Paula Korsakas continues her mother’s legacy

By Hanna Lustig October 22, 2014

She was an open-minded, yet traditional woman with an uncommonly independent spirit. A woman who treated her two daughters no differently than her son. She wasn’t a feminist, but in her household, chores were divided equally.

This is how Paula Korsakas remembers her mother, tearing up as she speaks. “There was absolutely no difference if we were a boy or a girl,” Korsakas says. “And that’s the way she did it. It was really natural and intuitive.” Now, Korsakas is making good on her mother’s legacy– she’s the central force behind a youth sports program that promotes gender equality.

Fittingly, Korsakas found her favorite sport–basketball– through a YMCA fitness group she signed up for with her mother, mistakenly believing it was a volleyball clinic.

Furthermore, it was an all-ages basketball team. Paula, 14, was clearly the youngest player not by years, but decades.

“I said, ‘Oh gosh. What am I going to do here? I don’t like basketball. I don’t know how to play basketball,’” Korsakas said. Despite her misgivings, Korsakas remained in the course, growing fond of the sport she initially dismissed. Years later, she can still recall her first lay-up and those unlikely, beloved teammates.

“It was really incredible,” Korsakas says. “That really was a defining point in my life. After that, I didn’t stop playing basketball.”

The program quickly attracted more participants, prompting the YMCA to create a team for Korsakas and girls closer to her age. From that year forward, the court was Korsakas’ second home. When she later enrolled at the University of Sao Paulo, she joined the collegiate team in addition to playing pick-up games with professors and students during lunch, always the sole female player. Girls who play sports, Korsakas explains, are often perceived as different, or odd.

“We still have those stereotypes, like sports are about being strong and aggressive and sweat,” Korsakas says. “It’s not girl stuff. That type of misunderstanding is still here in Brazil.” Brazil, Korsakas admits, is a country “full of contrasts.” It is the ‘land of soccer,’ but only 400,000 girls play. In all corners of youth and professional sports, she says, it’s a man’s world.

As a second-year college student majoring in sports science, Korsakas took action, applying for a coaching position with a youth basketball league overseen by the university’s Sport for Human Development program. There, Korsakas shared her skills with a team of girls. Soon, they, too, were making lay-ups.

“Basketball was everything I wanted to do at the time,” Korsakas says. “Playing basketball, coaching basketball, studying basketball… I was busy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week doing basketball stuff, but I was really happy.”

Nineteen years later, Korsakas is the manager of that program. Girls come and go, graduating from the program at 16. But, more often than not, they visit often and stay in touch. Some even return as trainees and coaches.

Soon to elect its second female president, Korsakas says Brazil is undergoing a deep cultural shift in attitude toward women’s leadership. But until that shift is complete, she’s going to keep pushing for greater female participation and visibility in sports. She is her mother’s daughter, after all.

“I just can’t figure out why our gender could make a difference in having more or less rights,” Korsakas says. “It’s not about being a women or a man. We are humans and that’s the only thing that matters.”