Growing up in East Alabama the little girl had dreams of becoming an athlete some day. She played whatever pickup game, of whatever sport was going on in the backyards and playgrounds of Opelika. Reita was consumed with playing sports, she said once, “when I couldn’t get anyone to play with me, I just played by myself.” It was almost as if with each softball she hit, with each basket she made, she could see herself older, stronger and playing on the big stage.
Today because of women like her and because of Title IX, little girls can do more than dream about sports; they can have the opportunity to participate and the opportunity to achieve great things. But that was not the case when Reita was a child. In Reita Clanton’s day there were no little league youth teams for girls and little or no opportunity to play sports in high school.
After graduating from Opelika High School Reita enrolled in Auburn University. She was excited to have the opportunity to play sports on the college level. Auburn had a women’s basketball team and a volleyball team. However, women’s sports were not sanctioned by the NCAA at that time. If they had been, there is a very good chance she would have been at least a multi sport All SEC player and quite possibly a three sport All American.
She did make AIAW All State in basketball and volleyball two consecutive years. AIAW stood for Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. In addition she played on a travel ball softball team and was named an All American shortstop by the (ASW) American Softball Association.
When Reita graduated in 1974, it all seemed to be over. Then one day she got an unexpected call from Sandra Newark who had been her volleyball coach at Auburn. Newark told Reita about a new sport that had been approved by the International Olympic Committee. The US Olympic Committee was looking for athletes to try out for this event. This was an exciting chance to make an Olympic team. So Reita didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge.
She later remarked, “It was an interesting experience trying to learn a new game and be competent in it.” But the little girl that had played all kinds of different backyard sports … now older and stronger worked hard and made the Olympic Handball Team.
Olympic Handball is not your father’s workout sport he played at the local fitness center. The Olympic sport consist of two teams of seven each, that attempt to throw the ball into their opponent’s goal. There are similarities between this Olympic event and soccer with two major exceptions. One, it is played indoors like basketball and two; it accentuates the player’s hands instead of their feet. The sport is a fast, physical, high scoring game. If you’ve ever watched it, you realize right away it’s a contact sport.
If there ever was a natural athlete it was Reita Clanton. You give Reita time and she would work hard, develop the right skills and prove it to you. We know this to be true by the success she achieved in her new sport. You see she finally made it to the big stage, when she played on the US Women’s Handball Team in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. She has been involved in four Olympics since then and played handball for years all over the world.
She went on to be named the 1985 USOC Sports Woman of the Year in Team Handball. Later she became the head coach of the gold medal winning teams in the Olympic Festivals in 1985, ’87, ’95, and her team won the bronze medal in the 1991 Olympic Games. In 1996 she was the USOC National Coach of the Year. In 1997 she was inducted into the ‘Tiger Trail’ walk of Fame in Auburn. In 2002 Reita was a torch bearer in the Winter Olympic Torch Relay. In addition she has coached volleyball at Kentucky and was the 2003 Technical Director of the Special Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland.
Finally on May 22, 2010 Reita Clanton former Auburn great, pioneer for women’s collegiate athletics, Olympic player and coach, became only the 12th woman to be enshrined in to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Reita said, “I’m humbly honored by this and also very proud to receive this kind of recognition by my home state.”
In case you’ve ever wondered, sometimes dreams do come true … just ask Reita Clanton.