All the Sporty Ladies: Female Athletes in Romance Novels -The Toast

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Mindy Hung’s previous bodice-ripping work for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: Love in Colour: Multicultural and Interracial Romance Novels. This installment was brought to you by a reader.

Just how does the average wealthy, workaholic male romance novel protagonist find time to lovingly hone the ridges of his rectus abdominis? If the gentleman is a sports star, then that’s easy: The six pack is simply part of his job.

But what happens when a heroine is the athlete? Fewer women make a living as professional athletes than men, and, as scholar Jackie Horne notes, this is reflected in the paucity of sporty heroines. Romance novels featuring gay and straight female athletes often have to address the pay gulf between men and women, the notion that female athletes need to put off love and family in order to have a successful career, or even the idea that muscles or competitiveness aren’t feminine or appealing.

Today, we’ll take a look at the issues facing sporty women of recent contemporary romance novels: the gifted amateurs, the retired pros, and the firmly-muscled crop of current competitors.

urlThe Derby Girl by Tamara Morgan

Gretchen “Honey Badger” Badgerton is a barista, lifeguard, and roller derby jammer. She’s 31 and lives a Philadelphia exurb with her grandmother. She’s changed career paths several times and her sisters never stop reminding her that she’s treading water in the pool of life.

On the surface, Gretchen seems outgunned by Jared Fine, plastic/reconstructive surgeon, privileged male. Jared used to work for an international medical aid agency. He’s called a saint, a hero, and a “panty melter.” He harbors the kind of broody, self-loathing that comes of not being able to live up to his idea of his own godhood. After asking her out, he tries to convince Gretchen of his unworthiness and she responds dryly, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man insult himself with so much conceit lingering in the subtext. You have a gift.”

Oh, snap!

Gretchen’s response encapsulates the dynamic between Jared and Gretchen: she takes the piss out of him, and he loves its. She insists that he show her the respect she deserves, even if the world (and sometimes she herself) feels she’s not valuable. The book works as a re-write of a common Harlequin Presents category romance scenario wherein a wealthy, domineering male attempts to bend a quavering, lip-nibbling female underling to his will. In this case, though, derby makes all the difference:

She might not be paid to play for her team, the Philadelphia Spread Eagles, and she might not have as many stories to tell as Jared, but this sport was her sport, this place her place. The women on the team accepted her at face value, took what she had to offer, crashed and tumbled and helped her to her feet when it was all over.

Gretchen may not be a globe-trotting philanthropist surgeon, but she has a place in the world and she’ll defend it vigorously.

url-1Ride With Me by Ruthie Knox 

Bike mechanic Tom Geiger’s solo plans for the TransAmerica Trail are thrown for a loop when his sister informs him that she has found Tom a biking buddy named Alex Marshall. Alex turns out to teacher Alexandra, or actually, Lexie, a Portland high school English teacher.

Tom doesn’t want anything to do with the hyper-organized Lexie but is reluctant to abandon a woman to the trail. In an attempt to discourage her, he feeds her standard misogynist crap about not wanting to spend the next three months yakking about relationships and fixing her flats. In reality, they face similar risks and concerns. Tom’s sister, “doesn’t want [him] to die in a ditch and rot unmourned.” In an echo of that, a frustrated Lexie tells Tom, “All I want is for you to camp where I camp and call my family if I have some kind of horrible accident.”

Funny, isn’t it? Women may seem more vulnerable on the road, but Lexie and Tom’s (ok, his sister’s) requirements come down to the same thing: having someone to make calls during an emergency.

Lexie doesn’t want to ride with Tom either, but he’s her only option. So few women make the ride that she can’t find a female partner or, for that matter, a male, hence her subterfuge about her name: “the wives and girlfriends of the nation’s intrepid adventurers didn’t want their menfolk crossing the country with a strange woman.”

Lexie is hamstrung from the start because of her sex, a familiar situation for many women who participate in sports.

Ride With Me was Knox’s debut, and she’s since written a slew of excellent books. Lexie and Tom don’t seem to have a lot in common at first, but they share an ambitious pace, high hot-sauce tolerance, a love of Walden (he likes the hermit bits, she likes living deep and sucking the marrow out of life), and they both have gorgeous glutes (cycling, baby). Really, that’s more than enough to sustain a relationship.

url-2One Night in the Spa by Kathy Lyons

Gym manager Kim Castillo’s client’s attempt to rape her is foiled when her best friend David Pepke bursts out her office. David works at the spa next door, but he’s been snooping through the gym’s financial records. He’s also been in love with Kim for as long as he’s known her. Kim is a former pro-racquetball player whose knee injuries recently forced her into retirement. If that weren’t enough, her body is also changing. She has finally accrued enough fat that her hormones have come roaring into belated adolescence. She’s worried, twitchy, and very, very horny.

David tells her, “It’s easy to be focused when you don’t have adolescent distractions hitting you all the time. You basically grew up in a hormonal monastery and now—”

“I’m stepping onto a porn set,” she finishes.

She’s also a virgin. And she’s just noticed that her best friend/ secret enemy, David looks like “a really chiseled bar of expensive chocolate.”

There’s a lot of plot. Not surprisingly, in the scramble to resolve the friends-to-lovers, corporate spying/ betrayal, sexual violence/ sexual discovery threads, the second half of the book feels rushed.

But the first half is fascinating, especially when one considers that Lyons, who writes Regency and mystical Chinese historical romances under the name Jade Lee, is a former pro racquetball player. The harms done to Kim’s body—attempted rape, a stabbing and threat of kidnapping in childhood, and the injuries from her playing years—are all gendered traumas. Kim’s career ender, an ACL injury, afflicts women disproportionately, and her lack of regular menses resulting in her current hormonal crisis is a classic symptom of female athlete triad. Despite Kim’s obvious love of racquetball, the narrative contains an interesting ambivalence towards the physical toll of sport on women.

url-3Stealing Kisses by Harmony Evans

Natalie Kenyon, former figure skater turned life coach, shares a similar ambivalence to her former career. She’s hired to revamp bad boy NBA player Derek Lansing’s career after the forward with the fictional New York Skylarks is been suspended for not showing up at morning practices. Natalie tries to get him to stop sabotaging himself by reconciling him to his estranged family while hiding her own secrets and discomfort about her professional sports past.

In both her debut, Lessons in Love, and in her sophomore effort, Evans pairs teacher/ nurturers of sad life experience with outwardly successful/ inwardly stuck men. In this case, Natalie’s affinity for Derek comes from recognition of her own isolation. Her parents are conspicuously absent and it’s hinted that skating is the cause. I would have liked much more about this earlier because sometimes Natalie’s decisions and reactions seemed to come out of nowhere. (Why not just get Derek a better alarm clock if he’s always late for practice, as Derek himself suggests?) That said, Stealing Kisses boasts an adorable one-on-one basketball scene and an explosive chemistry lab episode.

url-4Driving Her Wild by Meg Maguire

Biological and emotional urges also spur the retirement of former pro mixed-martial arts fighter, Steph Healy. Steph has recently begun working at her old Boston boxing gym as a trainer. She wants a family, but she also craves the economic stability she lacked growing up. Despite her quest to find and marry a comfortable professional man, the universe keeps presenting her with Patrick Doherty, an underemployed carpenter/ inept electrician with a crippling mortgage. Patrick is hapless, clumsy, a cock-eyed optimist, and hopelessly dazzled by Steph. As Steph notes, Patrick is an overly excitable Labrador puppy of a man, and he’s fucking adorable.

Maguire, who also writes erotic romance as Cara McKenna, plays with notions of traditional gender roles and behavior. Despite her conventionally female marital ambitions, Steph is also the one who asks for a no-strings relationship from Patrick. By contrast, he’s eager and vulnerable, and chatty even when they have sex: “He moaned between kisses. Such an open display of excitement, when Steph had gotten used to masking her most primitive reactions lest an opponent spot a weakness.”

This may be one of the few instances in which a male character who is not being made fun of makes more noise in bed than the female. Not only that, Patrick moans, a sound that’s not usually on the list of approved male sex vocalizations (ie. grunting and growling). Steph, by contrast, is quiet. Does this render her masculine? What, then to make of her desire for Patrick to be rough in bed, even dominating? The book is loaded with sly reversals and twists on the behavior we expect from men and women.

url-5Field of Pleasure by Farrah Rochon

In this entry from Farrah Rochon’s delightful New York Sabers football series,* we find a classic American pairing: the footballer and the cheerleader. But Rochon’s book is firmly and smartly set in a grown-up world of grown up economic realities. Chyna McCrea is the new freelance choreographer for the Saberrettes, and a dancer. She has a day job as an administrative assistant at a hedge fund and is up for a junior management position, attends NYU, and lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (shout out to Saturday Night Fever). Although she dreams of opening her own dance studio, she also wants economic security and believes that she can only achieve it herself.

Jared Williams is a wealthy, successful pro football player for the fictional New York Sabers. Jared and Chyna share a flirty rapport that’s tempered by her mistrust of Jared’s money. When he tries to order a $1,580 half bottle of wine at a restaurant, she objects that it’s the equivalent to a month’s rent. A steak at the same place is a week’s groceries to her. “I’ll go out and buy a used Hyundai for our next date, which will be at McDonald’s,” Jared quips at one point.

It’s hard to blame Chyna for having fears about money given the stark differences in pay between the Sabers and the ‘Rettes, however. In contrast to the millions earned by the Sabers, the Saberrettes get $75 a game and nothing for practices. And yes, it’s not fair to hold up football salaries against those of the cheerleaders; the women aren’t the focus, after all. Then again, if life were fair, we’d have a female pro football team with a male cheer squad for comparison, wouldn’t we?

broken-trailsBroken Trails by D. Jordan Redhawk

Lainey Hughes, globe-trotting photojournalist, is sent to Alaska to live and train with Iditarod contender Scotch Fuller and her family. Lainey, who sustained a nasty injury while covering war in Kosovo, is an alcoholic. She’s fascinated by Scotch from the start and the training and proximity only deepen her feelings. Yes, Lainey likes Scotch. Get it? (The Fuller kids are all named after varieties of whiskey: Rye, Irish, and Bon, for Bourbon.) Meanwhile, Scotch, who agreed to train Lainey because the fees from the magazine pay for an extra year of competition, starts to admire her student’s pluck, and her lithe figure.

The romance moves slowly. Months of charged glances pass between Scotch and Lainey before they realize that neither is heterosexual. But Lainey is an interesting, spiky character, and the huskies are adorable. There is, however, a truly WTF description of a sled dog with “Asian” eyes who is “inscrutable.” Do with that what you will.

url-6Mounting Danger by Karis Walsh

Tacoma PD sergeant, Rachel Bryce is surprised to be tapped to head the department’s new mounted division after the death of its former leader under mysterious circumstances. On the outs with colleagues because of her decision to arrest a popular fellow officer on domestic violence charges, Rachel has less than a month to train skittish horses and uncooperative riders before 4th of July festivities. At the request of her boss, she enlists the aid of pro-polo player, Callan Lanford.

Rachel is acquainted with Cal, having played against her in college. But whereas stoic Rachel has led a hardscrabble life, growing up in foster homes until being taken in by kindly ranchers, Cal is patrician, wealthy, aggressive, and very, very randy. (Lucky Rachel!) Cal comes from horsey royalty and plans to move to the east coast. She has little life outside of polo—“even her non-riding clothes were in team colours”—except for numerous, well-documented flings. Rachel notes, “every month, [she] saw pictures of Cal in her polo magazines… with some gorgeous woman draped on her arm.”

(Polo magazines! In the plural! That are monthlies! Who knew?)

The book follows the intrigue of what happened to Rachel’s predecessor, but it also looks at how Cal’s relationship with Rachel deepens her love and understanding of her sport. Cal notes, “Rachel… had ignored the spite and sullenness of her unit and continued to train the horses. She was working for something bigger than herself, in spite of the obstacles. Cal didn’t do that. She played polo for her family, but out of guilt and habit, not conviction.”

At another point, Cal says, “She had been attempting to create partnerships between horse and rider and among the riders in the mounted division, but she had forgotten to apply the same lessons with her own team.”

Walsh herself is a riding instructor and former competitor on the hunter-jumper circuit and her insights into life of the equestrian athlete shine through. Rachel distracts Cal, takes up her time, and puts a kink in her career plans for moving east. But Rachel’s example also allows Cal to think differently about her goals, letting her become a more ambitious team builder.

Stories that revolve around sports are, ultimately, narratives of vulnerability. Athletes try to perfect their bodies, they hone themselves against weakness. Letting another person in can seem like a breach. Yet, for Cal and many of the other heroines, love imparts its own strength. After all, the heart is a muscle, too.

Questions for Discussion

1. What sport should never, ever be represented in a romance novel, and why not? Which one should?

2. What are your favourite fiction or non-fiction sports books?

3. Have you seen this? Isn’t it fascinating?

Mindy Hung is a New York-based Canadian writer. Her novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19. She also writes romance as Ruby Lang.

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