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Christine Yu ’94 Explores Female Athletes in her New Book: Up to Speed

Christine Yu ’94 Explores Female Athletes in her New Book: Up to Speed

Christine Yu ’94 is an award-winning journalist who writes about sports, science, and health. Yu attended GFA from the 4th through 7th grade when her family relocated to California. She has a B.A. in Art History from Columbia University and a Master of Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University. Yu lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and two sons. She's a lifelong athlete who enjoys running, yoga, hiking, swimming, and surfing.

What do you remember most from your time at GFA? 

I have so many good memories from my time at GFA, especially of my friendships and my teachers. But one of the things that sticks out is playing sports. My parents immigrated here from Hong Kong and they wanted me and my siblings to focus on academics; athletics wasn’t a priority. GFA was the first time I was involved in organized sports because it was required. If it hadn’t been a requirement, I’m not sure that I would have been chosen to play sports. That experience was life-changing. I loved being on the field with friends and learning to work as a team. It instilled in me a love of sport and physical activity that’s been a critical part of my life. 

How did you get interested in journalism and women's sports? 

I never expected to be a journalist. I have an MA in public policy and worked in the non-profit sector for 15 years. After starting a family, I started writing more and really enjoyed telling stories. Journalism quickly became something I wanted to explore when I realized I could combine my love of writing with my love of sports. Being a lifelong athlete, I was always interested in women and the importance of sports, and want to help elevate women in sports by telling their stories. 

Can you tell me some of the most important takeaways from your new book, Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes? 

The book examines the reasons why women are under-studied in the field of sports science research. Currently, only 6% of sports science research focuses specifically on women. That means that so much of what we take as gospel about exercise and sports is based solely on studies of men. Men’s experiences set the standards for athletic progression, training and nutrition guidelines, injury prevention protocols, and athletic gear design. I wanted to understand why this was the case and, more importantly, when we don’t study women to the same extent as men, what are the implications for girls and women in sport in terms of performance, injury, health, and wellbeing. 

One of the key takeaways from the book is that women go through several periods of transition across the lifespan—puberty, pregnancy and postpartum, and the menopause transition. During these transitions, women’s bodies change and it can take time to adjust to these changes. That’s why girls and women’s athletic performance and progression can seem like it dips or stalls during these periods in ways that we don’t see in boys and men. It’s critical to be aware of them and remove the stigma around these transitions. 

Another important topic is nutrition. Almost every expert I spoke to during my research mentioned nutrition and the importance of fueling your body well and eating enough, especially for girls and women. When people don’t eat enough, their body starts to think it's starving and it starts to shut down non-essential systems such as your reproductive system and affect your hormones. That leads to a cascade of physiological responses that most people aren’t aware of and it can lead to short- and long-term consequences including bone health, cardiovascular health, immunity, gut health, and overall athletic performance. Yet, there are certain stereotypes of what the ideal athlete’s body should look like, which can be especially challenging for girls and women because of the fat-phobic world we live in. This pressure can lead to food restrictions, under-eating, over-exercising, and loss of your menstrual cycle. 

What do you think are the greatest challenges in women's sports?  

There are a couple. Big picture, we haven't built the infrastructure to support women’s health and performance in a meaningful way. As the level and caliber of girls' and women’s sports have increased, we haven’t studied how women respond to these higher physical demands, the toll it takes on their bodies, or the factors that lead to injury. Practically, this means there’s a void of evidence-based training, nutrition, and injury prevention protocols tailored to women. 

By not exploring female bodies we are missing opportunities that could affect women’s overall health. Look at the incredible rate of ACL tears in girls around puberty. We’ve known this is an issue since the 1990s and yet the prevalence rate hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. We know that a girl’s anatomy and physiology, like wider hips and hormones, are risk factors but girls can’t change their hips or knees or hormones. What else is contributing to this high risk? What could we be doing differently in terms of training and athletic development? How can we better support girls through this transition and help them reach their potential?

Fellow alumna Katherine Price Snedaker '85 has done a lot of research about female concussions through her non-profit, Pink Concussions. How did the two of you connect? 

I became aware of Katherine’s work with Pink Concussions during my initial research. Women are severely underrepresented in concussion research. Katherine is a pioneer in the area and was a great resource. Pink Concussions is committed to expanding pre-injury education and post-injury care for women and girls with brain injuries, including concussions from sports. Girls’ and women's head injuries currently aren’t taken as seriously as they need to be. 

What is the next step? How do we move forward? 

We need to create the infrastructure to support girls and women in sports so that they can have healthy, happy, and long athletic careers. That means we need more resources and research focused on female athletes. On a micro level, we need to think about girls and educate them about bodies in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad. If we can help girls become more educated about their bodies and physiology and help them understand what’s going on, especially as they grow and develop, we can create a solid foundation to support their long-term athletic development. It’s important for parents and other adults to offer a safe and supportive space so kids can ask questions and bring their concerns. Coaches can learn more about female physiology, especially the unique physiology of maturing kids, and what their bodies need during this time to be strong and healthy.