“If you see her, you can be her.”
The LA84 Foundation celebrated the 32nd Annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day on Wednesday, hosting a Breakfast of Champions conversation with Olympic and Paralympic legends in front of a capacity crowd. Moderated by sports and entertainment journalist Audrey Cleo Yap, panelists included five-time U.S. national champion figure skater Tai Babilonia, nine-time Paralympian Candace Cable, five-time Olympian Connie Paraskevin, two-time short track speed skating Olympic medalist Rusty Smith, and 15-year-old hockey player Brooke Charlton. Introducing the panel was Renata Simril, the LA84 Foundation’s President and CEO. Including the panel, 11 Olympians and Paralympians attended the event on the LA84 campus.
The event was proudly supported by Verizon, and additional supporters of the event included Southern California Olympians and Paralympians Association (SCOPA) and the Women in Sports and Entertainment Los Angeles (WISE LA). The foundation was also joined by girls from ICEF Rugby, a local youth sports and leadership program partially funded by LA84.
National Girls & Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) is a day to celebrate the extraordinary achievements in girls’ and women’s sports and the positive influence athletic participation brings to their lives. The LA84 Foundation has hosted a number of NGWSD receptions in the past, with guests including four-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Janet Evans and four-time Olympic water polo medalist Brenda Villa.
NGWSD recognizes the ongoing effort towards equality and access for women in sports and the nation’s commitment to expand sport and participation opportunities for all girls and future generations. The directive of NGWSD aligns with LA84’s commitment to closing the Play Equity gap in youth sports, especially in regards to increasing the number of female athletes and coaches. LA84 has hosted a number of convenings on women in coaching, and had a panel at its 2017 Summit on how to increase the number of female coaches. The theme of NGWSD 2018 is “Play Fair, Play IX” in reference to the landmark Title IX legislation that expanded sports opportunities for girls.
The discussion covered a number of topics and issues related to closing the gender gap in sports. “It’s our job to educate young athletes of today and make sure they do understand,” Paraskevin said on the importance of still pushing for gender equity. “We celebrate it, but we still need to keep pushing forward. Paraskevin, who competed in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, in sprint track cycling and speed skating, respectively, now runs the Connie Cycling Foundation, an LA84 grantee organization introducing youth to cycling.
Charlton, a member of the LA Junior Kings, shared her attitude on starting off in a sport traditionally dominated by men. “When I started, not many girls were at the rink,” she said. “But once I did, it came naturally. I’m not scared to play against a guys team. They all look the same.” On that same note of inclusion, Cable expressed her desire to continue pushing for inclusion in Paralympic sports. “Sports is one of those places everybody can participate,” said Cable, the first woman to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. “For women with disabilities, exposure to those sports are still lacking, with accessibility and attitudinal [issues]. Education and awareness create opportunity.”
The panel also addressed the value of having more female coaches, both at a recreational and competitive level. “I had women coaches all growing up,” said Smith, whose instruction under Wilma Boomstra was facilitated by an LA84 grant to the Southern California Speed Skating Association. “I thought it was normal, growing up in Long Beach. I’m shocked it wasn’t. I had strong women in my life, though, to show me it should be normal.” Babilonia brought up the inspirational story of her coach, Mabel Fairbanks, who was the first African-American inductee into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
As Los Angeles looks ahead to the LA 2028 Games, Paraskevin had a final reflection on the power of paying it forward to the next generation of aspiring Olympians and citizens alike. “The way I was coached was appropriate in explaining along the way that I was expected to participate as a coach to younger or less-experienced ones growing up. As an athlete, that requires you to explain and think about what you’re doing differently. You become a better athlete and a pretty darn good coach.”