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Shredding the Stereotype

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
This wreck didn't stop Simona de Silvestro from qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Photo: Mark Miller, AP

It's common for us chest-pounding males to refer to sports we don't like or view in anyway soft (like basketball) as a "girls' sport."

Title IX was passed nearly 40 years ago in 1972 and has helped significantly boost the opportunity for females to compete at a high level of sport.  However, despite the four decades of equality*, women still have trouble shedding outdated stereotypes when it comes to athletics.

Cue up INDYCAR's Simona de Silvestro: she doesn't shed the stereotype.  She shreds it!

De Silvestro won her first race at the age of three; hailing from Switzerland, it won't surprise you that it was a ski race.  However, while the Swiss banned auto racing in 1955, thirty-three years before she was born in 1988, they couldn't dispel her interest in the sport.

As an infant, Simona's father claims she was only quiet when Formula 1 came on TV.  At age 4, she once spent the entire day in tears after her father participated in a go-kart demonstration but her feet couldn't touch the pedals.

So, despite promising ability in skiing, fencing, and tennis, Simona scrapped her country's common sports to participate in one it had banned.  She traveled around the nearby European region to race in countries like Italy, France and Monaco.

At the age of just 17 in 2006, Simona moved across the pond to jump start a career in the United States.  In 2009, she became the first woman in Atlantic Championship series history to earn the most wins, pole positions, and most laps led in a single season and finished third in the standings.  That success translated to a call up to the big leagues, and she made her first start in the IZOD IndyCar Series in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 14, 2010, leading four laps in the process.

Two months later, at the age of 21, she qualified and made her first start in the pinnacle of the racing world: the Indianapolis 500.  Naturally, she impressed the field, claiming the race's Rookie of the Year honors with a 14th-place finish.  She went on to start every race in 2010 and finished 19th in the standings.

Through four races in 2011, de Silvestro has already improved on her rookie year.  She finished fourth in St. Petersburg for her first career top-five and reeled off another top-10 in Alabama a few weeks later.  Preparing for the Indianapolis 500, she sat 11th in the standings.

However, despite her success, her biggest headlining moment came last Thursday.

Practicing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the rear suspension on de Silvestro's No. 78 HVM Racing Honda ruptured, sending her flying airborne along the wall for several hundred yards before she flipped and spun face-down like a top as flames engulfed the car.

The emergency crews were quick on the scene to extinguish the flames and pull de Silvestro out of the car, but the flames still ripped through her fire-retardant gloves and left her with second-and-third degree burns to her hands.

At a luncheon in downtown Boston yesterday, de Silvestro admitted she was shaken up after the crash and questioned her commitment to racing.  She joked with the media that after the wreck, people were changing her nickname from Swiss Miss to Swiss Missile.  Her hands were still wrapped, as she tweeted, like Mickey Mouse, which made it hard for her to take apart the lobsters she and fellow INDYCAR drivers Will Power and Justin Wilson were presented for lunch.

However, it didn't matter because she was there...and, only the 33 drivers who had qualified for the Indy 500 were sent on publicity missions throughout the continent on Monday.

The qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 was held this past Saturday and Sunday, starting just two days after de Silvestro's horrific crash.

When it came down to it and she had recollected herself, Simona did what any tough and stubbornly competitive athlete would do, she spurned the advice of doctors and the voice of reason, climbed back behind the wheel of the car and qualified for the Indianapolis 500.

Because, that's the only thing true athletes, male or female, know how to do: compete.

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However, this wasn't just a ho-hum feat.

I'll admit on behalf of all us Joe the Plumber, high school glory days, former male athletes: we wouldn't have gotten back in that car.  Major League Baseball players that go on the 15-day disabled list with a bad case of athlete's foot wouldn't have gotten back in that car.  The English Premier League soccer players who grab their legs like they're broken until a yellow card comes out and then get up without a limp wouldn't have gotten back in that car.

But, the 22-year-old girl from Switzerland who doesn't stand more than 5'6' and still had her burned hands wrapped like a cartoon character did!

So, if there are any males that aren't as amazed by Simona de Silvestro's athletic character as they are with Tom Brady's when he ropes a 50-yard touchdown, I'd suggest that guy stop spending so much time at the water cooler talking about when he was the third-string tight end for a Division 4 high school runner-up team 20 years ago and spend a little more time reconnecting with the sports climate of this generation.

At the age of just 22, de Silvestro is the highest female in the IZOD IndyCar Series' standings (leading the much more talked about Danica Patrick), and, by qualifying through adversity for the 100th Indianapolis 500, she proved that she has the athletic fortitude to compete with any athlete, female or male.  It'll be fun to watch this athlete sprout into one of the top drivers in the series.

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New England race fans will have the opportunity to watch Simona de Silvestro and all of her competition when the IZOD IndyCar Series races the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on August 14, 2011.  The cars are expected to hit speeds over 200 miles an hour (noticeably faster than NASCAR), and tickets are still available through NHMS.com or by calling the hotline at (603) 783-4931.

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*I didn't want to ruin the article's flow, but wanted to state for the record, I oppose the letter of Title IX and won a debate in college on my argument that it diminishes the opportunity for lower-tier men's sports [volleyball, water polo, etc.].  I believe that football, as a major moneymaker that is heavily responsible for funding most of an athletic department's budget, should be exempt from depleting scholarships.  That said, in terms of the promotion of female sports, I can't deny it has been very beneficial.  So, I'd simply like the title reworded for the equality of both genders' opportunities to play the sports they enjoy, even if their sport doesn't bring in huge bucks.

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-JS