Updated on 09/17/2011 10:33AM

An example for Annika


WASHINGTON - When Annika Sorenstam makes history by teeing off in the PGA's Colonial tournament Thursday, the entire golf world's assumption is that she can't be competitive against the best men in her sport. Even Sorenstam merely hopes to play respectably. In any sport in which power is an important factor, women cannot beat top males athletes.

Or so everyone believes. In fact, the premise is not entirely correct. There is one female athlete - though perhaps only one - who has competed successfully at the upper echelon of a sport requiring physical strength. Julie Krone has won 3,595 Thoroughbred races, most of them at major-league tracks, and is enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame along with 81 male jockeys. After retiring and launching a comeback at the age of 39, she rode remarkably well this winter in California.

Understandably, Krone has followed the Sorenstam story with interest, and she said, "I think it's silly that people judge one single competitive situation as being representative of every time men play women." If Sorenstam asked her for counsel about coping with the high-pressure situation she will face in the Colonial, Krone would tell her: "This has nothing to do with anything but you and the tee and the ball."

Throughout her remarkable career, Krone has dealt with issues involving her gender by dismissing them. When she scored the most important victory of her career aboard Colonial Affair in the Belmont Stakes, members of the press predictably asked her how she felt to be the first woman to win a Triple Crown race. Krone's response was almost angry: "I don't think that question should be genderized." She has never wanted anything genderized. She is not a female jockey. She is a jockey.

When Krone started her career in 1981, women riders were no longer a novelty, but there were plenty of trainers who wouldn't employ them and male jockeys who resented them. Most people in the sport believed that women had enough finesse to achieve limited success but that lack of physical strength would prevent them from rising to the top of their profession.

Krone surely encountered attempts by males to intimidate her or psych her out - something similar to Vijay Singh's much-publicized comments about Sorenstam - but she took them in stride and never considered them a male vs. female issue. "I try not to genderize anything I do," she said. "I don't think there's any sport devoid of intimidation. Someone is always going to try something. I would just ignore it, and it went away." Once she couldn't ignore the intimidation. In a race at Monmouth Park in 1986, a male rider slashed Krone with his whip. After she dismounted, she promptly decked him with a right hook. They continued to fight and she hit him with a lawn chair.

Just as Krone usually ignored intimidation, she also turned the question of physical strength into a non-issue - even though she was, in her own words, "a twerpy 95-pound teenager" when she started riding. At her strongest, she would never have a miniature bodybuilder's physique, as Laffit Pincay did.

"With horses you have to be fit and strong," she said, "but you don't have to be brutally strong." Instead, she developed her coordination coupled with the ability to communicate with her mounts. "I did a lot of things in front of a mirror so I didn't 'ride like a girl' or a bug rider," Krone said. "People could not watch me ride and say I looked weak.

"There's no better compliment to any rider than to tell you that you have good hands. That's always been my forte. I know the racehorse is such a unique animal; they have such a different version of language that the smallest thing can affect them, like a slight shift in the saddle or a slight pull on the mouth. I've spent so much time thinking about their ability to pick up on the smallest thing. If they pick up the right things from you, they respond in a positive way."

Toward the end of the 1990's, Krone felt that her mounts were picking up negative signals from her. In 1993, a few months after her Belmont victory, she shattered her ankle in a horrific spill; when she returned to action, she often was cautious or nervous in the saddle. The physical stress of riding was taking a toll on her. In the spring of 1999 she officially retired.

But she never lost her passion for the game and last year she announced that she was going to make a comeback. That decision was greeted with much skepticism, particularly because she intended to undertake the comeback in Southern California, where no female jockey had ever made an impact. As Krone observed the racing there, she knew she had to deal more with the issue of her own strength.

Riding in California, she said, is more physically demanding than anywhere else because jockeys typically need to ride their horses hard from start to finish. "All the jocks here run or work out," Krone said. "I needed three months to get fit. I went from 100 pounds to 105 and it was all pure muscle. I was a much stronger athlete than ever in my life."

Krone demonstrated that she could still compete. She ranked fifth in the Santa Anita jockey standings March 12 when she was involved in another terrible spill, breaking two bones in her lower back. Now she is getting fit again, and she intends to return to action sometime this summer.

Krone's unique success is surely due in part to this intense competitive spirit. Asked why no other woman has reached the top level of racing, she said, "Maybe nobody is as obstinate as I am. When you see a broken bone poking through your skin, maybe most people would decide that they ought to try doing other things." But even if Krone is a one-of-a-kind competitor, her success shows other female athletes that they can overcome barriers that once seemed insurmountable.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post