May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

As she walked to the podium of a celebrity-packed Manhattan theater last month, broadcaster Donna de Varona couldn’t help but savor the moment. Accepting an award at this year’s American Women in Radio and Television ceremony, de Varona, 53, who did her first sportscast as a 17-year-old swimmer fresh from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, thanked her colleagues—including Rosie O’Donnell, Lesley Stahl and Kathie Lee Gifford—before sharing an inside joke. “Timing,” she said, “is everything.”

In fact, as many in the audience were aware, the timing of the award was both ironic and meaningful. Just a week earlier, de Varona, who won a 1991 Emmy for a report on a Special Olympics athlete, had slapped ABC Sports, her longtime employer, with a $50 million federal age-and sex-discrimination suit alleging that the network let her contract lapse in 1998 as part of a campaign to attract younger viewers. “It took a lot of soul-searching,” says de Varona, who specialized in Olympics commentary, of her decision to take legal action. “It would have been much easier to walk away, but I felt I had to do it.”

In the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, de Varona claims a top female executive at ABC Sports told her the network was eager to recapture the “18-to-39 male market” and advised her to find another job, because her age was catching up with her. ABC firmly denies that, as well as de Varona’s other charges, including her contention that the network gave her fewer and less interesting assignments than veteran male colleagues such as Frank Gifford, 69, and Lynn Swann, 48. “We believe Ms. de Varona was treated fairly,” ABC declared, maintaining that after it lost Olympic broadcasting rights to NBC in 1988, de Varona’s “role had diminished greatly.”

Within the highly competitive world of sports broadcasting—where youthful appeal has always been coveted—de Varona’s allegations have caused considerable controversy. “There’s no question that there’s a double standard,” says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. But others defend ABC. “Just knowing what kind of programming Donna has been a part of and what kind of programming ABC has now,” says ABC and ESPN sportscaster Robin Roberts, 39, a fan of de Varona’s, “those two don’t match.”

De Varona and her network have had differences before. In her suit, de Varona alleges that she left ABC in 1976 due to sex discrimination, though she was wooed back with a management position in 1983 after working for NBC and went on to cover several Olympics, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding skating scandal in ’94, the New York City Marathon and the Indy 500. “Some of my best years were after ABC lost the Olympics,” she says. “My role was always changing.”

Of course, de Varona has never been entirely content to let others dictate her role. Growing up in Lafayette, Calif., near San Francisco, de Varona idolized her older brother David, who played Little League baseball. Barred from playing because of her sex, she became his team’s bat girl but quickly tired of life on the sidelines. When her brother injured a knee and took up swimming, de Varona followed suit. “That worked for me,” she says.

And how! In 1957, de Varona joined the swim team at the Berkeley YMCA and within three years had qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. At 13, she was the youngest member of any U.S. team that year. “I was fortunate that I found the right sport,” she says. “I liked being able to measure myself, being part of a team.” She also had the support of her parents—her late father, insurance salesman David de Varona, who had played college football, and her mother, Martha, now 79—and her three siblings, including sister Joanna Kerns, 46, once a star of the ABC series Growing Pains.

By the end of 1964, de Varona had won a pair of Olympic gold medals and had set a total of 18 world records. The following year she decided to quit while still on top in her sport and to study political science at UCLA. But unwilling to leave sports behind altogether, she called a producer she knew at ABC, who offered her a job doing on-air commentary. Her first assignment: covering that year’s U.S. men’s swimming championships with Jim McKay. “He taught me about the seven-second sound bite,” she says.

As de Varona’s career developed she learned other important lessons, including how to juggle family and work. In 1987 she married investment banker John Pinto, now 51, whom she’d met at a fashion show. “He complements what I do,” says de Varona. “My husband has been very supportive. He thinks I have to follow my heart.” The couple, who live in suburban Connecticut, have two children, John David, 12, and Joanna, 10.

Since leaving ABC, de Varona has done brief sports commentaries for the One on One Sports radio network and served as chairwoman of last summer’s Women’s “World Cup soccer championships. De Varona smiles while describing the reaction of her son John David, a soccer player and swimmer, to the pandemonium following the U.S. women’s win in Pasadena, Calif. “He looked up at me,” she recalls, “and asked, ‘Mom, do you think they’ll ever do that for men?’ ”

Patrick Rogers

Sue Miller in Connecticut

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