Originally posted at the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition

Since I was seven years old, sports have been a major part of my life. Through training and competing, winning and losing, and World Championships and Olympics, I have had many unique experiences that helped shape who I am today. I treasure not just the joy and fulfillment I received from skating and competing, but the lessons learned from working hard when I was tired, persevering when things didn’t go my way, getting back up when I fell, and learning to trust my team of coaches, trainers and choreographers. I’ve found that the real power of sport is not just the success on the field or the ice, but how it can be used to teach valuable lessons and create healthy habits that last a lifetime.

That is why it is so important that everyone has opportunities like I did to participate in sports. In the United States, so much has changed for female athletes over the past 40 years since the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX has given millions of girls a chance to play sports, with female high school sports participation increasing from 300,000 to 3 million – that’s 10 times more girls who are experiencing the valuable life lessons that sports teaches us, both on and off on the playing field.

Since I retired in from competitive skating, I have been able to see the positive impact that sports has on individuals and communities. As a member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, I travel all over the country to engage, educate, and empower Americans of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to adopt a healthy lifestyle. This includes participation in sports and physical activity, which have been paramount in the development of my career and the success of many women in America. My fellow female Council members, including Title IX trailblazer Billie Jean King, Dominique Dawes, Allyson Felix, Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Dr. Jayne Greenberg, and Donna Richardson Joyner all used sports to develop leadership and teamwork skills that help them in their professional and personal lives.

Even though great progress has been made to provide equal access to education and sports opportunities for girls and women across the country, there is still so much work to be done. Today there are 1.3 million fewer opportunities for girls than boys to participate in high school athletics and girls often still receive inferior equipment, facilities and scheduling. The President’s Council understands the importance of everyone having access to sports and physical activity and supports the many organizations around the country that are working to further opportunities for young girls, promoting and investing in the next generation leaders.

This issue is not limited to the United States. I have seen this first hand through my work as a Public Diplomacy Envoy for the U.S. Department of State. In many countries, women and girls do not have the same opportunities that we have here in America. If fact, there are some countries where cultural or political mandates for females, including specific attire and access to fitness facilities and programs, make it unsafe or impossible for them to participate in sports. I have traveled around the world, using my experience in sports as a tool for diplomacy to strengthen international relationships and impact change by offering solutions to cultural barriers that affect female participation in sports. It is important for me as an envoy and Council member to help women and girls discover how athletics can help them develop life skills and achieve success in the classroom.

The State Department recently launched an initiative called “Empowering Women and Girls through Sports,” with a goal to increase the number of females worldwide who are involved in sports. A component of this initiative called the Global Sports Mentoring Program was created to connect international and American women and girls and to create sustainable sports opportunities for underserved women and girls worldwide. As a member of the Council to Empower Women and Girls through Sports, I am proud to be part of this program, alongside current and retired athletes, coaches, executives, journalists, and social activists. Together, we will engage audiences at home and abroad to elevate the conversation about sports participation opportunities for women and girls.

Title IX’s th Anniversary allows us to reflect on and celebrate the important role that sport plays in communities all around the world. I am proud that, in the United States, sport has become an increasingly important catalyst for international engagement and development. Notably, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is using sport as a tool for girls’ development all over the world, from Kenya to Egypt, Afghanistan to Colombia, and South Africa. Across all cultures, sport is a compelling leadership platform for young women in their families, communities and society. Sports are even more important when vital life resources are scarce, as they are in developing countries. From the reduction of chronic disease, increased self-esteem and improved academic performance, participation in sport has helped pave the way for future successes. As sports opportunities rise, communities and societies will reap the benefits.

It is clear that sports and physical activity are valuable tools for growth both in the US and abroad. All boys and girls, men and women, regardless of their ethnicity, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, or educational background, should have equal access to sport and play. The President’s Council, Department of State, and USAID are committed to ensuring that all communities and societies provide sports opportunities for women and girls across the globe, and we will continue to bring those stories of triumph to the forefront to help inspire others.