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Thursday, February 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Documentary a winning look at female athletes, with a UW perspective

Seattle Times TV writer

"Generation IX," a locally produced documentary premiering tonight, delivers a discerning, refreshing program that's never too rah-rah in its appreciation of female athleticism nor too syrupy in showing us how young women behave. If it fails in its initial aim, which is far too sweeping — to tell the story of the first generation of girls who've grown up under Title IX, the gender-equity-in-sports law — it succeeds in giving us a sense of how far women's athletics has traveled in three decades only to then dead-end after college.

And rather than following the predictable sports documentary arc of "Will they win the big game?," the camera here tells a quieter, more intimate story unfolding in stand-alone chapters: profiles of female college athletes, a portrait of contemporary young women, a study of how a man nurtures and directs the female body and brain.

Which makes this a smart, finely tuned film, worth viewing by anyone who gives a hoot about young women, athlete or not. The fact that its central characters are our hometown champions, the University of Washington women's volleyball team, just makes this film that much more enjoyable. Three players are the film's central focus: One is strikingly self-possessed Courtney Thompson of Kent, who really ought to go into journalism for her ability to disarm the powerful. One of the first scenes is Thompson at the White House bantering with President Bush.

On TV

"Generation IX," 8 tonight on KCTS and the station's hi-def channel; for repeat airing information, go to www.kcts.org.

Next is Jill Collymore of Bellevue, exceptionally talented as both an athlete and a pianist. (It's her playing we hear as the final credits roll.) And sunny Christal Morrison of Puyallup, who's weathered far too many leg injuries.

Through interviews and childhood films and photos, we learn about confidence, sacrifice, persistence and passion. (Chapter headings tell us as much.) Born some 15 years after the passage of Title IX, these women have grown up with the luxury of being able to take playing sports for granted. No second-guessing of what it means to be "a girl." No griping that only the boys get access to the gym.

And if they hold any qualm about the fact that college could be the high point of their athletic career, we don't hear them protest. Instead, they live in the moment: Work hard, play hard and, when you can, teach that next generation of girl athlete who's regarding you with awe.

The film catches up with the team one year after it won the 2005 NCAA Championship, on a trip to China to play that nation's indomitable women. We see the UW women in their role as athletes and as young foreigners: winning and losing on the court, gamboling up the Great Wall, haggling while shopping.

Back in Seattle, there's a scene with Thompson, Morrison and others making faces as they clean out spoiled food from a refrigerator. This has nothing to do with being a new generation of athlete, but it's so dead-on "young female behavior," I started to wonder whether filmmakers Jack and Leslie Hamann have daughters (they have one, as well as a son, both grown). And so if the narration sometimes drifts into clichés — "Winning matters" — it's forgivable. Much of the footage here, including the players talking about girls being catty and cliquish, rings true.

By pairing the players' stories with the perspectives of their mothers, who talk about "molding" daughters and letting them make choices, what could have been just a sports doc transcends into a kind of parenting road map. The film also raises the issue of competitiveness — of young girls pressured to start specializing in just one sport. And it reflects on both the gender (male) and quality (sometimes poor) of coaches.

"Generation IX" is, no surprise, decidedly female-centric, its voice almost entirely female: the trio and their mothers; Marie Tuite, the UW's head of women athletics, giving us some historical perspective; and Trish Bostrom, a UW tennis player in the 1970s who sued the university for gender inequity, giving us even more.

But then there's coach Jim McLaughlin who, in just four years, took the losing Huskies to a national championship (his 1990 USC men's team also garnered the NCAA title). McLaughlin, formidably even-tempered, makes a huge impression here: his coaching philosophy tethered to statistics, his criticism of his players that's never delivered in a raised voice.

We see him evaluate and motivate, and when he talks about the differences between coaching males and females — women appreciate objectivity; women take things more personally — that reaction emanating from living rooms everywhere: Clone him, please.

In the parlance of volleyball: Point McLaughlin. The win, easily and enthusiastically, goes to "Generation IX."

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com

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