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Mexican women vault from past to the present

July 17, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — Carlos Ochoa is not a Mexican woman. But he remembers what life used to be like for Mexican women way back before the turn of the century seven years ago.

"It was the house, the kitchen, taking care of kids," said Ochoa, a government press director for Mexico's delegation at the Pan American Games.

"But now," he added, "it's totally different."

That's because now their choices also include gold, silver or bronze. In fact, after three days of Pan Am competition, Mexico's eight medals in women's events trail only the U.S. (14) and Canada (12).

Even the vaunted Cuban team is looking up at them. And the Mexican men? They've won only three medals.

"The truth is, this is something very surprising," taekwondo competitor Maria del Rosario Espinoza said before adding, with a sly smile, "Maybe it's because of the bad luck the men have had."

More likely, Ochoa and others suggest, it's the result of seemingly small yet fundamental changes in Mexican society.

"It's a phenomenon that's hard to explain: Why are the women getting better and the men improving just a little? I haven't found an explanation," Ochoa said.

"[But] Mexican society is very macho. Little by little this feeling has been diminishing. We still have the stigma of being macho, but the truth is, it's not that way. It's more open. Women are now permitted to do sports and do other kinds of things that they couldn't before."

And that change, Espinoza said, was quickened by the success of 400-meter runner Ana Guevara, who won a Pan Am Games title in 1999, finished fifth in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and then struck gold at the world championships three years later.

"She opened the space really wide," Espinoza said. "Now we have no limits. We don't have a barrier keeping us for getting here. Now we're in a new world. Things are different."

Among those who took advantage of the space Guevara opened was golfer Lorena Ochoa, the world's top-ranked female golfer and the leading money-winner on the LPGA Tour, and distance runner Madai Perez, who last year became the first Spanish-speaking woman to break the 2-hour 23-minute barrier in the marathon.

Their success, in turn, has helped boost women's sports all across Mexico by raising the profile of top athletes and creating more interest, which has started paying off in more sponsorship money.

And the sport in which Mexico might be making the biggest splash -- especially at these Pan Am Games -- is taekwondo, where they've won two of their three golds and figure to add to that total today when Espinoza, the current world champion in her weight class, takes to the mat. (Mexico's other Pan Am gold went to weightlifter Carolina Valencia.)

"They say martial arts is for men, ballet for women," said Roberto Beltran Ramonetti, president of Mexico's taekwondo federation. "Not anymore. [They're] tough girls."

And young too. Espinoza is 19 and Alejandra Gaal, fifth in the 2005 world championships and a gold medalist here, is only 18. That means neither can't remember a time when women were being told sports were only for boys.

"I've always said that you shouldn't just talk, talk, talk. It's better if your actions speak for you," Gaal said. "You can say women are really bad or, I don't know, the men are really macho. But we women are demonstrating that we're really good and we can do everything.

"This is an accomplishment for all of Mexico, not just for women. But it feels cool to know that women are moving forward and we're winning medals. I don't know. I don't know how to say it correctly, but I think we have more of a will to win, to do something."

Beltran seconds that. Sort of. Although part of the idea behind equality in sports is to erase the differences between men and women, he says the women are succeeding in taekwondo largely because they're exploiting one of those differences.

"They study, they prepare themselves," he said. "And they are very good because, I think, they are more disciplined than the men. And lucky for me, the women have been putting a good face forward for Mexican sports. People love them."

Which is also good, Espinoza said, because they plan on sticking around awhile.

"The way is open and it's not going to close," he promised. "We have to keep going and going."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pan American Games

A review of what happened Monday at Rio de Janeiro:

Baseball

The United States moved to 2-0 with an 8-4 win over Nicaragua. Lance Lynn of Brownsburg, Ind., pitched seven innings for the victory, and Pedro Alvarez of New York had two doubles and drove in three runs.

Panama, which upset nine-time champion Cuba in its opener, was beaten, 9-0, by Mexico, which previously lost to the Cubans.

Field hockey

In the 37th minute, a missed tackle in front of the goal cost the U.S. men a penalty stroke and Ian Koppenberger scored for Chile in a 2-1 victory over the Americans. Pat Harris of Moorpark gave the Americans a 1-0 lead in the ninth minute, and Pablo Kuhenthal tied it in the 18th.

Gymnastics

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