Created by Jamie Mittelman, Flame Bearers: The Women Athletes Carrying Tokyo's Torch is a new podcast which spotlights female Olympians’ and Paralympians’ experiences of life, giving them a platform of celebration and an opportunity to share their learnings. Jamie's mission is to actively create space to celebrate the current generation of female Olympians and Paralympians.
1. What inspired you to create the podcast and what is your mission?
I started the podcast almost as my own personal rescue mission. The last four years have been really hard on my family. We lost my dad, almost lost my mom, and have struggled to rebalance on four legs instead of five. I didn't realize just how deeply this had darkened my world until COVID hit, and I began to see others struggling with pain and isolation. It suddenly felt like the grief that had stalked me was suddenly normalized. I found strength in this period from realizing that I was not only not alone, but that I had developed coping mechanisms I could share with others.
I created this podcast to be a microphone for women who are true masters of resilience, who we can all learn from. Sport connects us all regardless of race, religion, class, sexuality, or any other qualifier one can imagine. My goal is to spark hope in a time of uncertainty and pain. If I can reach just one person, I’m happy.
Our mission is to actively celebrate the current generation of women Olympians and Paralympians. We will have real conversations about what it means to be amongst the best female athletes in the world, and discuss the untold stories not caught on camera including the difficult daily tradeoffs and tensions many feel about their ageing bodies, careers, and interests in having children to name a few but also the unheard positive stories about deeper connections and solidarity.
2. You are a former soccer athlete and you've described this period of your life as one of the most challenging. Tell us about your own experiences as an athlete and what it means to you personally to be able to share this podcast with the world?
I am an athlete and love everything about sports, but given who I’m speaking with, I have humorously realized how clinging to ‘athleticism’ as any part of my identity is just funny. That said, my love and appreciation for sport — and the ways it can teach us resiliency and grit— was one of the main reasons I wanted to create this podcast.
Growing up, many of the hardest and most rewarding times of my life were on the field (soccer), mountain (ski racing), and on the track. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) paralyzed me during my college soccer experience, transforming the game from one of joy to one of constant anxiety and fear. I share this because sport has provided me with countless opportunities to reflect and grow, and I want to share this with others because, at its core, sports aren’t about what’s on the field or court. They’re about the human challenges and mental battles each athlete has inside and the journeys they take before and after the game.
Sports have been the wheelhouse in which I’ve had some of my greatest joys, but also the home for embarrassing and cringe-worthy self-realizations. Sport gave me the opportunity to share meaningful experiences with my family members; my parents taught me to ski when I was 3 and my Dad was my soccer coach growing up — he never missed a game. Sport has been one of my greatest teachers, and given the many more hours these athletes have dedicated to perfecting crafts than I had, I know that the lessons they’ve gleaned will be that much more powerful.
I wanted to create this podcast to provide an opportunity for both athletes and listeners alike. For the athletes to share their dreams, struggles, and lessons of mental fortitude, overcoming stereotypes, and building resilience, and for all listeners to learn from the life-changing experiences of these elite female athletes and their communities.
2. Tell us about the women you've featured so far and the stories that have stood out to you most.
To date, we’ve spotlighted eight incredible women from countries ranging from Nigeria to Denmark and the US.
We tell their stories as they want them told -- we literally ask them what aspects of their lives they want to focus on, be it class, race, sexuality, parenthood -- and spotlight the issues they care most about. We celebrate both Olympians and Paralympians and firmly believe that more media outlets should champion our world’s Paralympians who have overcome disabilities to compete at the highest levels of sport. They are no less deserving of our fandom and appreciation.
Each athlete’s stories have stuck with me in different ways. World ParaBadminton Champion, Manasi Joshi, told me of the day she lost her leg in a car accident, and hearing her sister, Nupur talk about watching Manasi walk again made me start sobbing during our interview.
Listening to Becky Sauerbrunn’s partner, Zola discuss his reaction to the USWNT’s pay equity lawsuit made me realize the true power of partnership and what it’s like to really have someone’s back. Hearing Nicky Nieves discuss growing up without a hand, and hiding her nub in clothing made me reflect on all of the times I’ve been self-conscious about parts of my body. Listening to Sanda’s experiencing balancing motherhood and judo helped illuminate the tensions of being a working woman athlete.
3. We've heard the wisdom of 8 incredible female athletes already, speaking to these women - is there anything that they all have in common? What are some of the biggest lessons they've shared?
There are many more obvious commonalities -- they all work ridiculously hard, have overcome extreme adversity, and love their sport. That said, I have noticed a few trends:
Sport is a medium of expression and outlet for emotions. It is much more than just an activity they do for the sake of completion, but also a process through which they learn and reflect. They use their respective sports as a medium for clarity (i.e. it helps them work through things).
They have strong support systems. We tend to think of athletes as islands, but every athlete gets to where she is with the support of others. While many of the athletes I interviewed grew up in relatively financially privileged positions, not all have. However, every single athlete I have spoken with has had someone (and often multiple people) behind them emotionally. For every Olympian and Paralympian who competes in the Games, there are parents, mentors, and friends that have also sacrificed to make their dreams a possibility.
Many have not always been the best. While yes, there are lifelong prodigies, many of these athletes had been middle of the pack at their sport at one time. What separated many was the time they dedicated and the coaching they received.
One lesson I learned throughout this process is that I put our world’s best on a platform and in many ways, assume that they are different. I tend to forget that they too are human. Throughout all of my interviews, I have continued to be struck by the realization that even the athletes I grew up idolizing are real people with emotions, doubts, and insecurities. I am so honoured that so many of them have felt comfortable opening up and enabling me to show the world who they are when it’s not game time and the cameras are off.
4. One of The Female Lead's themes is to 'Find Strength in Setbacks, with COVID and the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 games, we know that this has been a particularly difficult time for many Olympians - from the conversations you've had - how are they coping and has there been many positives to take from this difficult period?
Every athlete is coping differently, especially the older athletes who are worried about being aged out of the competition. That said, so much of the mental training that helped each athlete reach the elite level is now helping them stay focused. Ida Jacobsen’s episode focuses specifically on her struggle with the postponement of the Games; in her episode, Harvard’s Dr Kimberlyn Leary (Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Associate Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School; Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health), and Nancy Lieberman (1980 USA Basketball Olympic Team Member that did not compete because of USA boycott; Silver Medalist, 1976 Games) offer the following coping techniques:
Focus on what you can control today and let go of the rest
Keep hope that what you have worked for will happen in some form -- it may not look like what you had envisioned, but that doesn’t mean it still won’t be special
There isn’t one right way to deal with this time and that everyone is doing their best
Recognize that everyone is under enormous stress and that as a result, you have to be proactive in combatting it however works best for you (working out, eating well, sleeping well, seeing people at a safe distance); simply staying at home in lockdown will drive you crazy, so put checks in place now
Do something meaningful that makes you feel like you are supporting the community or someone else during this challenging time: there is a role for everyone in this recovery
Envision yourself there and being successful. As Nancy said, “Master the things that take no talent. It doesn't take talent to think like a champion. It doesn't take talent to show up. It doesn't take talent to have a finisher's mentality. That's how you win the game.”
In terms of silver linings, many athletes say that this time has allowed them to reflect on why they are doing what they are doing: that time itself has been a gift that has given them time to think about their underlying motivations.
5. In the podcast you cover many grounds, from their careers to their ageing bodies and their interest in having children - what has been the most surprising revelation for you?
The best surprise has been the relationships I have built with the athletes we spotlight; my goal is to tell their story as they want them told, and I’ve been really caught off guard by the genuine appreciation they respond with. Most athletes are used to reporters looking for an angle and are disarmed by a student who genuinely seeks to celebrate their experiences for the sake of storytelling and learning.
6. What do you hope the podcast will achieve and what's next for you?
I hope this podcast creates a few sparks of hope for people during this challenging time. Further, I aspire to bring visibility to athletes who normally may not receive the support and coverage I believe they deserve. I hope that others feel the same was as Manasi Joshi did when she shared the following feedback after her episode launched:
“The topics that top athletes spoke about made me understand that I am not alone... This podcast helped me understand the power of sports, how it impacts lives and the importance of sharing our stories with a wider audience. There are so many people going through similar experiences and when they are able to relate, they feel they are not alone.”
From a professional perspective, I wanted to continue to grow my digital marketing skillset and work with female Olympians and Paralympics (but in a manner that was safe for all). In terms of what’s next for me, I have one more year at the Kennedy School. I am dedicating my time to that and the podcast. The Olympics create a natural end for season 1 of the podcast. After that, I will look back and use the learnings from season 1 to decide where to take the podcast next.
Flame Bearers - The Women Athletes Carrying Tokyo's Torch features:
Becky Sauerbrunn, Olympic Soccer (US): Profiles her fight for pay equity
Sanda Aldass, Olympic Judo (International Olympic Committee, Refugee Athlete Scholarship-Holder): Follows her escape from the Syrian Civil War and journey into motherhood
Manasi Joshi, Paralympic Badminton (India): Details how her leg amputation allowed her to become an advocate for disability rights
Lea Davison, Olympic Mountain Biking (US): Explores her journey to becoming one of the first openly gay professional bikers
Nicky Nieves, Paralympic Volleyball (US): Spotlights her identity as an AfroLatina and support for the Black Lives Matter Movement
Ezinne Kalu, Olympic Basketball (Nigeria): Celebrates her identity as an entrepreneur
Katarina Roxron, Paralympic Swimming (Canada): Spotlights her family dynamic (her father is also her coach) and her commitment to living a balanced/healthy lifestyle
Ida Jacobsen, Olympic Rowing (Denmark); Adjusting to the Pandemic
To find out more about the podcast visit: https://www.flamebearerspodcast.com/,
To find out more about Jamie visit: https://jamiemittelman.medium.com/