Donna de Varona retired from competitive swimming as a teenager and began a pioneering career in the broadcasting industry. Chairman of the groundbreaking 1999 FIFA Women’s Soccer World Cup, and first President and Chairman of the Women’s Sports Foundation, she currently is a member of the IOC athletes’ entourage commission and a member of the board of directors of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
NYF: Your storytelling career has had a unique trajectory in the broadcast industry. You were already a world record holder at age 13 in the 400 Individual Medley when you competed in the Rome Olympics in the trials of the gold medal winning 400 freestyle relay. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics you captured two gold medals. In 1965 after breaking some 18 world records and world’s fastest times you were voted the most outstanding woman athlete in the world by the Associated Press and United Press international. Could you share the backstory of some of your storytelling “firsts”?
Donna de Varona: My first byline was published in LIfe Magazine weeks before I won my Olympic gold medals in Tokyo. Subsequent to the 1964 Games ABC hired me to cover the Men's National Swimming Championships live from New Haven CT. ABC obtained a work permit for me as I was only 17 years old at the time. For four years I was the go-to color analyst and the youngest and first woman to cover both men’s and women's swimming.
In 1968, I was hired to cover Women's swimming during the Mexico Olympic Trials and the Games. From 1968 to 1972, I worked for the ABC network on swimming events. Leading up to the Munich Games, I was hired by the ABC San Francisco Affiliate to co-produce and host a series "On the Road to the Munich Olympic Games.”
In 1974, the New York ABC affiliate hired me as the first woman to cover sports in the New York Market. From 1972 to 1976 I continued working with the Network and local station. I left ABC in 1977 to work serve as a consultant to the US Senate on Olympic legislation.
NYF: You are an Emmy award winning sports journalist, covering some 18 Olympic Games. Over the years, you received many accolades for your work in Radio and TV airing across multiple networks, multiple disciplines, and multiple formats.
Donna de Varona: Over the years I covered a variety of sports for ABC and NBC. NBC named me the first woman to serve as a co-host of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, but I did not go because of the boycott.
I returned to ABC in 1983 in a groundbreaking role as a consultant to Roone Arledge in a management role and on-air role. During the 84 Olympics in Los Angeles, I covered swimming, artistic swimming, was the interviewer for Athletics: all live coverage. I was a co-anchor for the late-night show. That show had the highest ratings ever for that time slot during Olympic games telecasts.
In 1991 I earned an Emmy for a special feature on a special Olympic athlete Lyle Sukkert. During the Lillehammer Olympics ABC news sent me to Norway to cover the Harding-Kerrigan story. 1n 1996 I anchored Good Morning America's morning coverage of the Atlanta games from Atlanta. During the Nagano Olympics I worked for the CBS-Turner network and during the games In Sydney I worked for NBC/s coverage hosting features on mostly women’s sports.
I have been nominated numerous times as a writer and coproducer. I hosted a radio commentary for 8 years earning two Gracie awards (2000, 2001) and in 2005 I was honored by the Paley Museum Women Creating TV and Radio inaugural class. In 2007 I was the recipient of the CINE Golden Eagle as a co producer and host of a special on Nawal El Moutawakel