Knowledge is empowerment: The 2019 Female Athlete Conference

Conference postcard features a birds-eye-view of a swimmer

School was out for the summer at Babson College, but on June 4, Sorenson Auditorium was filled with over 400 people as Dr. Kathryn Ackerman kicked off the fourth biennial Female Athlete Conference. The one-of-a-kind conference, hosted by the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, drew attendees from as close as Boston and as far away as New Zealand. Dr. Ackerman, medical director of the Female Athlete Program and course director of the conference, told attendees it was “important to give those working with and caring for female athletes the dedicated time and space to learn from and inspire each other.” 

The Female Athlete Conference, the biggest and first of its kind in the world, comes at a critical time, as more clinicians and coaches are realizing that sports medicine suffers from a dearth of female-guided and focused research. As they address such topics as hormonal differences throughout the menstrual cycle, researchers who study female athletes are now working together to address challenges like acquiring sufficient funding to sustain their research.

The Female Athlete Conference, which was featured in a 2018 article in Outside magazine, brings together healthcare providers, researchers, coaches, athletes, and families, inviting collaboration between key players in the care and performance of female athletes. All of the earnings from the conference go directly into female athlete research initiatives.

Members of the Female Athlete Program, Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, Laura Moretti, and Nicole Farnsworth, were part of a panel discussion on the program’s care model.

Conference highlights

With a stacked lineup of more than 90 speakers and three keynote presentations, attendees heard from experts in sports medicine, sports psychology, sports science, sports culture, and nutrition, among other fields. Topics varied from the role of female coaches to early sports specialization to gender-specific sports equipment.

Motherhood and the elite female athlete

The morning sessions at the two-and-a-half day conference included inspiring and timely talks from keynotes and invited speakers, including Claire-Marie Roberts’ talk on motherhood and elite female athletes. Just weeks before the conference, news broke that Nike was not financially supporting its pregnant female athletes during time away from competition. At the conference, Roberts shared narratives from Olympic hopefuls, providing insight into how high-level athletes navigate pregnancy and motherhood, all while staying focused on their sport.

The medical needs of female athletes in para sports

Physician and elite Olympic and Paralympic athlete Dr. Cheri Blauwet presented on the medical considerations for the female Paralympic athlete and shared her own experiences as an athlete and advocate for athletes with disabilities. This came at a time when para athletes have a growing place in the public consciousness. A few weeks after Dr. Blauwet’s speech, the U.S. Olympic Committee officially changed its name to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee in a step toward inclusivity.

Empowering female athletes in South Africa

Dr. Phathokuhle Zondi, CEO of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) and sports and exercise medicine physician, inspired the audience with her keynote on empowering female athletes in South Africa. As a medical provider and advocate, she spoke about the challenges female athletes face in South Africa and how she works to encourage inclusion and representation of athletes at all levels. Her keynote emphasized the power of participation in sport and the global impact of supporting women athletes.

Body positivity: We are athletes, not objects

American professional runner and body positivity advocate Allie Kieffer shared her story of perseverance in the face of body shaming and social media bullying. In a sport that emphasizes “racing weight” and the “runner’s body,” Allie has shown the profound impact of strength and self-confidence on success in distance running. “We are athletes, not objects. The conversation should not be about our bodies,” Allie said to great applause.

Afternoon sessions addressed the injuries and clinical issues common in the female athlete population. 

What does a female athlete medical program do?

Attendees of the conference also heard from members of the Boston Children’s Female Athlete Program during a panel discussion. The interactive panel described the program’s interdisciplinary care model and was followed by Q&A with the audience. While some attendees wanted to learn how to handle specific case situations, others inquired about starting their own female-focused athlete programs, an exciting prospect as female sport participation continues to grow.

Attendees of the Female Athlete Conference pose beneath an enormous statue of the globe.

The power to change lives

Throughout the conference, attendees crossed the street to take pictures with Babson’s World Globe, a 25-ton model of the planet Earth that gently rotated throughout the conference. The globe served as an unintentional symbol of the international collaboration in the world of female athletics and sports medicine. As the globe turns (both Babson’s and the Earth), providers, researchers, trainers, coaches, and parents will continue to work toward improving the health and performance of female athletes.

In the words of the international organization UN Women, “Sport has the power to change lives. By teaching women and girls teamwork, resilience, self-reliance, and confidence, sport is one of the great drivers of gender equality.”

In this spirit, the Female Athlete Conference (next taking place in 2021) will continue to educate, inspire, and demonstrate that “girl power” is a commitment to supporting and advocating for female athletes worldwide.

About our blogger: Nicole Farnsworth, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical nutrition specialist with the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. As a former track and field athlete at Harvard University and NASM certified personal trainer, Nicole works with athletes to help them fuel their bodies properly for optimal health and performance.

Learn more about the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

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