blog February 1, 2022

CTO Sharmila Bristol on How Sports Empower Girls to Live Lives of Purpose

In honor of Girls and Women in Sports Day, Javara CTO Sharmila Bristol shares invaluable insights surrounding the impact of sports on girls and women and their growth – both as individuals and as professionals – through her personal story.

My earliest memories of being active are from the jungle gym in kindergarten, where I spent many hours. At the time, I naively thought all young girls were encouraged to be active and outdoors. Why wouldn’t they? But I was a girl, growing up in India. As I grew older, that jungle gym turned into cricket matches with my older brother and the other kids on our street; I was continually the only girl among us.

As a child, I had always been empowered to be outdoors, to be active, to play sports. I didn’t understand at the time that for every sporting event that I was encouraged to participate in, there was a girl who had been encouraged not to.

In middle school, I participated in track and field, and competition was fun and fierce among the girls. It felt so natural… it was an all-girls school.

In high school, track cycling stole my heart. Training sessions book-ended the school day, and I relished the workouts. Travelling for national competitions put a harsh spotlight on the fact that teams of 25-30 cyclists had two or three females, and many teams had none. There was not a single woman among coaches or officials. We had no safety in numbers, but we supported each other and rode to win. And when we did, we won in other areas of our lives as well.

Unbeknownst to me at that time, these early experiences shaped my sense of autonomy and my confidence when faced with situations that are limiting or challenging. I was very fortunate to have parents who supported my sporting activities, despite the societal expectations in India for parents to keep their girls out of sports, as they were dominated by boys. This promoted my sense of worthiness as an individual and helped me develop independence in other areas of my life.

I pursued a higher secondary education at an all-boys school, because I really wanted to study the sciences, but the equivalent girls’ school only offered the arts.

Pursing my passion for sports helped me develop the courage to show up, be seen, and be unapologetic for who I was. It also helped me develop the confidence that I leaned on to pursue my college degrees in Math and Computer Science, and a career in STEM which has led to learning and fulfillment. Sports shaped my trajectory in life.

My personal experiences reinforced the positive impact that supportive programs and adults can have on a young girl’s life. It attracted me to Girls on the Run (GOTR), an organization focused on building confidence through physical activity to positively change young girls’ lives. I started volunteering, with my young daughter, at the GOTR Triangle Council events. The positive energy at these events was incredible and inspired me to sign up as a coach and mentor for twelve elementary school girls from diverse backgrounds. I expected the program to encourage girls to be joyful and healthy; I did not expect the dramatic mental and emotional difference I saw in each participant, as they crossed the 5K line after just one season. The gratitude from their parents was affirming. As a Board Member at GOTR Triangle, I am now focused on helping improve equity and access to under-represented girls.

I firmly believe that sports are invaluable in teaching us how to honestly evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, how to deal with success as well as failure. Through sports we can develop the ability to make adaptations during key changes in our lives; they teach us how to be resilient. In a world where we are still fighting for equality, it is more important than ever that we come together and do our part, motivating girls to participate and enabling them to realize their full potential. Sports empower girls to live lives of purpose. It is my hope that someday, every girl is given that opportunity.