's first race, "I still have to pinch myself that this is really happening."

This is not Billie Jean King beating a retired tennis player twice her age, or Martina Navratilova being permitted to use the doubles lanes against Jimmy Connors. This is fair and square, us against them, and may the better people win.

Of lesser importance, there was a baseball game last summer between a women's professional team called the Silver Bullets and a men's team made up mainly of retired major leaguers. (The men won big.)

Other than that, the only legitimate gender-bender competition I can recall has been on an individual basis--Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James driving in Indy races, or Diane Crump, Patricia Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt and Julie Krone riding horses in the Derby, or those Alaska sled-dog races that Susan Butcher has won.

There is pairs skating in the Winter Olympics, but so far I don't recall two men skating as a couple against two women.

There are women boxers, but none yet who has gotten a shot at George Foreman.

But how many teams of women get a shot like this?

What we are seeing with America 3might not be seen again for some time. For how many team sports are there in which women will be given an equal chance?

Maybe a bobsled team. Or a bowling team.

But in our lifetimes, will we ever see a professional women's basketball team playing against a team of men, making man-to-man defense an obsolete concept? Or a women's relay team running against the men at the Olympics? Or women's baseball teams in a league not of their own?

Bill Koch was the man who gave his support to the idea of an all-women's crew at the America's Cup, after having won the last Cup himself. He is to be commended.

There was a time in America when such a notion would have been scoffed at as a publicity stunt.

Jokes would have been flying about the women: (a) Telling the crew to be sure to wipe their feet; or (b) Giving advice to Dennis Conner on how much of that white cream to apply on his nose; or (c) Asking the official committee to come up with another name for those things out bobbing in the water, those buoys.

But Cap'n Egnot and her crew are serious seafarers. Egnot sailed in the Summer Olympics. So did her hand at the wheel, J.J. Isler. Many of their crew have sailed in major races around the globe.

There are actually 32 women in America 3's crew, alternating in 16 assignments. They had no trouble finding qualified sailors, that's obvious.

A woman once told me that the only time women appear on the covers of national sports magazines, something bad has happened to them--Monica Seles being stabbed, Jennifer Capriati being arrested, Mary Pierce being abused. Or else the women are wearing swimsuits.

These women actually go into the water.

Put them on the cover.

* HELD AT BAY

The historic opening race of the defender series, Dennis Conner and his crew against an all-women's team, was delayed at least a day because of a severe winter storm. C9

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