Sports Envoys, GSMP alumna team up in Papua New Guinea

By Brian Canever July 29, 2015

As Papua New Guinea prepared to host the 2015 Pacific Games, Karo Lelai moved one step closer to seeing her dream of a women’s semi-professional basketball league in her country materialize. From June 26 to July 3, she worked with the U.S. Embassy Port Moresby on a Sports Envoy program with U.S. Olympian and WNBA player Ruthie Bolton and U.S. Paralympian Andrea Woodson-Smith, Ph.D., to serve more than 250 young people.

Lelai, an alumna of the 2013 U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, submitted a proposal to the U.S. Embassy Port Moresby requesting a Sports Envoy program shortly after her return from the United States. As the secretary for the PNG Basketball Federation, she rallied the support of her fellow executives and also gathered the support of the PNG Olympic Committee and Sports Foundation.

As could be expected, Lelai was ecstatic when she laid eyes on Bolton, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA All-Star, and Woodson-Smith, 6-foot-3 wheelchair basketball world champion, both commissioned by the U.S. Department of State SportsUnited division as Sports Envoys. It was the first crossover program between GSMP and Sports Envoys under the Empowering Women and Girls through Sports initiative.

“We have never had such basketball celebrities in PNG before,” Lelai said. “Ruthie is in such fine physical condition and Andrea is so tall that they drew so much attention. My kids tagged along to some sessions and my daughters are still talking about Coach Andrea and Coach Ruthie and the lessons they learned from listening to their stories.”

Karo Lelai (right) with U.S. Paralympian wheelchair basketball player Andrea Woodson-Smith. Courtesy of Karo Lelai

Karo Lelai (right) with U.S. Paralympian wheelchair basketball player Andrea Woodson-Smith. Courtesy of Karo Lelai

With the support of the U.S. Embassy, the State Department’s SportsUnited Division, the federations, and the Women in Sport Committee, Lelai, Bolton and Woodson-Smith organized basketball clinics at five high schools around Port Moresby, and the Envoys held training sessions for the men’s and women’s national basketball teams.

In addition to teaching new drills and providing valuable coaching lessons on the court, Bolton and Woodson-Smith also shared personal stories of trials and triumphs – highlighting the role confidence and perseverance play in becoming a successful athlete and strong human being.

In a country where women are less than half as likely as men to hold a job in the formal sector, and where the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports “gender inequality remains a major development challenge” and “violence against women is unacceptably high,” it is no surprise the schoolgirls hung on every word from the accomplished visitors.

Woodson-Smith, who is also an associate professor at North Carolina Central University, was especially impacted by the 100-plus girls at Marianville Secondary School.

“From what I was told, typically the girls are very soft-spoken,” Woodson-Smith said. “We spoke with them for about an hour and they asked so many questions on how to overcome certain kinds of things, and how they could give back too.”

“My entire story resonated with them because I’ve had a lot of obstacles in my life. To see there is hope and light at the end of a very dark tunnel and that they can become who they want to be was very important for them.”


Sports Envoys Ruthie Bolton and Andrea Woodson-Smith coordinated basketball drills for players around Port Moresby. Courtesy of Karo Lelai.

Following the successful conclusion of the Sports Envoys trip and subsequent Pacific Games, Lelai has time and energy to pursue her plan for establishing the first-ever semi-professional women’s basketball league in PNG’s history. Using the relationships she cultivated with the schools during the Sports Envoy program, Lelai hopes to launch a pilot project to run holiday clinics, educate and improve the practical basketball knowledge of physical education teachers, and organize inter-school basketball competitions with the help of the PNG Basketball Federation starting early 2016.

“I have already commenced discussions with potential sponsors for the clinics in Port Moresby, including the City Council, which has a budget for these sorts of activities,” Lelai said. “Once we’re operating here, I will then aim to implement the same activities in PNG’s next biggest city, Lae, and two more regional cities.”

While Lelai says she will never forget this experience, and hopes to partner together with Bolton and Woodson-Smith for women’s basketball again the future, the GSMP alumna knows the biggest impact was made elsewhere.

“They say ‘seeing is believing,’ and having former WNBA and USA women’s basketball stars sharing their story here is an experience all of these kids will never forget.”