watch Aline Silva 's story
Aline Silva was exhausted, but she had to keep diving for her opponent’s legs. Another takedown might bring her closer to history. It was the semifinals of the 2014 World Wrestling Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and she stood across the mat from Ochirbatyn Burmaa, a dozen-time Asian and international medalist from Mongolia. Aline was one win away from earning her place as the first Brazilian wrestler—male or female—to medal at a world championship.
“When you’re wrestling at that level you’re so tired,” Aline says. “You’re fighting your brain: ‘Don’t stop! Don’t give up! You can do it!’ Wrestlers can never give up.”
Aline didn’t give up. She won the match and earned her place in the finals, where she narrowly lost to American Adeline Gray, a gold medalist at the last two world championships. That evening in Uzbekistan, Aline made history.
The medals podium, however, is not where Aline’s story began. Raised by a hardworking single mother in Sao Paulo, at a young age she found herself hanging out with the wrong crowd. Her lifestyle led to many late and scary nights for Aline’s mother and her family.
“Without supervision, I started skipping school and spending most of my time on the streets,” Aline says. “I looked older than my age, so I hung out with the older kids. We smoked cigarettes and drank. I didn’t know kids did these things. I was 11 years old. But I wanted to be a part of the group.”
Afraid of what might happen to her daughter, Aline’s mother transferred her daughter to a new school, where she discovered judo and wrestling.
Finding a positive outlet through sports, Aline transformed herself into a promising Olympic hopeful. In 2006, she won her first gold medal at Brazil’s national junior championships, followed by a silver medal at the Pan-American Games in 2011. She finished on the podium in several other national and continental tournaments before her ultimate triumph at worlds.
“When I won the silver medal in Uzbekistan, I understood I would never again doubt myself,” Aline says. “I would never give up on my dreams.”
Aline qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished ninth in the women’s 75kg category, losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual bronze medalist. Aline was devastated, but still received the applause of the crowd. The support she received kept the dream from slipping away from her.
As she experienced her own transformation, Aline’s eyes opened to the millions of Brazilian girls wandering aimlessly through life. Poverty, domestic violence, pay inequality and societal stereotypes of women who play sports remain significant challenges in the country. A push toward gender equality over the past decade has seen women with greater access to education and economic empowerment, but Brazil still ranks outside of the top 100 in female political representation, and has been called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman for its high rates of gender violence and female homicide.
Aline says it’s as if “girls are never given the chance to start dreaming.” As someone who personally knows the powerful role sport can play in changing the course and expectation of women’s lives, she feels called to act.
“People laugh when I tell them that at the Olympics the Brazilian teams get together and say, ‘We must fight like girls, not men,’” Aline says. “Have you ever seen little girls fight? They’re tough! We need to remind women how tough they really are inside.”
Aline is already a role model to millions of girls across Brazil. She and her mother have created an association, Guerreiras na Luta (Women Warriors in the Fight) to expand her message of empowering girls through sports. Through this association, they work to provide wrestling classes for girls and women. Aline, who studied cosmetology and esthetics and is a sergeant in the Brazilian Navy, also teaches professional skills that will help women become economically independent.
“I didn’t win these medals alone,” Aline says. “My mom tells me every time I give a speech the people ask her, ‘How do you feel about your daughter?’ She answers with a big smile. She is proud and happy. My winning is her winning. Despite everyone who doubted, she could raise me to be a success.”
With a dream of extending her triumphs to girls across her country, Aline is partnered with mentor Julie Eddleman, global client partner for Google, who has been involved with the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program since 2012. Julie has previously mentored four Brazilians as part of the GSMP—Cassia Damiani (2012), Daniela Castro (2013), Paula Korsakas (2014), and Maíra Liguori (2016). A former athlete herself, she is among the United States’ most knowledgeable and prominent marketing and branding experts, and has helped Aline develop important management, fundraising, and business skills for her association. With Julie’s guidance, Aline’s dream of impacting millions of girls across Brazil through sports is steadily becoming a reality.
It had been years since Malak Hasan had pedaled a bicycle.
When she was 13 years old, her parents left the United Arab Emirates, where Malak was born and enjoyed a childhood full of activities like karate and swimming. The family moved to the small village of Biddu in the Palestinian Territories, a place where sports facilities for women were non-existent and even water and electricity were privileges. When she saw the green bicycle in the shop window during her time studying overseas in Wales, it brought her back to those earlier years. So, she bought it right there on the spot.
“I Skyped my family and told them I was planning to exercise every day,” Malak said. “By the end of the year, I was cycling 20 to 30 miles. I kept my promise.”
After finishing her master’s degree in communications, media practice and public relations from Swansea University, Malak returned to her country a changed woman. She took a job as chief correspondent for The Arab Weekly newspaper. Then, one day, she took her first steps into the boxing gym.
Boxing is a long way from cycling, and not what many in her community would expect for a woman. But in this tough environment, Malak found a place to challenge ideas about gender norms.
“When I first walked into the gym, I was the only girl,” Malak stated. “The coaches asked me, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ I asked them if they asked boys the same question.’ After that, they just let me box.”
In the gym, Malak met an 11-year-old girl named Zaina. As she watch her hit the punching bag and work on drills in the corner, she saw the change that women like her can make for girls across the Palestinian Territories. With a lack of female role models, it is very challenging for girls to believe they have a future in sports. One of the country’s female Olympians, Woroud Sawalha, who Malak tried to interview for a story after she participated in the 2012 London Olympics, was largely forgotten after she did not medal.
“For our society, the story of Woroud shows the struggle all women face,” Malak said. “You either win or you’re forgotten. But, girls need role models.”
Now, Malak is embracing her own potential as a sports leader. She receives emails and messages from girls who have heard about her cycling on weekends in a headscarf, or running through drills with the boys at the boxing gym. At the urging of her boxing coach, she ran for and was elected as the youngest and first female general secretary of the Palestinian Boxing Federation. She is also a founding member of Cycling Palestine—an NGO devoted to promoting bicycling in the community, and serves as senior news editor for WAFA News Agency English.
“People always say women are weak, emotional, and incapable of making decisions,” Malak said, “but I’m showing you through sports that these stereotypes are not true. For me, sport is a symbol in society of whether women are oppressed or free. In order to have a liberated society anywhere women should be able to choose.”
A lack of resources and facilities prevent Palestinian women from having full access to sports. Women have limited participation in key sectors with only 13 percent holding positions in national parliament and 62 percent of women under 25 years old unemployed.
“We have a semblance of equality in Palestine, but the limited participation of women means this equality does not translate over to reality,” Malak said. “When you’re not represented by the system or in the institutions, your voice will not be heard. I believe sports is just as important as art, music, economics, policy, and if we can start to make an impact in the sports world, which is so dominated by men, then it will make an impact everywhere else.”
Already a prominent voice for gender equality, Malak regularly appears on radio and television shows. She is currently working on a documentary series, Palestine by Bike, documenting the stories of everyday Palestinians, with the hope that awareness and education will help to break down stereotypes and inequalities.
By participating in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Malak has learned more about how she can use her platform as a female sports leader and journalist to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. She is mentored by Diane Morse, chief counsel for ESPN. A more than 20-year veteran of working in legal affairs for the global sports media company, she shares key insights on leading as a female in a male-dominated sports world, and connects Malak with the technology, methodologies, and media practices for how to promote women’s sports in the Palestinian Territories.
It didn’t take very long for Chisom Mbonu-Ezeoke to be known as “the football girl” among her friends in Enugu, Nigeria. Word spread fast around her high school about the girl who knew even more about soccer than the boys.
“Many boys listened to me talk more than other boys because they were shocked a girl could know so much,” Chisom says. “I would watch SuperSport back then and tell my friends, ‘I’m going to work for this station one day and talk about football on television.’”
Chisom was athletic as a girl; she competed on the track and field team during her school years. But, she preferred a life in the stands and behind the notepad. From the time she was 7 years old, she would go with her father to the nearby Enugu Rangers stadium, dreaming of a career in sports journalism.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Abuja, she worked three years in sales and marketing before hearing about the FIFA agent licensing program. After some research, Chisom learned that no Nigerian woman was licensed to represent the country’s players at the time. In the testing room, she was the only woman in a room of 15 men. And, she passed.
“I really wasn’t interested in selling players,” Chisom says. “I just wanted to be noticed. It was a way of getting my foot in the door.”
Soon afterward, Chisom traveled to watch Nigeria’s men’s national soccer team play an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Abuja. Once there, she was invited to dinner, where she unexpectedly met the head of SuperSport Nigeria—one of the country’s largest media outlets covering professional soccer. After their meeting, she got a phone call from her now-boss with surprising news.
“He said the head of SuperSport was so impressed; he’d never met a girl so passionate about football,” Chisom says. “They wanted me to come in for an audition.”
The audition was a success and Chisom was hired as the first female soccer analyst on the SuperSport network. After two years as an analyst and basketball presenter, she began anchoring coverage of Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League. A decade later, she remains the only female anchor for SuperSport Nigeria.
“Now I’m a leader and an influencer,” Chisom says. “But, initially, people thought I was wasting my time and should pursue something else. And, I say, yes doctors and teachers are very important. But many kids in Nigeria cannot afford school or the hospital. Imagine if they could use sports to receive an education and create better lives for themselves?”
In Nigeria, nearly 63 percent of the population—approximately 117 million people—live off less than $1.90 a day, according to statistics from the United Nations Development Programme. Girls are often the worst victims of poverty, and gender inequalities have put Nigeria among the world’s lower-ranking countries in women’s educational attainment, health, and political empowerment.
Chisom witnesses inequalities play out regularly in the sports world. For example, SuperSport hosts a show, Let’s Play, where Chisom and a production team travel to communities around the Nigeria to introduce sports to children in partnership with national federations and coaches. Approximately 90 percent of their participants are boys. When she visits schools to recruit girls, she is told either they do not want to play, or their parents will not let them play. To Chisom, this mentality denies girls the opportunity to better their lives and empower their future children.
The case is the same in professional sports, where women’s facilities are lacking and pay is drastically unequal. The senior women’s national soccer team, the Super Falcons, have been paid considerably less than the men’s Super Eagles, despite outperforming the men and winning the Africa’s continental championship eight more times than the next closest country.
“People think it doesn’t matter, but it matters so much to the girls,” Chisom says. “They are breadwinners. Their families look to them for help. Aren’t we all Nigerian citizens, entitled to the same benefits?”
Chisom believes positive change can come as more women are exposed to sports at early ages. In 2016, she founded Akoni TV, an online storytelling platform that she seeks to use to empower and teach women how to produce, edit, and write scripts for their own sports stories. She has many other ideas, too, from advocating for new legislation ensuring equal funding and training for women’s sports teams to incorporating sports programs in schools.
During the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Chisom worked with mentors Jennifer Pransky, senior coordinating producer of features, and Lindsay Amstutz, assistant general manager, for Fox Sports. With their combined experience in sports media and belief in promoting women’s empowerment through sports, they are ideally positioned to support Chisom’s vision for gender equality. With a focus on developing business and sports management, fundraising, and leadership skills, Chisom returned home poised to make lasting change for Nigerian women through sports journalism.
Elvira Dushku was still in elementary school in Pristina, Kosovo when her older brother invited her to watch him and his friends play basketball. No girls were on the court, so at first she waited patiently on the sidelines. But, after two or three times of sitting out, she couldn’t take it anymore and put herself in the game.
“I told my brother, ‘Why can’t I play with the boys, too?’” Elvira says.
The moment she stepped onto the basketball court, Elvira knew she had found her second home. One day, a former Yugoslavian national basketball team player, whose daughter attended the same school as Elvira, spotted her talent and asked if she was interested in joining the local women’s club. By the age of 14, she was playing at the highest level.
But, then came the war in Kosovo, and Elvira was separated from playing the sport she loved for nearly two years.
After the war ended, a former men’s coach approached Elvira on a mission to form a new women’s club, Univerziteti Priština. She joined the team and played competitively until 2007, winning numerous best player awards and national championships before she suffered a serious knee injury and retired.
“For me, playing basketball is about passion,” Elvira says. “This sport made me achieve everything I have in my life.”
At one point, women’s basketball thrived in Kosovo. In 2003, Elvira’s club had been invited to participate in an international league for the first-time—the FIBA- sponsored EWWL Trocal League. The club competed against teams from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Bosnia. The attention that came with participating in a major European league caused a shift in how women’s sport was viewed nationally.
“We’d play at stadiums around the country and they’d be filled—2,000 people and more,” Elvira says. “People were standing outside because they couldn’t get in. And we were girls! It was incredible.”
However, the club was not invited to participate in the next season of the league, and the sport dropped in popularity. After she retired from playing in 2007, Elvira began a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from AAB College in Pristina, and was hired as a reporter for the Kosova Sot newspaper. Around the same time, her basketball club asked her to return as its women’s sports coordinator.
In her new role, the disparities between men’s and women’s sport in Kosovo became even more apparent to Elvira. The club—one of the country’s largest—dedicated most its budget to the men’s team, and did not invest in its women’s team. Elvira had to go to the government, speak with the director of sports in Pristina, and make pitches for funding from small sponsors.
“Kosovo is a patriarchal society,” Elvira says. “We don’t have role female models either to challenge this. There are no women’s sports figures, like in other countries, who little girls can look to for their futures.”
In 2015, Elvira was hired by the Kosovo Basketball Federation and then promoted to its acting secretary general. She is one of the country’s few female sports executives. In March, she was also selected to participate in FIBA’s TIME OUT program, a partnership between FIBA, the European Union and Northumbria University in the United Kingdom, which allows for exceptional retired players like Elvira to receive a master’s degree in sports administration.
“I want to be a voice and role model in my country,” Elvira says. “I’ve heard parents say , ‘Elvira, my girl wants to be like you.’ This can continue to the other sports federations, where all the front offices are men. It can start with basketball.”
Since she began as acting secretary general, Elvira and the federation’s executive committee have ensured that coaches of men’s and women’s teams are paid equally, and that women’s teams are prioritized in scheduling of practices and games. She has many ideas for how basketball can be further used for the development and gender equality. She would like to start formal basketball leagues for girls and women, while also partnering with schools and physical educators in rural areas to develop more coaches.
“In the villages, 22 our 23 coaches may be men,” Elvira says. “I need the number of women coaching to grow because this is how we build role models. Girls see women playing and coaching and it sets a new goal for them.”
During her time on the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Elvira worked with two-time mentor Laura Dixon, head of external relations for Spurs Sports and Entertainment. A leader within one of U.S. basketball’s top clubs, Laura has extensive experience in using sport for local impact, particularly how to promote campaigns that mobilize communities and engage stakeholders to action. As the global popularity of basketball grows, the Spurs organization has hosted at least three delegations of Kosovoan basketball players over the years, most recently a U.S. Department of State Sports Visitor program organized with Elvira’s support. Laura and Spurs are vital resources for Elvira, as both a female leader at the elite level of sport, and for providing her with the best practices for engaging girls and youth through basketball.
Carole Ponchon was raised in the small, rural village of Haute-Rivoire in France, where she lived the ideal childhood. There was only one problem: children could not join soccer leagues in Haute-Rivoire until age 6.
Although Carole traveled the world through her endless book collection, she had her eyes set on the soccer field. When she was old enough, her mother signed her up for the local club, where she was one of the only girls among the boys. It was on the soccer field where Carole, the shy bookworm, transformed into Carole, the relentless competitor.
“Football was a way of expressing the wild part of me,” Carole says. “I was very quiet and introverted, but on the field I was a different person. Football helped me show people—and, more importantly, myself—that I could do anything. I never felt stronger then when I would hear parents shouting from the sidelines, ‘C’mon don’t get beaten by a girl!’”
Carole played as a defender on mixed-gender teams until she turned 13, when she joined a women’s soccer team in another village, competing as a goalkeeper with players who were in their twenties and thirties. She retired from playing five years ago, but the significant impact sport made on her life was enough that she dedicated her entire career to it.
In 2009, Carole completed master’s degrees in marketing and management from the Groupe ESC Troyes Champagne School of Management, and sports management from the Troyes University of Technology. For four years, she worked as the European project leader for the Sport and Citizenship Think Tank, and in 2013 founded her own company, BeInnovActiv, an exchange platform for sports programmers, practitioners, and advocates.
“In society, showing your strength is vital for men,” Carole says. “But, sports help women and girls to also show their own strength. Practicing sport as a woman, even if you don’t realize it, you gain knowledge of your inner-self, get out of your shell, and open minds and boundaries.”
Carole is currently the public relations and projects manager for the European Observatoire of Sports and Employment (EOSE), an international organization building bridges between education, employment, sport and physical activity. Together with her colleagues, she works with clubs and federations across Europe, identifying needs and providing skills development training programs for volunteers and employees. EOSE currently runs a sports administration project with Tennis Europe, the European Federation of Company Sports, and the International Sports and Culture Association.
Ranked 17th in the world in gender equality, and first in both educational attainment and women’s health, according to the Global Gender Gap Index, it is easy to believe gender issues still exist in France. Women’s sports coverage remains minimal, despite government funding that has seen it increase from 7 to 15 percent since 2013. At the same time, many women who want to pursue sports are faced with two prominent boundaries: a glass ceiling of opportunity and an imbalance of family responsibility.
“In Western societies, we tend to believe gender inequality exists in developing countries,” Carole says. “But in our own homes we don’t see what is happening. We don’t notice comments from journalists at sports events are not the same for men and women. We ignore the body image issues and the pressure for women athletes to be one way.”
If French society places a greater value on sport, Carole is certain it would lead to a positive impact for the country’s women. She seeks to create a platform to increase the connection between education, civic duties, and sports; demonstrating to others how sport provides a significant and measurable impact in the lives of women and men.
“Right now, you could put on your CV that you’ve been a basketball player for 10 years,” Carole explains, “but if the person in front of you doesn’t have a sports background they don’t realize what that means. They don’t realize that because of sports you’ve acquired self-esteem, confidence, respect for rules and others, teamwork, dealing with success and failures—all these soft skills that are transferrable to daily and work life.”
During her time on the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Carole was based at the Women’s Sports Foundation, the ideal place for a woman with her level of experience in gender and sports issues. She is mentored by CEO Deborah Antoine, a longtime champion of social change through sports, who previously led the largest tennis and education program in the United States—New York Junior Tennis & Learning—, which serves more than 75,000 children. Deborah provides Carole with important resources to develop skills in public campaigns and advocacy, innovative CSR strategies, and sports governance. Together, these two women work to demonstrate the power of sport to create a fuller, healthier society in France and beyond.
It didn’t matter whether it was basketball or soccer. Growing up in Chennai, India, all Sangeetha Manoharan wanted to do was play. Sports is what made her feel healthy and whole, regardless of what the rest of society felt about girls playing outside with the boys.
While studying for her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Madras, she discovered ultimate (originally known as ultimate Frisbee). Sangeetha’s high school had offered disc sports, but she wasn’t aware there was a way to play them competitively at the time. Just a few years later, with a group of people who would become friends, teammates, and members of Chennai Ultimate Frisbee, she forged a new path for her life in the sport that would ultimately define her.
“Ultimate teaches valuable life lessons that young adults in India often miss out on,” Sangeetha says. “As a self-officiated sport, it helps players experience on-field freedom in a culture where people often don’t know how to take responsibility for their actions. It encourages a culture of accountability, and teaches people how to resolve conflict while respecting and listening to the views of their opponents.”
As she continued through her master’s degree in applied psychology, Sangeetha quit all other sports and began to focus on ultimate. By 2012, she was on the advisory board for the Ultimate Players Association of India (UPAI) and three years later was named the chair of UPAI’s women’s committee.
In 2015, Sangeetha also made India’s first male and female team to participate in a World Championships of Beach Ultimate. This year she competed in her second WCBU for India, and in 2016 she was a part of its squad for the World Ultimate and Guts Championship.
After spending more than a year as the director of ultimate development for Chennai Ultimate Frisbee, Sangeetha took a position in January as the head coach of ultimate and operations executive for the Quad, an optimal fitness company in the city. She sees the sport as playing a key role in empowering Indians of all backgrounds, deconstructing stereotypes around female ability and ambitions, and teaching important life skills.
“Through ultimate, you learn to trust your teammates, express yourself respectfully, and overcome your fears,” Sangeetha says. “And you find a community that energizes you.”
Across India, gender inequality remains a significant challenge. In the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, the country ranked 87th in the world, with particularly low rankings in economic empowerment (136th), educational attainment (113th), and health and survival (142nd). In Chennai, girls are taught from a young age to conform to gender norms, suggesting men and women’s roles, methods of interaction, styles of dress, and careers are inherently different. For most families, as in Sangeetha’s own case, sport is an afterthought, especially when it comes to girls.
Sangeetha has many ideas for how to use ultimate to make an impact for women in her community and throughout India. She would like to transform the women’s committee for India Ultimate into a gender and equity committee, focused on setting up policies for equal opportunity in representation, skill, growth and competition, as well as establish an ultimate-focused mentorship program for women. With her company, she runs a multiple-month Intro to Ultimate program that has been so successful that many players have graduated and formed their own team, Quadzilla.
In order to take her platform and influence to the next level, Sangeetha was partnered with Burton Snowboards CEO Donna Carpenter during her time on the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. Labelled “the snowboard ambassador” by The New York Times, Donna is a two-time mentor with the program and one of the most prominent leaders in the world of extreme and winter sports. At Burton, she oversees the company’s internal mentorship program, women’s leadership initiative, and the launch of the Burton Girls online community. As Sangeetha seeks to develop skills in sports marketing, gender equity policymaking, and fundraising, she is in an ideal environment with an innovative mentor who understands how to balance developing a sport with creating a culture of empowerment. With Donna’s guidance, Sangeetha is taking one more step on her path for changing the lives of girls in India through ultimate.
Alejandra Rodriguez-Larraín’s childhood was filled with car drives to and from sports lessons. If it wasn’t tennis, it was swimming. If it wasn’t swimming, it was golf. But, nothing made Alejandra feel the way she did when she stepped onto the track.
Inspired by her father, an attorney and marathon runner who raced in marathons in New York City and the Andres mountains, Alejandra joined and competed on the track and field team at her primary and secondary schools. She thought one day she might run next to her father in a marathon. But, there was no rush. Then, in 2011, he announced he was going to run for the last time.
“I remember I called my sister and told her I signed both of us up to surprise him,” Alejandra says. “I told her, ‘We’ve got to start training in two weeks.’ She was mad. But, it wasn’t my dad’s last marathon. He’s 64 years old now and still running.”
Since 2011, Alejandra has participated in the New York City Marathon five times, and completed half-marathons in Spain, Chile, Colombia, North Carolina, and Florida.
While working on her second bachelor’s degree in economics and finance from the Universidad de Piura (Alejandra earned a degree in business from the same university in 2008), she began helping her dad with an amateur running club he founded in 1984, Peru Runners. In 2012, as the club formed into a full-scale organization promoting running across the country, she joined full-time as its CEO and lead on social development programs.
As the head of the organization, Alejandra grew Peru Runners to six running clubs nationwide, including two women’s and one trail running club. The organization’s membership also grew to 1,000, as it expanded to host 32 major events a year, with even more local events for runners.
But, even as Peru Runners flourished, Alejandra wanted to do more than just promote running. Her parents had made sure she was aware of social and economic injustices in society, and she wanted to make a bigger impact.
“Peru is a place where economic and gender differences are very stark,” Alejandra says. “There is a long coast with modern cities, where some girls have access to economic assets and don’t feel different from the boys. Then we have the highlands and the jungle, and poor communities even in the big cities. These are places where many girls have to fight to even get an education.”
While gender inequalities exist across Peruvian society, Alejandra is most concerned by how they affect poor and rural women. In 2014, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the country’s government to tackle gender discrimination, particularly high rates of teenage pregnancy, racism, and violence.
Alejandra believes running provides a positive environment where women gain confidence to fight for their rights and improve the quality of their lives.
“In running, you will suffer,” Alejandra says. “It is like life. There will be sacrifices and obstacles along the way, but the rewards of overcoming them are much greater, and you should enjoy every step. Running builds life skills, confidence, body awareness, friendships, and creates safe environments for women to connect with each other”.
Since Alejandra became CEO of Peru Runners, women have grown to represent 45 percent of its membership. Outside of the clubs, she organizes key programs, such as Correr te Hace Libre (Running Makes You Free), aimed at empowering men and women in prison, and campaigns to spread awareness of street harassment of women who run and do other physical activities outside.
“With everything, we’re trying to promote women’s equality,” Alejandra says. “We want women to be healthy and sporty, not overweight, depressed, and feeling like they are less than men.”
Through years of hard work and success, Alejandra has cultivated strong relationships with civic and government leaders across Peru. By participating in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, she has helped maximize the organization’s current platform, while learning new management and leadership skills to take Peru Runners’ impact to the next level. Guiding her on the journey are Under Armour mentors Pamela Catlett, senior VP and general manager of women’s, and Susie McCabe, senior VP of global retail. Two senior female leaders in one of the world’s global sports brands, who possess more than 20 years of experience with prominent companies such as Ralph Lauren and Nike, Pamela and Susie provide Alejandra with key resources for working with and attracting new sponsors, as well as innovative ideas for growing Peru Runners around the country. With her mentors’ support, Alejandra is certain to change the lives of hundreds of more underserved women in communities throughout her country.
Po-Chun Liu grew up believing she could make baseball history. Before she could walk, her father would take her to the stadium to teach her about the sport that would define her life. He told her: “You are capable of anything, Po-Chun.”
But, when Po-Chun walked into tryouts for her junior high school baseball team, she received a different message. The coaches told her there was a “no skirts allowed” policy and turned her away. Taiwanese girls weren’t supposed to play baseball.
Refusing to give up her ambition to play the game, a young Po-Chun volunteered with Little League Baseball. She assisted with summer camps, collected paperwork, and began interpreting for Taiwan’s baseball association during international competitions. At national tournaments, she noticed the poor quality of the umpiring and knew she could do a better job, so she began taking the first steps toward becoming a game official.
“I had no idea I was going to be the first woman to umpire baseball in Taiwan,” Po-Chun says.
After a few years of serving as a base umpire, Po-Chun sought to make the big move to becoming a plate umpire. The local baseball association told her there was no equipment for female plate umpires. Even her colleagues told her, “No, that’s enough. Aren’t you satisfied?” Undeterred by the negative reactions, Po-Chun pushed ahead. While interpreting for the New York Yankees during their visit to Taiwan in 2009, the team learned about her story and offered to sponsor her gear.
“That night I told my parents, ‘This is surely my destiny,’ Po-Chun recalls.
Since 2006, Po-Chun has umpired for World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC) tournaments in Venezuela, South Korea, and Hong Kong. But, she never had the chance to play the sport she loved. In Taiwan, women’s baseball only exists at the amateur level. At one point, Po-Chun organized an international tournament, inviting women’s teams from all over the world, and booked the largest stadium available. It had never been done before. One of her friends even told her, “Maybe the men are right. How can we play on a regular field? We don’t deserve that.”
According to world gender equality statistics, the gender gap in Taiwan is closing, with women attaining higher levels of economic opportunity, education, health, and political empowerment than ever before. But, for advocates like Po-Chun, it can often appear as if there is a brick wall separating women and sports.
“Sometimes I feel like I live in another world when I play baseball,” Po-Chun says. “In Taiwan, women can be highly educated. But our traditions say we must not play sports. We should be in the kitchen. And, if we should be in the kitchen, then we certainly shouldn’t be playing baseball.”
Despite the challenges, progress is happening. Po-Chun, who has a bachelor’s degree in social work from National Taipei University and master’s in religious studies from National Chengchi University, has published five books about her experiences, including her 2016 publication, Safe & Out: The Courage of Persistence and Introspect: How Baseball Teaches us about Frustration and Attitude. She often appears on television and is asked to contribute columns to national newspapers. Her junior high school, which denied her the chance to play more than two decades ago, even invited her back to speak to the girls.
“In Taiwan, I am called the mother of women’s baseball,” Po-Chun says. “I want to make girls believe they have the potential to take charge in their lives despite traditional stereotypes. My baseball journey isn’t the same as every girl, but I show girls that it can help you pursue a career and happiness. Baseball makes you feel like you can do anything.”
In addition to her umpiring duties, Po-Chun works as a project manager for The Garden of Hope Foundation, an NGO that serves women victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. She believes that sport can change lives across all backgrounds, and wants to see more female leaders in government and greater financial support from sponsors for women’s sport. Her ultimate dream is to one day run a baseball school in Taiwan.
Through her participation in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Po-Chun learned vital marketing and sports management skills from experts in the United States, as well as shared her unique perspective as one of the first female baseball umpires. Of American women leaders in the sports sector, few have the expertise and wisdom like four-time mentor Susan Cohig, senior VP of business affairs and integrated marketing for the National Hockey League (NHL) and Po-Chun’s mentor. For almost two decades, Susan has worked in the company’s national office overseeing all areas of business, integrated sales, and digital marketing and media. She knows what it feels like to be a female voice in the male-dominated world of sports, and how to work with leagues and teams to promote women’s initiatives in the U.S. and abroad. With her own unending determination and Susan’s close guidance, Po-Chun is guaranteed to write a new chapter of success for women’s sports in Taiwan.
For Caroline Lembe, sport always meant more than athletic performance. As the daughter of Congolese immigrants in Antwerp, Belgium, she grew up watching videos of Muhammad Ali on television. She came to admire him for the way he moved in the boxing ring and the way he spoke of a more equal world outside of it.
But, Caroline never would have predicted that one day she’d find her own way into boxing.
Growing up, Caroline struggled with being overweight. She and two of her close friends began swimming and running to lose weight. As she became healthier, she noticed the benefits carrying over into her daily life and her academics. Two years into her bachelor’s degree in socio-educational care work at Artesis Plantijn University College, Caroline first tried a boxing class with a friend. She had been inspired to give the sport a try after learning the story of two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, who overcame abuse and poverty in Flint, Michigan and transformed herself into a living boxing legend.
“When I began boxing, my body physically changed, and mentally I received this power and energy” Caroline says. “It was like one of my great escapes from stress and pressure. It made me conscious to different capacities in myself: persistence, self-esteem. I’d say when I took my exams, ‘It’s just like boxing class, I can do this.’”
Caroline is now an assistant boxing trainer at N’Wicha Boxing School, founded by Muay Thai kickboxing world champion and pro boxer Najat Hasnouni. She trains around 50 women and offers private lessons to men. The school works with people from diverse backgrounds including disadvantaged children, teenagers with self-esteem and other social issues, single mothers, and immigrants in civic integration programs.
“When I see that the girls are insecure about their bodies, I feel the need to motivate them,” Caroline says. “It’s important to let girls know through sports they can develop themselves and realize their potential and talents. It’s important for girls to realize there’s not only a physical component.”
Outside of boxing, Caroline runs her own company, Siki-Lab, which recreates hospital rooms and medical environments for medical students to practice their techniques. She started the company with her sister with the vision of raising the quality of the healthcare system in Belgium.
For many years, Belgium has been among the most gender equal in Europe and much of the world, with strong economic participation and educational attainment statistics for women. In Antwerp and throughout the Flanders, however, Caroline sees clear disparities for girls and women from underprivileged backgrounds, especially those from immigrant communities. According to OECD statistics, non-native Belgians or those from immigrant households are likely to have lower educational attainment, and household income that is 30 percent less than native Belgians.
“People coming from disadvantaged communities tend to have less opportunities in the job market and the education system,” Caroline says. “There are still people that tend to see it very black and white—either you’re going to make it or you’re not going to achieve anything. There are stereotypes people from different backgrounds and origins face.”
By growing up with a generation of empowered girls who, like herself, have discovered their strength through boxing, Caroline hopes to break down these stereotypes and inject new energy in girls and women. She is passionate about working with those who have suffered physical and emotional violence, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Lina Shields, senior director of consumer marketing for Eli Lilly & Company, served as Caroline’s mentor for the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. Eli Lilly is a global leader in the pharmaceutical industry with a decorated history of community service that dates back to the late nineteenth century. During the mentorship, Lina and her team shared important business, networking, and communications skills with Caroline that directly translate over to both her boxing and medical work, as she seeks to spark more opportunities for Belgium’s women to experience the empowering potential of sports.
In Venezuela, as in most of the world, sport is traditionally seen as a space where men dominate. In Claudia Contreras’ childhood home in Caracas, the reality was quite the opposite.
From the time she was a little girl, Claudia swam, ran, played volleyball and basketball, climbed mountains, and challenged her younger brother in to see who was the most athletic of the Contreras children.
“The funny thing is that I am better than my brother in sports,” Claudia laughs. “The stereotype is that boys are supposed to be stronger and faster. Sports is for them. But, that wasn’t the case in my family.”
In 2003, while studying for her bachelor’s degree in sports psychology at Andrés Bello Catholic University, Claudia was first exposed to rugby, the sport in which she would find her fullest expression. She soon worked her way to being named captain of the university’s women’s rugby team. By 2012, she was captain of the Venezuelan national team, leading her country to strong performances at the Bolivarian Games (2013), Central American and Caribbean Games (2014), and the South America Women’s Sevens championship (2016). Last year, the team competed in the Women’s Rugby Olympic Repechage in Dublin, Ireland—Venezuelan rugby’s most important competition to date.
Throughout the years, Claudia balanced her rugby career with work as a sports psychologist for several clubs in different sports. Since 2013, she has also coached the women’s rugby team at her university, and earned several certifications from World Rugby, the sport’s international governing body. Yet, despite the country’s progress in rugby, and Claudia’s personal athletic success, the stereotypes of women’s ability to compete remain as stark to Claudia as they did when she was a girl.
“In Venezuela, people think rugby is for men and ballet dancing is for women,” Claudia says. “I had an Argentine coach on the national team—and you know Argentina is one of the best in the world—and he confessed to me that he didn’t think rugby was for women. I was like, ‘What?! You’re our trainer—you can’t think that!”
The coach later left for a position in Europe and reconsidered his view on women in rugby. He thanked Claudia for the role she played in changing his mind.
In 2013, Claudia and a group of close colleagues launched Deporte para el Desarrollo (Sport for Development), an NGO that provides sports opportunities to youth and coaches in Venezuela’s most disadvantaged communities. The organization consists of 14 team members, including sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, who apply the best in international sport development to Venezuela’s context. As of 2017, Claudia and her organization have worked with more than 400 trainers across the country, positively impacting more than 12,000 children and youth.
“Sport is a great space for children to learn because they want to be there,” Claudia says. “We create a methodology for coaches to teach social skills, because we know not every child is going to be a high-performance athlete, but every child has a to be a good citizen. We’re developing human beings.”
Venezuela faces serious economic and social challenges. In 2016, the country had the second-highest murder rate in the world. According to World Bank statistics, poverty has trended upward for the past five years, bringing with it food shortages, malnutrition, and a significant increase in child mortality rates. Claudia has experienced the realities firsthand, and her organization began providing meals for children participating in sports activities after many arrived too unhealthy for physical activity.
With increasing tensions and divisions, Claudia believes in the power of sport to include and empower people. Part of the reason she continues to coach women’s rugby teams (as well as a boy’s under-18 team), is the sport’s ability to draw fans and players across social strata and education levels.
“Rugby is a physical sport,” Claudia says. “But you don’t play to injure anyone. We’re there because we love the sport. It teaches you about tolerance and respect for your opponent and the referee—that’s what makes a community. If I can make it visible that girls are interested in rugby, and society sees girls on the fields, then they can start to believe that girls can be leaders, too.”
As she joined the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Claudia brought a diversity of talents and ideas for how to create sport-based social change across Venezuela. She is mentored by Katherine Montiel, director of public relations and communications for Gatorade. As a leader within one of the world’s most prominent sports brands, she provides Claudia with important marketing, public relations, partnership development, and fundraising resources. With a history of supporting youth and community development through programs such as Gatorade Play It Forward, Katherine and her Gatorade team connect directly with Claudia’s mission and support her to make a lasting difference in the lives of youth and women in Venezuela.
Nalwadda never expected to become a basketball player. In primary school in Bukoto Mulira Zone—a disadvantaged area in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala—she ran the 100 and 200 meters on the track and field team, and played soccer. After graduating, she no longer had access to sports facilities. But, she did find a basketball court near her home and soon began playing every time she had free time.
Nalwadda excelled as a player. With few Ugandan girls playing basketball in 2002, she earned attention from the prestigious Crane High School, which offered her an athletic scholarship. In both school and sport, she showed tremendous potential for success. When it came time for university, Nalwadda was offered a talented Young Scholars government scholarship to Kyambogo University, where she captained the basketball team and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science.
As a student-athlete at university, Nalwadda became aware of the different treatment given toward male and female athletes.
“Our team trained a lot and had good results, but whenever teams were selected to participate in the East Africa University Games, they always sent the men and not the women,” Nalwadda says. “The university told us there was no money, but that wasn’t something new. Women have always been marginalized; when there is little money, women are the first to be excluded.”
Spurred on by the inequality she encountered, Nalwadda garnered support from her team and ran for president of the Games Union, Kyambogo university’s student guild council. After winning the election, she contested and won a position as a student-athlete representative for the National University Sports Federation of Uganda (currently known as the Association of Ugandan University Sports), the country’s version of the NCAA.
“People in Uganda often say, ‘Women cannot lead in sports.’” Nalwadda says. “And I respond: “How do you know? Women have always been left out.’ Sport is a language that all people in Uganda understand, and it transforms people so they can give back to their communities. If sports could empower me as a woman in the slum into the person I am today, it can empower any woman in Uganda.”
Throughout the years, Nalwadda’s passion for advocacy and gender equality has made her one of Uganda’s most influential female leaders in sport, and a role model for girls nationwide. In 2013, her leadership attracted the attention of the Uganda Olympic Committee, which appointed her to its women and sports commission. One year later, Nalwadda was selected to participate in the Women’s Sports Leadership Academy at the University of Chichester, alongside U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program alumna Luz Amuchastegui of Argentina. In 2016, Nalwadda was elected to her current position as a youth councilor for the Kampala City Council.
During all of this time, Nalwadda found a way to balance her many responsibilities and complete a master’s degree in Olympic Studies from the German Sport University Cologne, while still playing basketball in the national women’s league, working as a software developer, and running her own tomato sauce manufacturing company.
“When I was growing up, there was no role models for us,” Nalwadda says. “I want make sure girls can look to me. I want to show them that sports, education, and empowerment are all connected, and teach them skills they can translate over into other areas of their lives.”
In Uganda, gender inequality affects women in many ways. While the country ranks in the top half of the world according to the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, Uganda is 120th of 140 countries when it comes to educational attainment, and 87th in economic participation and opportunity. The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index indicates high rates of discriminatory family code and lack of physical integrity and freedom for women.
Through her work, Nalwadda plans to address the lack of sport facilities, sponsorship, and support for women’s sports, as well as challenge negative social stereotypes that pressure women to leave sport.
“There is nothing that entices women to come play sports,” Immaculate says. “Our women’s professional leagues are stagnant, so they realize they cannot make money in sports and leave. Our athletes are very vulnerable to pressure. If a man can get you out of sports, it is very difficult in our society to get back involved.”
By participating in the GSMP, Nalwadda gained insight to aide her in uniting life skills education with sports to make women economically empowered and provide a tangible result of the benefits of sport in their lives. She is mentored by Val Ackerman, commissioner, and Ann Wells Crandall, chief marketing officer, for the Big East Conference. As the founding president of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and one of the United States’ most respected women’s sports and basketball leaders, Val’s vast experience in sports business are complemented by Ann’s strong background in public relations, marketing, and promotions. With the support of her mentorship duo, Nalwadda has everything she needs to reach more girls and women with the message that sport can empower and transform lives.
The gang of boys was out on the street again. In Megha Vora’s neighborhood in Mumbai, India, they seemed to everywhere, harassing the girls as they walked back and forth to school. As a young woman, she would tell herself, “Just put your head down and get straight home.”
Raised in a conservative Hindu Gujarati family, Megha was not trained to react to hostility. When she left for Mumbai University, where she was completing a bachelor’s degree in commerce, she befriended a boy named Mehul, a black belt in karate, and told him about the boys from her neighborhood. Mehul offered to give her free classes for a few months. Later, when a boy known for physically abusing and teasing girls threatened Megha, she finally stood up for herself.
“Something snapped in me that day,” Megha says. “The courage came to me; I bashed that boy up black and blue. That was the first time I experienced the power I had inside me. All these years of being quiet and not doing anything. That made a big difference in my life.”
In 2000, Megha and Mehul were married and they now have two children together. After their marriage, they began organizing free martial arts tournaments for kids in Mumbai. The tournaments gained the attention of prominent Indian film actor Akshay Kumar, who endorsed them. Their first tournament was held over four days with 5,000 children in attendance. The impact was so incredible that Megha and Mehul have organizing these events for the past eight years.
After the Nirbhaya gang rape case shook India and attracted international attention in 2012, Megha decided to shift her focus to women. She and Mehul opened their first self-defense center for women in 2014. Since then, they have launched six more centers around India. In total, more than 20,000 women have graduated from the Women’s Self Defense Center’s (WSDC) basic course, which includes physical training, confidence exercises, and preventive training like screaming and verbal de-escalation. Megha serves as the chief instructor at the main center in Mumbai.
“Every day women have these gender differences drilled into our heads,” Megha says. “We’re fighting 6,000 years of culture and conditioning to be quiet. Most of our women aren’t able to scream. These are women overcoming rape and domestic abuse. They are so strong, and this is making a difference. We will never shut this down.”
According to statistics from United Nations Women, India ranks 125th in the world in gender equality. While laws exist to protect women, 37 percent of women across the country report experiencing physical or sexual violence. Addressing these challenges also provides its own cultural complications. According to Megha, many parents who hear about her seminars will send their sons instead of daughters to classes. The concept that women are not suited for martial arts permeates Indian culture. In many communities, this results in girls and women lacking the stamina and health required for physical activity and sports.
“The WSDC is bigger than the martial arts,” Megha says. “Women have many needs. We want to add a nutritional component to the course, as well as a legal panel where girls can come to learn about how they can seek justice if they need it. We need to get them actual counselors; these girls have gone through abuse and violence, and we know we’re not trained to advise them in the best way.”
Megha would like to create a train-the-trainers program for graduates of the course who want to return as coaches. This program would serve as an avenue for providing employment opportunities, as well as a way of expanding her network and reaching her ultimate dream of launching on 1,000 centers across India. In order to achieve these goals, she seeks a greater knowledge of global best practices and training methods, as well as how to approach corporations for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) investment.
Through the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Megha has an ideal mentor to achieve her goals. Julie Eddleman, global client partner for Google, has extensive experience in working with global brands, and is the five-time returning mentor to the program, who mentored India’s Pavithra Chandra in 2015. Julie’s vast network and knowledge of working with corporate entities that support women’s empowerment initiatives are key resources for Megha as she gets one step closer to making communities around India safer for women and girls.
Carmen Pozo Rios was daydreaming in class again. She wanted to get to her next assignment. A sports journalist does not have time to waste, and there was still so much for her to learn.
Born and raised in La Paz, Carmen attended Catholic University of Bolivia, where she played volleyball and pursued a bachelor’s degree in social communications. As a student, however, she recognized her real interest was in sports media. One day, after class, she took her tape recorder and approached the famous Bolivian reporter Fernando Bustillo, asking him to help her become a real sports journalist.
“Fernando sent me to all the games so I could bring him news to put on his radio program,” Carmen recalls. “I didn’t know how to do interviews, so I’d talk to the volleyball and tennis presidents, for instance, and say, ‘I have to do an interview, Mr. President, but I don’t know how, so can you tell me what to ask you?’”
Carmen laughs at the memory now. Despite her early blunders, she quickly found her footing as a journalist, working on television and for local newspapers for the entirety of the 1990s. She was among the first recognizable women to cover sports in Bolivia.
“Sport is an area that was meant for men, and in Bolivia only men could talk about it,” Carmen says. “Then a woman started talking about sports—me—and I did it well. People started believing in me. And they think that I know more about sports than men. I opened the road to many other women to do the same.”
In 2007, Carmen and her best friend Zdenscka Bacarreza were preparing to launch a new television show. Her friend’s husband, Argentine sports journalist Fernando Berdeja, suggested the duo, who were known for having fun and working hard together, call themselves las super poderosas (“super powerful women”). The name stuck and the show became a hit.
“There is even a girl’s wheelchair basketball team in Bolivia with the same name,” Carmen says, “inspired by our television program. Everywhere we go people know us as the super poderosas.”
In 2015, the program evolved into a free magazine that Carmen and her colleague publish and distribute throughout La Paz. The positive response propelled the women to launch their own soccer academy by the same name. Carmen convinced the principal at St. Andrews School, where she works as a kindergarten teacher, for permission to use their soccer field. From the 18 girls who showed up to the first practice two years ago, the number has more than tripled. Girls are graduating from the academy and becoming coaches—it is the country’s only soccer academy with five female coaches. Now even mothers attend practice after seeing the positive changes taking place in their daughter’s lives.
“People think soccer is a man’s sport only because they never see women playing it,” Carmen says. “But sport gives you power. Girls carry themselves different after kicking a soccer ball. They’re confident. Other girls see this and want to play. Even the boys look at the girls practicing and see there’s no difference between them.”
Bolivia is ranked 23rd among 144 countries by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. But, while the country is a world leader in women’s health and political empowerment, it still faces other gender challenges. Bolivia ranks 98th in the world in women’s economic participation and educational attainment, and gender-based violence has proven to be a very serious issue nationwide. Despite a 2013 law against femicide, there have been thousands of reports of violence in the past four years.
Carmen believes sport can play a lead role in addressing Bolivia’s gender issues. After arriving to the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program with a decorated resume in the media industry, she believes the program also equipped her with new tools to make an even broader impact. Among her ideas, Carmen strives to create a city-wide public awareness campaign using short radio messages, billboards, and posters with Bolivia’s most popular athletes sending positive messages about women and encouraging them to play. She also wants to use the academy to recruit and train more girls to become athletes and soccer leaders.
“I stick my nose everywhere and I like to fight for what is right,” Carmen says. “Sometimes people pay attention, sometimes they don’t. But I will never stop trying.”
Romina Bongiovanni, group director of earned media and public relations for Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, is the ideal mentor for Carmen. A prominent Latina leader in the U.S. media industry who has decades of experience in creative campaigns for top international brands such as Pepsi and DirecTV, she is a key source of knowledge and innovation. Together, Carmen and Romina form a powerful duo of strong women with a commitment to spreading the message and impact of women’s sports throughout Bolivia.
Xinyi Hua had not always been passionate about soccer. Born with asthma, she had not grown up playing sports as a girl in Shanghai, China. If her physical education teachers asked her to run, she would walk. And, if there was a way to get out of class altogether, she would find it.
That all changed in high school when Xinyi became a fan of the local soccer club, Shanghai Shenhua. Soon enough, soccer became a powerful and influential force in her life—so much so that she’d often skip studying to go to the stadium and cheer on her team.
“In school, we had endless tests.” Xinyi says. “If my grades dropped my teachers would tell me, ‘Xinyi did you go to the stadium to watch football—is that why your grades dropped?’ And they were probably right. It was.”
While she had no athletic ambitions of her own, Xinyi dreamed of a future as a sports journalist so she could one day cover her favorite team. Her parents were not in agreement and wanted her to study English instead. When it came time for university, Xinyi tried bargaining with them, but they refused. Unwilling to give up her dream, she locked herself in her room for days and cried until her mother finally told her, “Okay, Xinyi, you can be a sports journalist.”
By 2002, Xinyi had completed her bachelor’s degree in sports journalism from the Shanghai Sports Institute and a master’s degree in journalism from Fu Dan University. At the age of 22, she was hired by Xin Min Evening News, where she has worked for the past 15 years, climbing the ranks from summer intern to chief writer to deputy director of the sports department.
Throughout her time with the newspaper, Xinyi has done much more than cover her favorite soccer club; she has covered more than 25 Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the FIFA World Cup, three Olympic Games, and the NBA Finals. Since 2005, she has also won first or second prize in the Chinese Evening News Group’s Best Annual Sports Stories every year, and was named the Shanghai Presswoman of the Year in 2016.
Outside of her own professional success, Xinyi credits sport for uniquely opening her eyes to the world. On one occasion, her job might take her to cover a Wimbledon Final. But, on another occasion, she might be visiting a local hospital in South Africa during a break from World Cup coverage to see children being treated for HIV. As she travels more, it becomes natural for Xinyi to see how sport and social change become interconnected.
“It seems like nothing related to sport, but football gave me the chance to go so many places, to see innocence and suffering, and to share these stories” Xinyi says. “For me, sport is a culture and the power of the mind, and life, coming together.”
While women’s sports participation is increasing as China’s female athletes become more successful, stereotypes and discrimination against women in sports careers are still widespread. Working women in China, including female athletes, are drastically underpaid compared to male athletes, and women’s sports are not marketed in the same way, making acquiring sponsorships a challenge. Even in the journalism field, when Xinyi travels to the annual meeting of sports evening news directors (China has more than 100 evening newspapers), usually only two or three women are in the room.
Xinyi believes a key way of combatting these challenges is to increase the opportunities for Chinese women to empower themselves through sports. Once empowered, their impact can naturally spread from Shanghai across the entire country.
“You must start by empowering yourself,” Xinyi says. “A man can be physically stronger than a woman and lift 100 kilos over his head, but we live in a modern world now. We are equal. I want women to see they have their own value.”
During her time at the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Xinyi seeked to develop innovative approaches that would help her spread the message of women’s empowerment through sports in China. In order to do so, she is supported by mentors who can help her develop skills in organizational management, communications in changing media landscape, and fundraising. Patricia Betron, senior VP of sales and marketing, and Katina Arnold, vice president of communications, are two of the most prominent female leaders at ESPN. Patricia has been named one of the most powerful women in cable television, and leads the sales team for women’s sports, while Katina has spent more than a decade in corporate communications for the company. As a duo, Patricia and Katina provide valuable experience and wisdom to support Xinyi. With their guidance, Xinyi can raise her voice as a female sports leader in China and clear a path for a new generation of women to enjoy sports from both the field and the press box.
When it came to sports as a girl, Agnes Baluka Masajja was a natural. In school, she played netball, soccer, and ran track and field. All the students knew that when it came time for the 400-meter sprint, Agnes was going to take home the medal.
But, as is the reality for many girls in Uganda, there came a point when Agnes’ father pushed her to focus on academics and leave the sports world behind.
She didn’t listen.
“I would have to hide when I ran so he wouldn’t find out,” Agnes laughs. “I would avoid any national competitions or races where there’d be media coverage because I didn’t want to get in trouble. By the time I got to university, I told my dad, ‘This is my career. This is my destiny.’ So he couldn’t refuse me anymore.”
Contrary to what her father believed, sports only improved Agnes’ performance in the classroom. Raised in the eastern Ugandan city of Tororo, she attended Makarere University, where she received a scholarship to study sports science. She then earned a master’s degree in the same subject from Ndejje University in 2014. Now, Agnes is writing her dissertation, “A Gender Perspective of Leadership in Sports Organizations in Uganda,” for her Ph.D. in gender issues in sports at Makarere.
“What sports has done for me I feel it can do for girls throughout Uganda,” Agnes says. “If you go to the hospital when you’re sick, what do they say? Go for a walk, a run, or a swim. You need to take care of your physical body. But with sports we can also talk about other issues. Sports becomes a platform for a bigger conversation.”
The issues Agnes refers to are the many challenges facing Ugandan women: early marriage and pregnancy, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to adequate education. According to a Ugandan government survey from 2011, 40 percent of women must ask their husbands permission before leaving their homes. More than half of women have experienced physical or sexual violence.
Far more widespread, however, is the mindset that men and women are inherently different, and sports falls within the natural domain of men and not women. For Agnes, the expectations placed on her by her father were not the same for her brothers, who were able to play soccer freely. Generally, Ugandan girls are tasked with helping their mothers with cooking, housework and other domestic duties. If they are able to continue with sports through their school years, there have been cases of sexual harassment, with male coaches taking advantage of female athletes. This has reinforced this idea of keeping women away from sports, especially those such as athletics and swimming where dress codes are adverse to traditional Ugandan culture.
Agnes’ story, however, is evidence that Ugandan women can excel in the world of sports. For the past decade, she has thrived in roles as a coach, administrator, and executive. Currently, she is the sports tutor for Busitema University. In this position, Agnes coordinates and supervises the university’s 16 sports programs. For now, only five of these programs are available to women, which drives her to create more opportunities in the future.
On top of her work with the university, Agnes is the head of the education commission for the Association of Uganda University Sports. She organizes national and international tournaments, coaching workshops for sports trainers and tutors, as well as larger seminars and conferences across Uganda. As a former track and field athlete herself, she also coached the country’s athletics delegation for the 2015 World University Games in South Korea, and will do the same for the 2017 competition in Taipei.
“At work, I’ve earned the nickname ‘globetrotter,’” Agnes says. “I’ve been to South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, South Korea, England and many other countries. It opens your eyes when you can travel the world because of sports. Our girls, most of them have not traveled before, and it’s overwhelming. They get very excited.”
By participating in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, Agnes has learned about U.S. sports business, management, and media concepts to grow athletics participation and support in Uganda. The University of Connecticut has a strong history as one of the dominant forces in American university sports, with 21 national championships across its sports teams—including 15 women’s basketball championships. Laura Burton, associate professor of sport management, and Jennifer McGarry, department head for educational leadership, are both experts in gender issues in sport, especially those for marginalized ethnic and socio-economic groups. Their long-time leadership experience, and familiarity with university sports systems, are connected directly with Agnes and her goals for using education and sports to empower women in Uganda.
Minjei Jeon was a 5-year-old girl in Busan, South Korea when her mother first enrolled her in figure skating lessons. From the skating rink, Minjei made her way to the basketball court, the soccer field, and anywhere her parents were willing to take her to fuel her thirst for sports.
“In elementary school, I was the only girl who played soccer with the boys at school,” Minjei laughs. “My parents wanted me to experience everything. My brother was the first one who told me, ‘Minjei, you know it’s not normal for you to play with the boys, right?’”
While Minjei was open to playing any sport as a girl, it was as a college student at Seoul National University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sport science and physical education, that she discovered her true passion for skiing. From the age of 20, she earned three ski instructor certifications, and spends an average of two months every winter on the slopes.
“When I’m on the slopes, it’s like I’m outside of my reality,” Minjei says. “It’s like I’m living a second life.”
Minjei’s future career in sports was cemented in 2012, when she completed her master’s degree in sport science from the same university. Soon afterward, she was hired by the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee, where she has moved through different departments—budget team, international youth exchanges, international games—until landing in her current positon as a deputy manager in the department of school sports.
In 2016, the KOC merged with the Korea Council of Sport for All, resulting in a shift away from focusing only on elite sports to also working on increasing participation in “school sports,” and sport for people of all ages. As the shift occurred, Minjei became responsible for developing student-athlete culture and managing communication with the Ministry of Culture, Sports, Tourism and Ministry of Education regarding school sports policies.
At the university level, Minjei has already received strong feedback from girls, who have told her that participating in sports has helped to relieve academic stress and meet different people who they’d never meet outside of sports. It is this kind of motivation that pushes Minjei forward in her work, believing that sport can make a great impact in the lives of women.
“The challenge is many parents do not believe sports are necessary for education, especially for girls,” Minjei says “When I was in school, there no school sports clubs. Sport was seen as only for elite athletes.”
As Minjei explains, until recently in South Korea the mentality was divided between sports and academics. According to Korean Sport and Olympic Committee research, before 2016 only 1 to 2 percent of elementary and secondary school students participated in sports as student-athletes. With the establishment of a school sports department within the KSOC, that number has grown as schools offer sports clubs and classes on weekends.
On the other end, elite student-athletes face alternative realities. With no expectation of success, many are allowed to pass through the education system despite failing to perform academically.
“What this means is many athletes are limited to careers in sports after they retire or are injured,” Minjei says. “Some become coaches. But, it isn’t easy. Less than half of retired athletes can find jobs outside of sports. Still, many parents of strong athletes will tell me they only want their children to focus on sports training and not studies.”
For Minjei, collaboration between government, schools, sports federations, parents, and NGOs is fundamental for guaranteeing the best experiences for student-athletes, and establishing a new culture of balance between academics and sports. As she joined the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, she was on a mission to reform the sports system and increase participation of girl students in school sports across South Korea. With the PyeongChang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, she believed the time was right to maximize on the exposure the country’s sports system would receive that year.
On her journey, Minjei learned from leaders at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates sports for nearly half a million student-athletes from 1,123 colleges and universities in the United States. The NCAA has an established history of not only developing school sports, but also providing crucial support to student-athletes in the form of professional and academic support, health and wellness, and financial assistance. Minjei’s mentor, Amy Wilson, director of inclusion for the NCAA, has spent her nearly 30-year career in higher education.
For the past decade, Amy has worked on equity issues in intercollegiate athletics and given numerous presentations on Title IX and gender equity across the United States. Her wisdom and experience combine with the years of Minjei’s own insight in developing student-athlete programs. Through this mutually-beneficial mentorship, the two women play a key role in increasing women’s sports participation and developing a student-athlete system that empowers and educates Korean students of all backgrounds and abilities.
Naoual Zaaraoui was born to become an athlete.
From the time she was 5 years old, Naoual would accompany her father, El Ghazi, a 1964 Olympian and seven-time track and field world champion, to the track. She was his shadow, mimicking all his movements. Whereas most of her friends in Rabat preferred to stay inside to play with dolls, Naoual wanted to be outside moving, whether it was playing soccer with the boys, jumping around in gymnastics class, or eventually competing on the track herself.
“I’d come home all the time with dirty clothes,” Naoual says. “My mom never punished me. She said, ‘Every time you bring home dirty clothes, it shows me you will follow your dad into sports.’ She told me she wanted to see me as sports minister one day.”
Through her school years, Naoual competed on the athletics team, and specialized in the long jump. In 2010, while she was working on a diploma in sports training from the Royal Institute of Sports, however, she suffered a knee injury that ended her competitive career.
Naoual’s new focus became a career in sports. In 2016, as she was completing her master’s degree in sports management and governance at the National School of Commerce and Management, she was accepted for an internship at the University of Leipzig. Naoual excelled at the university and was later named the Moroccan sports ambassador for the prestigious International Trainer Course (ITK).
After returning home, Naoual worked as a project manager for TIBU Basketball Academy, an NGO focused on basketball and youth development, and as a brand ambassador for Nike. She was then hired by the Ministry of Sports and assigned to be and a youth track and field coach with the Royal Moroccan Athletics Federation.
“My dream in life was to discover the other parts of the world through sports,” Naoual says. “For me, sport brings together people from all cultures, regions, and religions. It made my dreams come true. Sport is not just about good health and body image. It can give you everything.”
While Naoual believes in sport’s ability to positively impact the lives of girls and women in her country, there are significant challenges preventing them from experiencing its benefits. Morocco ranks among the lowest in the world in key gender equality indicators, such as economic empowerment, education, and health. According to an International Monetary Fund study, 78 percent of girls in rural areas do not attend school, and only 25 percent of women are part of the country’s workforce.
In a push toward gender equality, the Moroccan government passed key legislation in the past decade, expanding the rights of women in marriage, guardianship, child custody, access to divorce, and a constitutional guarantee for equality. While access to sports is increasing, cultural challenges persist. From Naoual’s experience, many women cannot or are unwilling to exercise or practice sports in places where men are present. For those of Naoual’s generation, fitness and physical activity are also seen for their aesthetic benefits, and not for developing healthy lifestyles.
“But, then you see women who are 40 years old running with traditional clothes just because they love sport,” Naoual says. “I want to prove women can do sports everywhere and any time they want. We don’t need any special facilities to run. From a small thing, we can make a big thing.”
Although Naoual’s ultimate dream is to become Morocco’s second female sports minister, she is also working on creating her own company, The Glorious Horse Agency, as a way of providing women with career opportunities.
“I want to prove that when a woman creates a project, she can take it to the last step,” Naoual says. “For us, the project is like a baby. We must do everything to make it grow up and have a good future. With this we can change the way of thinking toward women.”
Naoual is ready to maximize her platform as a female sports leader in Morocco. During the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program, she was mentored by Laurie French, director of technology operations, and Jenna Tidd, section business operations coordinator, for the PGA of America. As the world’s largest sports organization, with more than 28,000 men and women golf professionals, the PGA of America has a strong record promoting women’s initiatives, as well as organizing some of golf’s most important events. Laurie and Jenna collaborated to provide Naoual with the sports marketing, communications, and organizational leadership skills she needs to pave her entrepreneurial path in Morocco. Naoual also shared her own experiences, international perspective, and knowledge of women in sports with the PGA of America, a global brand. Together, this trio of women are working to inspire a new and brighter future for generations of working women and aspiring female athletes in Morocco.
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