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Today 41 percent of high school athletes are girls, and there are approximately 755 more women's college sports teams than men's.

But beyond all the statistics is the remarkable reality of the girls I met while reporting this article: They are truly different creatures from the girl I was and the girls I grew up with. Across socioeconomic lines, girls today feel entitled to do what they want professionally, to have what they want materially, and to be who they want to be emotionally. After talking to dozens, I came to believe that a good deal of their empowerment came into being on the athletic fields.

"I can't begin to tell you what javelin means to me," says Kayla, a petite 17-year-old New York City private-school senior who proudly shows me the biceps that pop out of her reed-thin arms. "When I throw, the world narrows down to me, the runway, and the javelin. I feel so strong. When I practice and practice and practice, and I approach throwing a hundred [feet], the impossible seems possible."

Ha'Ani, whose horn-rimmed glasses seem at odds with her silk-ribboned ponytails, was on crutches when we met. She'd torn a ligament playing soccer, and she was complaining bitterly about having to stay off the field and join "only" the target shooting team: "I mean, shooting is good for concentration. But it doesn't teach teamwork, leadership and stuff as much as soccer does."

A lot of credit for improving girls' body image may ultimately relate to athletics and go to Richard Nixon, our 37th president, who signed into law the groundbreaking Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Senators debating the legislation got so hung up worrying it would allow girls to play football they didn't even wonder about the beyond-the-gridiron ramifications of "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Those ramifications, it turns out, have sparked one of the most sweeping cultural changes in American history.

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