Last week I was lucky enough to attend the annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit presented by Toyota in the gorgeous Dana Point, California.
I was joined by some incredible athletes and leaders in women’s sports and listened in on discussions, presentations, and expert panels focused on the influence athletes and business leaders have on the women’s sports landscape. Being in the presence of so many influential people was humbling and inspiring. People like Gloria Allred. Maria Shriver. Brittney Griner. Elena Delle Donne. Jackie Joyner Kersee. Kacy Catanzaro. Mo’ne Davis. Hilary Knight. Gabby Reece. Knowing the first step in making a change is wanting to make a change, it was uplifting to see so many women come together to do just that, hence the theme of the Summit, “Making an Impact.”
Commissioner of the LPGA, Michael Whan, shared a very fitting quote that he says influences how he does business:
“Act like a founder.”
Meaning, each person has the chance to improve the game for the next generation. If we focus on making our sport better than we found it, we can help shape the lives of the athletes who come after us. So, how can we use our strengths to empower the next generation? How can we change the world for women and girls who still have barriers to break through?
A common sentiment between speakers was that simply sharing experiences is key to empowering young girls and getting them involved in sports. In sharing our stories we can make the seemingly impossible possible, serving as a way to continue to break down the barriers women often face in the sports world. So many powerful terms were thrown out throughout the course of the day in reference to the values learned through participation in sports. Determination. Competitiveness. Grace. Integrity. Humility. “The more we give visibility to show what sports have done for all of us, the more we can show girls what to aspire to,” shared Alison Overholt, Editor-in-Chief of espnW. In her power talk, founder of Latina Magazine Christy Haubegger shared her thoughts on the global importance of sharing our successes: “There are seven billion people on this planet and most of them won’t even come to the United States, but they’ll see our movies and they’ll see our work. We need to show these stories of women who are strong and powerful.”
Speaking of strong and powerful women, I was overly excited to chat with Kacy Catanzaro of American Ninja Warrior fame and hear her thoughts on overcoming those literal and figurative obstacles. (If you haven’t seen this video, watch it. Bookmark it. It’s great motivation when you’re feeling lazy.) She stressed the importance of hard work and how people don’t see everything that goes into something like, say, being the first woman to complete the American Ninja Warrior course. “People kept saying I came out of nowhere. Out of nowhere?! I spent the last 24 years of my life working so hard just to get to this moment. No one knows what it took to get there except you. Sometimes no one notices and no one’s there telling you ‘you’re great!’ or praising you every second.”
Jackie Joyner Kersee echoed this sentiment in an on-stage interview with ESPN columnist Jemele Hill: “Jackie Joyner Kersee took work. What you see in magazines is the finished product. There’s hard work that goes into it. Those are just the rewards.” (She also mentioned she finished dead last in her first race ever and was diagnosed with asthma in college, proving determination coupled with hard work is a potent potion.)
While reading the results of a study done by the EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW connecting women, sport, and leadership, I noticed that a striking 94% of women executives played sports growing up. Seeing this number, I had an important question on my mind. How can we encourage more young girls to get involved with sports and from there, change the landscape of the business world?
I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one chat with the very insightful Overholt and asked her that exact question. Still full of energy after what I’m sure had been a hectic few days, she spoke passionately about the importance of “baking sports into the childhood experience.” “The people crafting the childhood experience need to truly believe in it and communicate to our kids that sports are exciting and available.” Still, she shares she’s a big believer in competitiveness. “It’s okay to get cut from a team, but should that mean you’re never allowed to play again? Absolutely not. There should be a community league or something else. The idea that you have to be elite or can’t participate unless you’re elite shouldn’t be the case.”
That reminded me of Catanzaro’s comment on how often people mention her size (self-proclaimed 5-feet and 100 pounds) and how limiting they thought it would be in reaching her goals. She credits part of her success to ignoring negative comments from others and figuring out what works best for her as opposed to trying to do things how they’ve always been done. “I’m fine with doing it differently. I just need to re-navigate and decide what I can do.” An important lesson in the power of self-love and acceptance: “People will try to tell you you can’t do something, but if you believe in yourself and block out the negativity, you’ll find ways to adjust and overcome your personal obstacles.”
“Mighty Kacy” is more than just a hard-working athlete, she’s a perfect example of the importance of a positive attitude. A true role model in every sense.
A panel focused on “Breaking Barriers in Women’s Sports” included another incredible role model, Brittney Griner. Griner was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft.
After turning pro, she became the first major athlete to publicly acknowledge she is gay. As a pro athlete, she says, “I no longer feel like I have to cover who I am.” Griner’s agent, Lindsey Kagawa, said that Griner was received so well because “in being herself, she gives all of us permission to be who we are.” Kagawa shared that Griner’s authenticity makes people feel connected to her. As if they know her. And when you feel like you know someone, you’re going to want to turn on the TV and watch them play. Personally, I remember 7-year-old me watching Nancy Kerrigan and Kristi Yamaguchi skating their hearts out while I danced around the house pretending to ice skate. (Did I just admit that publicly?) That translated to me begging my parents to take me ice skating, getting outside and actually ice skating, and beginning to understand the joy that comes from athletic achievement, even if my achievement was simply moving forward on the ice instead of falling with every step. In the same panel, Dr. Nefertiti Walker, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, further expanded on the importance of this phenomenon and how change can be effected through sports. What’s the key? “Having role models who look like you and act like you. People who are willing to take that next step and take risks. Someone who is their authentic self.”
Knowing the FitFluential community is full of risk-takers striving to make a difference, I asked Overholt this important question: What’s one thing every woman can do to help initiate change in the sports world?
Her answer is something I will forever strive for:
“If every woman made a commitment to help another woman move forward. Can you imagine if every woman said that this week or this year I’m going to make it my business to help another woman succeed at something she’s trying to do?”.
That’s a powerful thought. In sharing my experiences at the Summit, I truly hope that each and every one of you feels a bit more empowered to not only tackle your own goals and get a little closer to your idea of success, but to positively influence someone else’s journey.
The cherry on top of the day? espnW understands the healthy need for some motivational quotes and a little green juice. (I honestly can’t say I’ve ever been to a conference with food options as great as the Summit’s!)
Further gems I have to share:
On rest and setting bigger goals: “Schedule in rest in any pursuit. There’s always another peak, but look back and admire the view for a moment. You have to actually practice that – it’s a balance.” – Christy Haubegger
On doubting yourself: “Doubts are there sometimes, but the key is to push them away and believe you can reach your goal. Even if you’re worried or don’t really believe, say it out loud that you do.” -Kacy Catanzaro
On following your passion: “Everyone has something they’re passionate about. I truly believe your passion should drive you. The challenge is to test if it’s really what you want to do.” – Jackie Joyner Kersee
On pushing past road blocks: “Failure is not an option. I don’t want to focus on problems, I focus on solutions. I surround myself with like-minded people, but not ‘yes’ people, in order to grow. – Jackie Joyner Kersee
On being a gay athlete: “We’re not ‘them’. We’re like any other person and want to be treated as such.” -Brittney Griner
On the reliance on fitness data: “People initially get involved with sport because they love it. Make sure you’re enjoying it amidst the challenges. Back it up and ask yourself ‘why am I measuring all this stuff?’. The answer should be ‘to be the best me’”. -Gabby Reece
On taking care of yourself no matter how busy you are: “Work out in the morning. Make taking care of yourself the first thing you do. There will always be a million things you can’t get done. If you do it first thing in the morning, no matter what happens in the rest of your day, you’ve already accomplished something. You can always say ‘I just dropped my computer on the floor, that thing didn’t get done, my day’s been a mess, but I worked out this morning and I feel good about it’.” -Alison Overholt