An advocate of Southland youth sports

“We overlook it as something children do. As adults, we view it as entertainment. But there is an intrinsic value to sport, not only in teaching teamwork,” says Anita L. DeFrantz, 61, president and a director of the LA84 Foundation. Above, DeFrantz holds an Olympic torch at the foundation in January. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles Times / January 8, 2014)

The gig: Olympic medalist Anita L. DeFrantz, 61, is president and a director of the LA84 Foundation, the charitable organization that runs off an endowment of surplus funds from the Los Angeles Olympic Games. In the three decades since those games, LA84 has donated more than $214 million to more than 1,100 Southern California youth sports programs, providing opportunities for more than 3 million children. DeFrantz has spent nearly half her life with the organization, formerly known as the Amateur Athletic Foundation. She was named president in 1987.

Champion performer: DeFrantz was on rowing teams that won six U.S championships and reached the world championship finals four times. She earned a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics and a silver medal in the 1978 world rowing competition. She made the rowing team for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, but couldn't compete because of the U.S. boycott. DeFrantz was elected to the International Olympic Committee in 1986 and to the IOC's executive board in 1992. In 1997, DeFrantz was the first woman elected vice president of the organization. Last year, she was elected again to the IOC board.

No sports allowed: DeFrantz was born in Philadelphia; her mother, Anita, was a teacher and her father, Robert, was a social worker and community activist. DeFrantz was raised in Indianapolis, a segregated place her father called "the northern-most Southern town in the country." DeFrantz said she had been an avid swimmer since age 4, but opportunities to compete were limited. "There were no sports allowed for African American girls in Indianapolis. Nothing. Negatory."

Don't debate with fate: DeFrantz's rowing career "had to be fate," she said. It began relatively late in life, at age 19, in her sophomore year at Connecticut College. DeFrantz, broad-shouldered and nearly 6 feet tall, was striding across campus when the rowing coach rushed over to recruit her for the team. "I loved the idea that you weren't doing harm to anybody," DeFrantz said. "Your ego is the only part of you that can get hurt."

A legal turn: After graduating from Connecticut College with a degree in political philosophy in 1974, she attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School as she trained for the 1976 Olympics. DeFrantz said she realized "my rights as a citizen had been either stomped on through law or had been protected through law. That, to me, made it worth pursuing as a career, learning the language of power." Her focus on public interest law led her to a job at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, where she worked for nearly three years.

One more Olympics: "I decided I wanted no regrets" about making one more attempt at Olympic gold, she said. DeFrantz got a job as a pre-law advisor at Princeton University while she trained. But it was a race she couldn't win. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, setting in motion a series of American responses that culminated in President Carter deciding that the U.S. would boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

A different medal: DeFrantz was at the forefront of the fight to change Carter's mind, thinking "you cannot take from me my right to compete." DeFrantz even filed suit against the U.S. Olympic Committee on behalf of herself and 25 other U.S. athletes, arguing that the committee had exceeded its authority and violated the athletes' constitutional rights. For her leadership role in opposing the boycott, DeFrantz eventually was awarded an IOC Bronze Medal of the Olympic Order.

A new Olympic dream: In 1981, DeFrantz was approached by Peter V. Ueberroth, who offered her a job with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Unsure at first, she said, "I finally realized he wasn't just being nice to me because of what happened in 1980." Within 10 minutes of her arrival, she said, "I realized Los Angeles was a place where I felt completely comfortable." DeFrantz was one of the committee's core employees and organized housing for the athletes.

The value of sports: "We overlook it as something children do. As adults, we view it as entertainment. But there is an intrinsic value to sport, not only in teaching teamwork," DeFrantz said. "It's important for our nation. It teaches a lot about our abilities to be an agent of success."

Old school influences: Aside from her parents, "my great grandmother on my mother's side was a very strong woman. She once told me that I could be anything I wanted to be," DeFrantz said. Harriet Tubman was another role model. "The fact that she got herself out of slavery and then went back and helped another 300 people escape to freedom. She was someone who gave back her whole life to her community."

ron.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonDWhite