It’s International Women’s Day, and the sports world is full of trailblazing women, from tennis and equal rights pioneer Billie Jean King (whom I have been fortune enough to interview), to Kathrine Switzer, who was attacked by an official for her audacity in entering the 1967 Boston Marathon, to Serena Williams, winner of 21 Grand Slams and re-definer of beauty standards.
There are far too many influential women in athletics to attempt a comprehensive list. Instead, here a few with whom I’ve been privileged to cross paths. Some I met for mere moments; others I worked with regularly. But they left lasting impressions.
First, a shoutout to my mother, for instilling her love of sports, specifically college hoops, in me. As I’ve previously mentioned, my mother played basketball in high school, and it was totally normal behavior for her son and her daughter to play HORSE for hours in the backyard.
Here are other notables. (Click on the bold name to read more about them):
Covering the Old Dominion University women’s basketball team for several seasons exposed me to many memorable women in athletics. At an NCA A regional the Lady Monarchs (that term was a source of pride, not a throwback to an outdated tradition) hosted, I saw Candace Parker dunk and did a quick hallway interview with Maggie Dixon, who had led Army to its first ever NCAA berth.
Dixon was gracious, appreciative of the moment even in defeat, and had fantastic shoes. Less than a month later, she died at age 28 because of complications from an enlarged heart.
ODU women’s basketball was most synonymous with coaching giant Wendy Larry, who led the Lady Monarchs to an NCAA-record 17 consecutive Colonial Athletic Association conference championships while stalking the sidelines with her trademark towel slung over her shoulder. Her ODU squad played Tennessee for the national championship in 1997. Legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt became a good friend and, grateful for the early support shown her team by Larry and ODU, put the Lady Monarchs on the schedule every year.
Women’s college basketball also introduced me to Jericka Jenkins, who overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma to become a history-making point guard at Hampton University; and to Nicole Mitchell, who found solace on the court at Division III Christopher Newport after her father’s death left her orphaned at 19. I also met Brooke Weisbrod, a fiery guard at Coastal Carolina who was my favorite quote for four years and is now displaying that eloquence at ESPN, and Sallie Dawson. Dawson, 4 when I first came to know her, was born with a long list of medical problems that didn’t slow her down one bit, nor dampen her love for Hampton women’s basketball.
Sallie’s mother, Angela Dawson, was just one of the many moms who played crucial supporting roles in their children’s lives. I watched hulking William and Mary defensive end Adrian Tracy, who terrorized quarterbacks for 10 sacks in his senior season, weep without shame as he escorted his mother, Ann Hill, onto the football field for Senior Day. I interviewed two high school boys who drew their strength, on and off from the field, from the mother who wouldn’t let chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer keep her from cheering on her sons. I listened with immense respect as Verina Mathis-Crawford described how she honored her late son, Mike, by making his dream a reality.
I have been in interview rooms with Serena Williams and her older sister, Venus – with whom I shared an 80s music moment when I helpfully supplied the name of the song she was looking for to make a point. I have discovered that Martina Navratilova is really funny (though I have heard her eviscerate local newspaper designers for sexist headlines).
I have seen, time and time again, the power of women, on the court and in the lives of loved ones. Today, and every day, is a good day to celebrate it.