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Beyond Esther Williams…

Game Face, hy Jane Gottesman. Random House. $35

It’s miraculous to see an athlete at her peak performance. But as a swimmer, I have also loved the drama of the pre-race as the competitors mount their blocks, stretching and loosening their muscles, bodies contoured to the sport, faces of concentration fierce as warriors. I can almost vicariously feel the power and pain of the swimmer’s efforts. I tend to share in the exhilaration of the winner and the disappointment of her challengers. In Jane Gottesman’s Game Face, a wonderful collection of photographs and texts celebrating women and girls in the physical and emotional pleasures of competition and play, we see magnificent professionals, recreational athletes, and females having fun.

Choosing favorites among the photographs is a purely subjective pleasure. I found myself going back to the powerful and majestic Lakia Washington, a rower, who says about her sport, “When you didn’t think you had anything left, you had to give more.” Over 56 different sports appear in this collection, the earliest a photograph of Annie Oakley dating from the 1870s. The contemporary photographs will be familiar to those who follow sports, and the older ones arc historical documents of touching beauty. Some of the Jewish women here are a surprise.

Accompanying the photographs are short statements by the athletes and longer stories of accomplishment. In one of the longer pieces Ernestine Bayer tells us how she met her future husband, who was an oarsman, in 1927 when she was 18 years old. They fell in love and married secretly. His goal was to compete in the all-male 1928 Olympics, and the rule then forbade marriage as it was the belief that married men lost their strength having sex. Ernestine would watch her husband row from the banks of the Schuylkill River and after a decade of this she saw alone woman take out a boat and row. This was scandalous among the male rowers as women simply did not row and any female who crossed this line was looked upon with disdain. Ernestine’s interest in rowing became a passion and she started the first rowing club for women in America.

Most of all, this book is about dedication, determination, women’s power, and a love of sport. Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf California’s huge 25 foot waves says, “I love it all. I love the smallest, junkiest day out there by myself I love the head-high waves. I love the big waves. I don’t care. I’d surf in my toilet if I could.” Now that’s devotion.  

Jan AronsonNew York-based, is a professional artist and avid amateur athlete.