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de Varona, Donna

Donna de Varona


American swimmer

When she qualified for the U.S. swim team for the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Donna de Varona was only 13 years old, the youngest member of the Games that year. Four years later she won two gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. She remains a world record holder in numerous events, including the sport's most challenging one, the 400-meter individual

medley, and the 100-meter backstroke. The individual medley requires enormous strength, flexibility, and endurance; competitors must swim four 100-meter laps, one for each stroke, including backstroke, freestyle (crawl), butterfly, and breast. Always up for a challenge, it is no surprise that the individual medley was always de Varona's favorite event. De Varona went on to become ABC's first full-time female sportscaster. In a controversial legal dispute, de Varona sued ABC Sports, charging age and gender discrimination. That battle won, she continues her award-winning career as a broadcast sports journalist.

Team Member "0"

De Varona was raised in Southern California by a family she has characterized as tightly knit and supportive. Her father, David, was an insurance salesman and a former All-American football player and rower At the University of California who encouraged his four children in athletics. De Varona's sister, Joanna Kerns, (best known for her role as the mother on ABC's Growing Pains ) studied gymnastics until she took up acting, as did sister Sandra. Brother David joined Little League until a knee jury sidelined him and he took up swimming.

Young Donna had been eager to play baseball with her brother and the neighborhood boys but was denied the chance due to her gender. "I spent all my money on bubble gum so I could bribe my way into the Little League," she said in an interview with Women's Sports & Fitness magazine. But all she got for her effort was a uniform with the number "0" on it and the privilege of retrieving the team's bats. She stored that memory, which motivated her to fight for equality later.

Swimming gave the spirited youth the outlet she needed. "I got in trouble until I started to swim," de Varona admitted to Women's Sports & Fitness. As an adolescent, she trained with some of the sport's top coaches, including George Haines, the legendary coach of seven U.S. Olympic teams between 1960 and 1984. She was soon committed athletically and academically, maintaining a B average while training up to six hours a day.


1947 Born in San Diego, California
1950 Learns to swim
1956 Enters first competition
1964 Retires from competitive swimming after Olympics
1965-76 Becomes sportscaster for ABC, Wide World of Sports, Olympic coverage (1968, 1972, 1976)
1966-68, 1984-88 Named member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sport
1969-88 Sits on founding board of Special Olympics
1974 Co-founds the Women's Sports Foundation
1974-76 Appointed to President Ford's Commission on Olympic Sports
1976-80 Named member of President Carter's Women's Advisory Commission
1978-83 Hired by NBC for Sports World, Today Show (sports programs)
1983-97 Promoted to ABC commentator, consultant, writer, co-producer to Wide World of Sports, ABC News, Good Morning America, ESPN, ABC Radio
1986 Graduates UCLA with Bachelor of Arts degree
1988 Appointed member of President Reagan's Olympic delegation to Seoul, South Korea
1989 Joins U.S. Olympic Foundation
1991-94 Voted board member of World Cup Organizing Committee
1997, 1999 Named chairman of Women's World Cup
1998 Advises White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP); named member of World Anti-Doping Agency Committee on Ethics and Education; covers Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, for TNT; hired as sports commentator for Sporting News Radio (to present)
1998 Sues ABC for age and gender discrimination
1999 Becomes member U.S. Soccer Foundation
2000 Covers Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, for NBC Cable
2001-02 Chosen senior advisor to U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) President; co-chairs USOC Government Relations Committee and joins International Relations Committee; advises ONDCP on anti-doping

When de Varona returned to the Olympic team in 1964, the 17-year-old had broken 18 world swimming records and ten American records while capturing two gold medals at the Summer Games in Tokyo. In winning the 400-meter individual medley, de Varona set a world record of 5:18.7. She and teammates Sharon Stouder, Pokey Watson and Kathy Ellis won the gold in the 400-meter freestyle relay, another record-breaking achievement at 4:03.8. But even before the Olympics, the blonde de Varona had come to define swimming in America. She had appeared on the cover of newspapers and magazines such as Life, Time, Saturday Evening Post, and Sports Illustrated.

She enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and majored in political science. Like most colleges of the time, UCLA had no women's athletics department. Seeing that she couldn't compete for a college team, de Varona formally retired from swimming. This freed her to accept a job with ABC, which had previously consulted the young student about where they should focus their cameras. While under contract with ABC and while still at UCLA, de Varona volunteered in the government-funded program Operation Champ, which worked with inner-city children. De Varona testified before Congress advocating government's continued and increased funding of programs for kids. Suddenly, she realized she was learning so much outside of college that she left, two finals short of her degree.

Broadcasting Beckons

In 1964, the Associated Press and United Press International voted de Varona most outstanding female athlete in the world. At the 1965 men's Amateur Athletic Union national championships, she made her debut in swimming commentary for ABC's Wide World of Sports with Jim McKay. She was a trailblazer at age 17, the first female network television sportscaster.

She became host, special reporter, and analyst for many of the network's high-profile programs, including ABC Sports and ABC News. She covered the Summer Olympics for ABC from 1968 to 1976, and again in 1984 and 1996, and the Winter Olympics in 1984, 1988, and 1994. From 1978 to 1983, she worked for the NBC network on Sports-world and the sports segments of the Today Show. As part of the team of journalists telecasting the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics for Turner Network Television, de Varona, who presented feature stories on female athletes, was instrumental in the cable network's exceptional ratings.

The former Olympic champion received a prestigious Emmy Award, for her coverage of an athlete competing in the 1991 Special Olympics. Seven years later she received an Emmy nomination for Keepers of the Flame, an ABC Olympic television special, which she co-produced, wrote, and narrated.

De Varona in 1994 provided extensive coverage of the feud between American figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan . (In January, Harding's boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, clubbed Kerrigan in the knees in an attempt to eliminate her from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Harding claimed to have no foreknowledge of the event.) De Varona appeared on ABC's World News Tonight, Good Morning America, Weekend News, ABC's Wide World of Sports, and various talk shows. She also followed the story to Norway, and covered the athletic events. Two years later, when the Summer Olympics were in Atlanta, de Varona anchored Good Morning America 's Olympic coverage, while broadcasting the days' results on ABC Radio.

Since 1998, de Varona has been a weekly commentator for Sporting News Radio, a 24-hour sports radio network. De Varona covered her 12th Olympic Games in 2000 when she signed on with NBC for the Games in Sydney, Australia. At those Games, the International Olympic Committee presented de Varona with its highest award, the Olympic Order.

Awards and Accomplishments

1960 Youngest member of U.S. Olympic team at Rome
1960-64 37 national swimming championships
1963 Two gold medals at Pan American Games
1964 Two gold medals at Tokyo Olympics; named Most Outstanding Female Athlete by Associated Press and United Press International; world record holder in 400-meter individual medley and 100-meter backstroke
1969 International Swimming Hall of Fame
1983 Women's Sports Hall of Fame
1986 Yale Kephuth Fellowship and New York State Board of Regents' Medal of Excellence
1987 Girl Scouts Humanitarian Award, U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame; Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame
1988 Member of National Women's Law Center advisory board; receives Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Drury College, Springfield, Missouri; receives Lifetime Fitness Award from National Fitness Foundation
1989 Outstanding Mother of the Year from Mother's Day Committee; receives Woman of the Year Award from Mew York Athletic League
1990 National Handicapped Sports Hero Award
1991 Gold Medallion Award from International Swimming Hall of Fame
1991 Emmy Award as producer of Special Olympics feature
1992 American Woman Award for Leadership from Women's Research and Education Institute; receives Olympia Award from U.S. Olympic Committee
1995 Ellis Island Medal of Honor
1995 Flo Hyman Award from Women's Sports Foundation
1997 HOBY International Award for youth leadership from the Hugh O'Brien Youth Leadership Organization
1998 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, St. Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut
1998 Emmy Award nomination for Keepers of the Flame, as co-producer and co-writer
1999 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Springfield College, Springfield, Massachusetts; Thurman Munson Award
2000 Gracie Award, American Women in Radio and Television, for excellence in broadcasting; Honorary Doctorate, United States Sports Academy; Olympic Order for leadership and service
2001 Gracie Award; Susan B. Anthony "Trailblazer" Award from University of Rochester; Albert Schoenfield Journalism Award; led the delegation accompanying US Women's National Soccer Team to China
2002 Overcoming Obstacles Achievement Award from Community for Education Foundation
2003 Theodore Roosevelt Award, highest honor from the National Collegiate Athletic Association

Asterisk After Her Name

De Varona has been active in a variety of organizations and committees. She has been an adviser to President Ford's Commission on Olympic Sports and President Carter's Women's Advisory Commission, and served five terms on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. From its inception in 1969, to 1988, de Varona has sat on the board of the Special Olympics. She was also consultant on Title IX legislation, which became law in 1972 and prohibits sex discrimination in sports. She finally earned her degree in 1986 upon completion of two assignments: one on the history of amateur sports legislation and the other on the impact on women's sports of Title IX.

Shortly after the adoption of Title IX, de Varona and tennis champion Billie Jean King founded the Women's Sports Foundation in 1974, de Varona serving as its first president. "The effort I had put forth in my swimming career gave me the stamina to become an activist for Olympic athletes and women, raising money and awareness," de Varona told USA Swimming online. "The world is political and you have to fight. Once you've been able to reach goals, like winning Olympic gold medals, no one can take that effort away. That accomplishment opens doors. It's like having an asterisk after your name." De Varona has received dozens of honorary degrees and awards, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award.

A $50 Million Lawsuit

In April 1998, ABC did not renew de Varona's contract. Their reason for firing her was, allegedly, her "failing to appeal to a male demographic of ages eighteen to thirty-nine." Charging age and gender discrimination under federal law, de Varona shot back with a $50 million lawsuit. In her complaint, de Varona asserted that male veteran colleagues, such as Frank Gifford , then 69, received preferential assignments. "It took a lot of soul-searching," de Varona told People. "It would have been much easier to walk away, but I felt I had to do it."

The suit was settled out of court in 2002, and de Varona rejoined ABC Sports as a commentator and reporter.

Fights for Women's Sports

De Varona left ABC once before, in 1976, after facing what she termed "discriminatory barriers" as a female sportscaster. The NBC network soon swept her up. ABC Sports enticed her back in 1983, when de Varona assumed a management position and went on to cover such events as the Harding-Kerrigan scandal, the New York City Marathon, the Indianapolis 500 auto race, and several Olympic Games.

De Varona has never backed down from supporting justice for women in amateur and professional athletics. "I will always be an activist," she told Women's Sports and Fitness. "That is a lifetime commitment."


Address: c/o Women's Sports Foundation, Eisenhower Park, East Meadow, NY 11554. Fax: 1-800-227-3988. Email: Online:

Where Is She Now?

These days, de Varona balances her life between broadcasting, family, and women's advocacy. She has been writing commentary for Sporting News Radio, and working as a sports and organizational consultant for the ABC, ESPN, and Disney networks.

The former Olympian chaired the 1999 Women's World Cup Soccer Organizing Committee, which resulted in what some have called "the most successful women's sporting event ever," according to Marty Benson of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Still, de Varona believes the media gives women short shrift. "I thought as cable permeated the airwaves that women's sports would get a better piece of the action," she told NCAA's Benson, adding, "I'm frustrated that we don't read, hear, and see more about women's sports." De Varona, who remains active as chair of the Women's Sports Foundation's Board of Stewards, is still an honorary trustee for the Foundation. Most recently, de Varona was awarded the Over-coming Obstacles award from the Community for Education Foundation, given to those who have achieved professional excellence and fostered growth within their sphere of expertise.

De Varona and her husband, John Pinto, a lawyer, live in Greenwich, Connecticut. The couple have two teenage children, John David and Joanna, both of whom participate in sports.


(With Barry Tarshis) Donna de Varona's Hydro-Aerobics, New York: Fawcett, 1986.



Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports, Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Pemberton, Cynthia Lee A. More Than a Game: One Woman's Fight for Gender Equity in Sport. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.


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Grossman, Andrew. "De Varona Plans to Return to ABC as Lawsuit Is Settled." Hollywood Reporter (October 1, 2002): 4.

"Making Waves: Olympian Donna de Varona Charges ABC Fired Her because of Her Age." People (May 15, 2000): 89.

Schneider, Michael. "De Varona Accuses ABC of Bias." Variety (April 17, 2000): 47.


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De Varona, Donna: 1947—: Olympic Swimmer, Sportscaster, Activist

Donna de Varona: 1947: Olympic swimmer, sportscaster, activist

Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona has had a rich and varied career. She won two gold medals in the 1964 Olympics, and was one of the first women hired as a sports reporter for a major television network. A dedicated activist on behalf of women in sports, de Varona helped found the Women's Sports Foundation and has testified before Congress on issues related to women in sports. She has held advisory positions to five U.S. presidents since 1966.

Donna de Varona was born in April of 1947 in San Diego, California. Her father, David de Varona, was a Hall-of-Fame rower and an All-American football player for the University of California. As her first swimming coach, he encouraged de Varona to develop her swimming ability, and made sure that she attended meets. De Varona's mother, Martha, was also warm and supportive of her interests.

Won Two Gold Medals Before Twenty

Initially, de Varona wanted to play Little League baseball, like her beloved older brother David. She loved the game so much that in elementary school, she chose the desk closest to the door so she could be the first one out on the field when the bell rang to signal the end of class.

However, because she was a girl, and Little League was only open to boys at the time, she was barred from any position other than "bat girl." She quickly became bored with spending her time at every game on the sidelines. As she told Marty Benson in the NCAA News, "Being that close and not being able to play hurt too much." When David injured a knee and switched to swimming, she followed him to a new sport. de Varona's ability in the pool was readily apparent, since even as a young child, she had always been a strong swimmer. She entered her first meet when she was nine, and soon outgrew her father's coaching, becoming a protege of some of California's best coaches. She specialized in the difficult 400-meter medley, in which competitors swim four laps, each in a different stroke: freestyle, butterfly, breast stroke, and back stroke. In 1960, when she was 13, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in that event. She was the youngest member of the American team that year, and loved the excitement of traveling to Rome with the other athletes. Unfortunately, her event was canceled and she did not compete.

During high school, de Varona trained up to six hours a day, but managed to maintain a B average in her studies. In 1964 she qualified for the Olympic team again, and won a gold medal in the 400-meter medley. As a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay team, she then won another gold medal.

At a Glance . . .

Born Donna de Varona in April of 1947, in San Diego, California; daughter of David and Martha de Varona; married John Pinto (a lawyer and investment banker); children: John David, Joanna. Education: University of California-Los Angeles, BA, political science, 1986.

Career: Swimmer, 1960-64; ABC, Wide World of Sports, Olympics broadcaster, 1968, 1972, 1976; NBC, Sports World, Today Show, broadcaster, 1978-83; commentator, consultant, writer, coproducer, contributor: Wide World of Sports, ABC News, Good Morning America, ESPN, ABC radio, 1984; Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports, ABC, assistant, 1983-86; NBC, Olympics, broadcaster, 1996, 2000; Sporting News Radio, radio sports commentator, 1998; Sporting News, Olympics reporter, 2002.

Selected awards: Winner of 37 U.S. swimming championships, 1960-64; gold medals in swimming, Pan-American Games 1963; gold medals, 400-meter medley and 400-meter freestyle relay, Olympic Games, 1964; Associated Press and United Press International Most Outstanding Female Athlete, 1965; Emmy Award, 1991; Gracie Award from American Women in Radio and Television, 2000, 2001; Susan B. Anthony "Trailblazer" Award, 2001; inductee: International Swimming Hall of Fame; U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame; Women's Sports Hall of Fame.

Address: Office Sporting News Radio, P.O. Box 509, Techny, IL 60082.

After setting 18 world swimming records, de Varona retired from competitive swimming in 1965. She retired largely because she was now in college at the University of California-Los Angeles, and the school, like most other universities at the time, had no athletic programs for women. With bills to pay de Varona had to spend her spare time working, and she began looking around for work that would use her interest in and knowledge of sports. Undeterred by the fact that at the time, all the sportscasters on the major television networks were male, she used her Olympic experience to her advantage, and became the first female broadcaster on the ABC network's Wide World of Sports. After graduating from college, she decided to make a career in broadcasting.

Became a Reporter and Activist

Despite her early success with ABC, it was difficult for de Varona to find work in her male-dominated field. She traveled all over the United States, filling in temporarily when regular anchormen became ill or went on vacation. Eventually, she found permanent work as an Olympic reporter with NBC and ABC.

During the 1970s, de Varona also became involved in activism for the cause of women's sports. She was a founding member of the Women's Sports Foundation, and in 1975 she served on President Ford's Commission on Olympic Sports. She also testified on behalf of Title IX legislation in front of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Title IX legislation ultimately ensured that girls and women received the same opportunities and federal funding in sports education that boys and men did. According to an article in Great Women in Sports, de Varona told a Women's Sports and Fitness writer, "I will always be an activist. That is a lifetime commitment."

De Varona began covering the Olympics in 1972, and would report on the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Games for ABC. According to Great Women in Sports, she told a Women's Sports and Fitness reporter that the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia were the most difficult for her: "I was there by myself, no producer, no assignments. I hustled everything myself. I just went out, grabbed a crew, did spots and wrote stories. That was my test because I was just back at ABC and we were in a crisis situation with the problems of scheduling and snow."

Clashed With ABC

Though de Varona received critical acclaim for her coverage of the 1984 Summer Olympics, choice assignments were few and far between. She told Sally Jenkins in Sports Illustrated, "I don't feel the rewards [I should have gotten] came after that. You do good work, and then wait and wait for another good assignment." However, she also noted that despite the widespread discrimination against women in sportscasting, "It's too easy to play the victim. We're making progress. It's coming. It's just taking longer than I ever thought it would."

In 1988 de Varona continued her Olympic coverage when she reported from Calgary. She also expanded her career by working for Turner Network Television and Sporting News Radio. In 1991 de Varona won an Emmy award for her reporting of a story about a Special Olympics athlete.

In 1998 ABC let de Varona's contract lapse and, according to de Varona, encouraged her to leave. In People, de Varona told a reporter that the network was trying to attract more of the [age] "18-to-39 male market" and that network executives believed that she was too old to hold this audience's interest. In 2000 she filed an age-discrimination suit against ABC, arousing controversy in the sports broadcasting world. Of her decision to take legal action against ABC, she told People magazine, "It would have been much easier to walk away, but I felt I had to do it." The case was later settled out of court, and de Varona resumed working at ABC.

Declaring her candidacy for the presidency of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2002, de Verona withdrew from the race after six days. According to Mer-Jo Borzilleri in an article provided by the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, de Varona said that "time and resources" did not allow her to give the job the attention it would require. In addition, she noted that it would probably create a conflict of interest for her to report on the Olympics at the same time that she was serving as president of the Olympic committee, and she did not want to stop reporting. However, she also said that she would reconsider running for the position in 2004. In 2003 de Varona was selected to receive the NCAA's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. The award, also known as the "Teddy," is given to a distinguished citizen who is a former college student-athlete and who shows a continuing interest in physical fitness and sport.

Controversy Over Title IX

Later in 2003 de Varona took a controversial position regarding the Title IX legislation she had been instrumental in creating during the 1970s. President George Bush had asked Education Secretary Rod Paige to establish a commission to determine whether the legislation should be altered. The commission recommended making certain controversial changes to the legislation; according to Women's E-News the Save Title IX campaign, which opposed the changes, said they would cost high school girls 305,000 opportunities to participate in sports; college women would miss 50,000 participation opportunities as well as $122 million in athletic scholarships.

Opposed to the changes, de Varona, who served on the commission, and another commission member, Julie Foudy, refused to sign the commission's list of propositions for change. As a result, Secretary Paige subsequently announced that he would only consider recommendations for change that won unanimous support from the commission.

In addition to her political work on behalf of women's sports, de Varona continues to work as a broadcaster for Sporting News Radio. On the radio network's website, a press release noted, "Each week [de Varona's] commentary explores and highlights the positive stories of athletes, coaches and the people who support them. She brings to light the behind-the-scenes achievements that often go unnoticed." Summing up her goals in life, de Varona told Marty Benson in the NCAA News, "My passion is to see as many opportunities as possible for as many people as possible, all the way from the grass-roots level to the colleges."



Great Women in Sports, Visible Ink Press, 1996.


Broadcasting and Cable, April 17, 2000, p. 69.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 19, 2002, p. K7770; February 25, 2003, p. K2941.

People, May 15, 2000, p. 89.

Sports Illustrated, June 17, 1991, p. 78.

Women's E-News, March 11, 2003, p. 0.


"Donna de Varona," NCAA News, (May 7, 2003).

"Donna de Varona," Sporting News Radio, varona/index.html (May 15, 2003).

"Sporting News Radio's Donna de Varona wins second-consecutive Gracie Allen Award," Sporting News Radio, /pres/20010426_donna.html (June 4, 2003).

Kelly Winters

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