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USA's Martina Navratilova in action against Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, back in 2002. Picture: Rebecca Naden
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USA's Martina Navratilova in action against Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, back in 2002. Picture: Rebecca Naden
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Martina Navratilova is still an inspirational figure in women's sport

TO MARK the conclusion of 20x20 and to celebrate what has truly been a transformative two-year movement for Women in Sport in Ireland, KPMG together with 20x20 presented a live event last Wednesday.

The event aimed at provoking debate and to inspire viewers and other stakeholders in sport to act and choose what’s next for ‘Women in Sport’ in Ireland.

RTÉ’s Jacqui Hurley hosted a magnificent event. She was joined by a host of national and international trailblazers including one of the most successful female tennis players of all time, Martina Navratilova, Sonia O’Sullivan, Brian O’Driscoll, Rachel Blackmore and Leona Maguire.

 Republic of Ireland's Louise Quinn and Diane Caldwell watch the 'What's Next for Women in Sport?' conference presented by 20x20 in their team hotel at Sportschule Wedau in Duisburg. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Republic of Ireland's Louise Quinn and Diane Caldwell watch the 'What's Next for Women in Sport?' conference presented by 20x20 in their team hotel at Sportschule Wedau in Duisburg. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

I was a bit starstruck if I’m honest watching and listening to Martina Navratilova. I was and remain a big fan.

Her history and resilience in becoming one of the best tennis players in the world is mesmerising.

She offered us some fantastic insights into how to be true to yourself and break down barriers. I bring you here just a snapshot of her story and advice.

It’s a lesson for all sportswomen but also for life in general.

Martina was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, an oppressed state where she wasn’t allowed to think for herself. She was 18 when she fled to the US, angering the communist Czech regime, which immediately stripped her of her nationality.

She later said she had been forced to leave Czechoslovakia because the authorities were trying to stop her from playing in the US, where the majority of big tournaments were then held.

She last won at Wimbledon at age 46 despite people telling her she was too old.

Yesterday she told us: “First I was too young, then I was too old. I say to them, so when was I just right? You can’t let other people set your limitations.

“If I did that I would never have left my country. I would never have broken the records that I broke, you would never have heard of me.”

Another bold move in 1981 was when she came out as being gay.

“I wanted to be myself. I had to decide if coming out as a gay woman was the right thing to do, as this was 1981.

“Back then it was lonely out there and definitely not the thing to do. I was criticised from all kinds of places, all kinds of people, even my own family.

“I remember when I played Chris Evert and we were introduced, everybody clapped when Chris came out on the court but a lot of people just sat on their hands when I came on. When I came on the court some people even jeered and booed or whistled. So, I don’t think I got that kind of reception because they didn’t like my tennis or my very bad haircut.

’Coming out definitely didn’t help my tennis popularity. I paid a price. I think the price that I heard the most was career suicide.

“I know I lost some endorsements and sponsorships but in my heart I know I have gained things of much greater value.

“I worked to live my life to the fullest, with integrity, with intent, with knowledge that others might have come out because of my path and the chance to change the world for the better.

“The world has changed albeit very slowly but had I not broken those boundaries I wouldn’t be here sitting talking to you guys.

“You have to believe in yourself because if you don’t, who will and you have to fight for what you feel is right which is what I did and from there you’ve got to stay focused so that you can achieve, you can succeed, because you know life in general is never smooth.

“It’s not clear sailing, there are always twists and turns that have to be negotiated, especially now in the global world that we live in.

“The most important attribute for successfully breaking down barriers is ‘Resilience’. For all of you out there that want to break through that glass ceiling for women in sporting Ireland and around the world you must be resilient.

“You must be able to bounce back from low points, to bounce back from adversity. I’ve heard it said that resilience is a tennis players best friend. Because even if you’re losing, staying in the game and on the court is a victory in itself.

“It’s also been said that adversity is what introduces you to yourself, our lives are filed with highs and lows but I’ve learned to stop viewing and labelling experiences like a missed shot as bad or good.

“I treat them as challenges or opportunities to grow and improve. So, you’ve got to treat your life as a game when you’re constantly being challenged.

“Treat the vow for equality for women in sport as something that will challenge you and you need to be your best. And when you do that, very little will phase you.

“You will view negatives as challenges and an opportunity to grow. I also think I’m resilient because I live my values, I embrace values like sportsmanship, fairness, human rights equality.

“These qualities are what keeps me standing even if I am getting pummelled.

“If you really do believe sincerely in what you’re doing and your goals are worthwhile you will have the confidence to persevere even if faced with naysayers.”

Never a truer word. What a treat!