Video via GoPro, Inc. – GoPro Youtube | Words by me
Make sure to watch this great 9-part mini-documentary series called Two Roads by GoPro that highlights 9 athletes from lesser covered sports. I’m not sponsored or anything, but I think it would be in your best interest to learn something about how people persevere even though their accomplishments aren’t widely known. Your accomplishments are still worthy of oneself.
That infamous photo of Allison Stokke was taken during her Senior Year of High School during a track meet in New York. More than 2,000 miles away her parents were on the west coast having no idea exactly how much trouble that photo would cause for their then 18-year-old daughter.
Post photo release, people she knew began treating her differently. Soon after, she was immediately suffocated by creepy stalkers and gawkers – tabloids and glassy-eyed photographers swarmed her competitions to try and get as many photos of the track star heartthrob. The problem was she was gaining popularity for all the wrong reasons. They didn’t care about her 2004 California pole vaulting title, her five national vaulting records, how she worked hard to earn a GPA over 4.0, achieve a scholarship to UC Berkeley, Graduate with a Masters while simultaneously competing for a spot on the USA Summer Olympic Team. No. These accomplishments would be overshadowed by a photo that’s been haunting her career for almost 10 years now. If you don’t think so, just Google her name. The first hits that pop up aren’t a Wikipedia page like a normal athletes’. They’re usually garbage click-bait photo websites catered to lonely men hounding for their next fantasy fix. Check out the popular comments for the GoPro video – they’re a veritable men’s clubhouse of endless misogynistic jabs and lewd comments.
Stokke and her family knew early on that this kind of fame was fool’s gold. After much soul searching Allison figured that she had absolutely no control over how the world reacts to how she looks. She can, however, control what they should remember her for. Her feats. She wants to be known more for her athletics than her genetics.
Ever since that photo, she has been meticulously studying her craft and honing her pole vaulting acumen. Between sporadic posts on Instagram and Twitter, Allison has wisely kept her social life pretty low key since 2008. Now she has emerged a more knowledgeable person when it comes to controlling her strategic self-branding. She’s battle-hardened, and now she’s ready to erase this false idol the internet built of her. Or at the very least incorporate another dimension to the person that’s in the photo. She wants to move forward. And upward. She wants to surpass the mental crossbar that is that photo.
Battle of the Complexes
Allison proudly proclaims in the video, “I tried really hard to prove that I was more than just a pretty face. I don’t think you should ever have to try to prove that to anybody. Or to prove anything to anybody.”
Those words automatically made me respect her as an athlete ten-fold. It is unfair that many women experience a similar situation. I write this as a former (now ashamed) practitioner of highly offensive anti-feminist comments. 10 years ago, I was a Red-Bull fueled junior in college blown away by the goddess captured in the photograph. My younger self couldn’t process the hormones fast enough to take a step back and make sense of it all. It was all instinct and carnality. All youths experience this, and it’s messy, but I think it matters that they’re guided along the way by someone with a just moral compass. That way the future is a safe place for all who want to work hard to achieve their dreams.
It’s unfair that Allison and other women in their respective fields have to battle twice as hard to erase a stigma that originated from a male’s superiority complex. Why should they work twice as hard to be great at something while looking attractive at the same time? Or heaven forbid, be unattractive? It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Imagine having a daughter or yourself being judged this way by the world. It’s not pleasant. If this kind of competition breeds “winners”, then in this case we’re all losers.
“Doing things to prove yourself to other people – maybe it works for some people, but I think the best feeling is when you do something for yourself,” says Allison.
I don’t think she could’ve said it any better.