35 Years Later, Memories Still Fresh for Women’s College Hoops Legend

Former women’s college basketball star Anne Gregory-O’Connell remembers with crystal clear clarity what it was like to be a female college athlete in the late-1970s.

Anne Gregory-O'Connell. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

Anne Gregory-O’Connell. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

“We actually got the men’s hand-me-down warm-ups and we thought we were totally cool because of it,” Gregory-O’Connell recalled. “My coach (Kathy Mosolino) really had to fight to even get us gym time to practice. That was just the way it was.”

The 1980 graduate of Fordham University was women’s college basketball’s all-time leading rebounder from her senior year in 1980 until 2009, when Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris surpassed her career total of 1,999.

Gregory-O’Connell posted remarkable career numbers along with her 1,999 rebounds (2,548 points, 200 blocks, .568 field goal percentage). The 6-foot-1 forward’s electrifying play not only helped her team’s cause on the court, but also forced people to pay attention to women’s college basketball during a time when women’s sports were anything but popular.

When the former hoops star thinks back to her time in the maroon and white, however, she does not dwell on the gender inequities she and her teammates endured, but rather the pride that comes from having laid the groundwork for what now exists for female athletes at Fordham.

“Even though we had to fight for everything we got, I’m proud of having been a part of that pioneer era for women’s sports,” Gregory-O’Connell, a member of Fordham’s second-ever women’s recruiting class to get athletic scholarships, said. “And I’m especially proud to see Fordham Women’s Basketball under Stephanie Gaitley now competing regularly on a national level and getting recognized for their success.”

After having advanced to the last two Atlantic 10 Conference championship games and winning the title last season, Fordham Women’s Basketball has risen out of obscurity and into the national conversation. The Rams have experienced back-to-back 25-win seasons under head coach Stephanie Gaitley, and are poised to contend for another championship this year. The winning tradition that Gaitley’s squad has reestablished in the Bronx reminds Gregory-O’Connell of the last time Fordham women’s hoops was an annual contender: her own playing days.

Gregory-O’Connell’s playing career at Fordham exhibited the most successful four-year run in program history, with the team recording 91 total wins from 1976-80, and winning the 1978 and 1979 Eastern Regional Championships. While becoming Fordham’s all-time leading rebounder, scorer, and blocker during this time, Gregory-O’Connell was not alone in her record-setting success. Her teammate, Mary Hayes, set the assists record, while Kathy Mosolino became Fordham’s winningest women’s basketball coach in school history. All of these records still stand today.

While each season that Gregory-O’Connell donned the Block F was memorable, the board-crashing legend considers her junior season, which saw her team advance to the equivalent of today’s Elite 8, as her favorite.

“We hosted the Regional Tournament at Fordham that year and we beat Long Beach State, who we were not supposed to beat at all,” stated Gregory-O’Connell, now a guidance counselor at Holy Trinity High School in Hicksville, New York. “Then we got to play against Tennessee and Pat Summit and that was just a huge thrill. We gave them a game.”

Gregory-O'Connell after her No. 55 was retired in 2009. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

Gregory-O’Connell after her No. 55 was retired in 2009. (Courtesy of Fordham University)

The Fordham Rams finished their magical 1978-79 season with a 27-7 record and the program’s only-ever Top 25 ranking, with a spot at #19. The ’78-’79 squad still holds six team records to this day, including the program’s highest single-season win total. These indelible marks prove that Gregory-O’Connell and her teammates are still the pride of the Rose Hill Gymnasium, even after nearly four decades.

“We had a really good team, a tremendous coach, excellent chemistry, and a really, really good time,” Gregory-O’Connell recollected.

Gregory-O’Connell became the first female athlete inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986. Her No. 55 jersey is also one of just two permanently on display in the Rose Hill Gymnasium, as it was retired in 2009 alongside Fordham Basketball great Ed Conlin.

While the evidence of Gregory-O’Connell’s tremendous college basketball career now rests primarily in the record books and the rafters of Fordham’s primordial gym, the biggest proof of her supreme experiences on the hardwood is evident in her life.

“The discipline, hard work, and confidence I gained at Fordham followed me after graduation,” Gregory-O’Connell said. “And the friendships I made at that period in my life have been unbelievable and long-lasting since college. We all still get together and reminisce about the old times. It was an experience I truly wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Aussie Female Cyclists Lose Cycling Australia, Gain Promising Alternative

The athlete and sports fan alike often have a funny way of explaining bad occurrences within the realm of competition. Such pitfalls are commonly attributed to a superstitious phenomenon that transcends space, time, and even sport: the jinx.

That’s why some could make the argument that Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI) new president Brian Cookson doomed women’s cycling when he recently named it “the fastest growing section of the sport.” Just three months removed from Cookson’s promising comment, women’s cycling took a devastating hit.

Rochelle Gilmore. (Courtesy of Wayne Taylor/The Age)

Rochelle Gilmore. (Courtesy of Wayne Taylor)

Earlier this month, Cycling Australia (CA) announced that its women’s program would be suspended indefinitely due to budgetary constraints within the organization. CA, which relies on public funding, is a feeder organization dedicated to the development of cyclists that serves as a pathway between amateurism and UCI professional teams in Europe.

Women’s cycling has had a proud tradition in Australia for decades, as several Aussie cyclists including Kathy Watt, Sara Carrigan, and Rachel Neylan have experienced great successes at both the Olympic and World Championship levels. While the Australian men’s development program remains intact, CA’s National Performance Director Kevin Tabotta insists that the removal of the women’s program is “not an issue of gender discrimination.”

Up-and-coming Australian cyclist Chloe Hosking recently denounced the removal of CA’s women’s program in a statement to the Sydney Morning Herald. The 24-year-old, who is currently one of Australia’s best female professional cyclists, believes that CA’s announcement will serve as a detrimental setback for the future of women’s cycling in Australia.

“I think it’s really, really upsetting for the young girls coming through,” Hosking said. “It means that if young riders want to get to Europe, they will have to pursue it themselves.”

Cycling Australia previously sponsored six-week invitational development programs in Europe for a group of promising amateur cyclists. Through the publicly funded program, road riders were exposed to the lifestyles and regimens of professional cyclists, and were also granted a stage on which to earn professional contracts.

Following CA’s announcement, however, former standout cyclist and women’s cycling advocate Rochelle Gilmore, who is currently the owner and manager of the British-based Wiggle Honda professional team, responded with a solution to bridge the gap to professional cycling for Australia’s top-amateurs.

Last week, Gilmore officially introduced her latest creation, the High5 Dream Team, which is a domestic cycling squad comprised of Australia’s eight most-promising amateur female riders. The Dream Team members are Kimberley Wells, Rebecca Wiasak, Jess Mundy, Georgia Baker, Tessa Fabri, Kendelle Hodges, Ellen Skerett, and Sam de Riter.

“(They) are the best that Australia has who aren’t already on pro teams,” Gilmore, a former Commonwealth Games champion, stated.

Gilmore’s girls will make their debut ride at the end of January in Australia’s most prestigious elite women’s competition, the National Road Series. They will be coached by one of the most experienced coaches in the sport in Donna Rae Szalinski, and partake in 10 televised races within Australia during 2015. Gilmore will give her handpicked riders the opportunity to continue what CA started.

“What we’re going to do is create an environment for these athletes where they have the best equipment, the best of everything,” Gilmore said. “These athletes will be supported better than any other domestic-based athletes have been supported before.”

Of the eight High5 Dream Team members, Gilmore plans on sending either five or six of them to Europe on a fully-funded development trip in August. Following the model set forth by CA, Gilmore’s chosen ones will endure a six-week riding-intensive program in preparation for life in the professional cycling circuit.

While CA and Australia’s state cycling institutes have offered to partially support the High5 Dream Team’s financial needs, Gilmore will rely on team partners to help foot most of the bill to support her squad. The High5 Dream Team’s partners have committed to three year deals, and will cover equipment costs, as well as travel and living expenses for the riders.

So, have hope, cycling fans. With Gilmore leading the way for Australian women’s cycling, and a continued push for the development of budding riders being made, don’t expect any sort of jinx to thwart Aussie female cyclists in 2015. Rather, anticipate a breakaway from the pack and a surge towards great success in the future of the sport in the land down under; a reverse of the curse, so to speak, for you superstitious folk.​ That is, at least, if Gilmore has anything to say about it.

As Clock Winds Down, “Turf War” Remains Stagnant

The ringing in of a new year often marks a time for change and progress to occur on both small and large scales. It is typically a time when resolutions are set, and steps are taken toward the betterment of oneself and others. For FIFA, the governing body of soccer, however, its 2015 resolutions don’t appear to include the betterment of its female players participating in this summer’s World Cup.

With just five months left until kickoff, the troubled landscape—both physical and political—of the upcoming tournament in Canada remains virtually unchanged. Since March 2013, some of the biggest names in women’s soccer, including America’s Abby Wambach, Spain’s Veronica Boquete, and Germany’s Nadine Angerer, have spoken out against FIFA’s implementation of artificial playing surfaces for the sport’s biggest tournament. In October, a lawsuit was filed by the players and a full-on “turf war” was waged against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association under the grounds of gender discrimination.

The players’ case is highlighted by the fact that all 26 previous World Cups, including both the women’s and men’s tournaments, have been played on grass. Also, the upcoming men’s World Cups in Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, respectively, will be played on grass surfaces.

Besides these details, the female soccer stars have posited that a turf playing surface will change the way the game is traditionally played, increase the risk of injury, and diminish their value as players in front of an international audience. The change from turf to grass in the tournament’s six stadiums would cost FIFA roughly between $3 and $6 million, which is just a fraction of the organization’s exorbitant yearly earnings.

Since the lawsuit was filed in October, FIFA and the C.S.A. have gone to great extremes to freeze the players’ efforts for change. Whether ignoring mediation efforts, refusing to address the situation as a gender issue, or presenting reprisals for players involved in the lawsuit, soccer’s head honchos are not-so-stealthily attempting to thwart the mission of their female representatives.

When asked by reporters recently if the Canadian Soccer Association has considered any logistical data regarding the switch from turf to grass, C.S.A. president Victor Montagliani’s response was a telling indication about where the organization stands on the issue.

Montagliani answered, “There has been no need.”

While the switch from turf to grass is still possible, each passing day makes it less probable for the change to occur in-time for the summer tournament. Unless the soccer higher-ups have a change of heart and decide to properly mediate with the female players about their requests, an upcoming trial will be imminent and could cause the hourglass to run out on the case.

Juliet Macur of the New York Times reported in December, however, that the desired pitch-changes could take less time than people think.

Macur stated, “Turf experts say they could start growing new sod by April or May and install it in time for the World Cup opener in June.”

Macur also reported that the use of existing sod could reduce the preparation time to just two or three weeks before the tournament, and further, if pre-grown grass is transported on movable trays, it could be implanted onto the fields just before kickoff.

Despite the plausibility of these options, the timeliness of the case is still one of the foremost concerns of the players, especially due to the inaction of FIFA and the C.S.A. regarding the lawsuit.

Yet, a small victory was recently won for the women’s World Cup participants, when the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled in mid-December that FIFA and the C.S.A. had three weeks to respond to an amended suit involving allegations of reprisals against the players. While the amendment does not guarantee action in favor of the players, it forces the governing bodies to make some sort of timely acknowledgment to the case.

As the case proceeds into 2015, women’s soccer’s elite will surely be met with disregard and challenges from soccer’s governing bodies, as well as backward-thinking members of the media.

Case in point: Sports columnist Chris Rattue from the New Zealand Herald recently ranted about the turf war with an ad hominem piece attacking female athletes for their inferior genes. Rattue trivialized the turf conflict at hand by reducing it to an unnecessary issue created by bitter women who have an ax to grind with men.

Rattue said, “There is also a simmering resentment in women’s sport about its treatment which sometimes manifests itself in wanting to prove it is the equal of men. Genetics makes this impossible.”

The subjective and opinionated nature of Rattue’s attacking claims continued when he stated, “As with almost all team sport, top-level women’s football will never be as good to watch as top-level men’s football as we know it. Men are stronger and more dynamic. Call me a sexist pig, but the A-League – which isn’t exactly world class – is better to watch than any women’s football I’ve seen.”

Kate Fagan of espnW disputed Rattue’s claims in a poignant and fact-focused piece, unlike that of the self-proclaimed “sexist pig.”

Rattue’s comments, coupled with the inaction of FIFA and the C.S.A., draw attention to issues beyond the World Cup that loom heavily over women’s sports today. Issues of sexism and inequality, dogmatism and bigotry, still pervade through the 21st century sports landscape for female athletes.

While the start of a new year typically signifies a time when improvement and progress are dominant forces within a society, that is not the case for today’s most-talented women’s soccer players, who find themselves stymied by sexism and disregard. At the mercy of old-world thinkers and the rulings of the court, they are pitted against both time and obstinate philosophies in their collective quest for change.

And though the sand keeps moving through the hourglass, it doesn’t always mean progress is being made.

Mobolaji Akiode’s Passion Ignites Her Purpose for African Female Athletes

(Courtesy of ESPN)

(Courtesy of ESPN)

Mobolaji Akiode is the type of passionate individual who makes others better by her very presence alone. The sort whose palpable aura of determination is understood just through hearing her speak. Yet, it has been a combination of Akiode’s unrelenting passion for success and commanding presence that has created a life full of purpose both on the basketball court during her time as a star player at the Division I and international levels, and with the non-profit organization she started in 2010 called Hope 4 Girls.

“I can remember during her freshman year (at Fordham University), the team was down by two points against Marist with one second left and Mobo was at the line for two shots,” recalled Eric Sanders, Akiode’s academic advisor at Fordham. “She made the first, but missed the second, then took off right for the bus crying because she thought it was her fault that the team lost the game. She was that kind of passionate leader.”

That fiery spirit is the reason, in part, why the 32-year-old American-born Nigerian found herself on espnW’s inaugural Impact 25 list of the most impactful people for women’s sports in 2014.

Akiode, a 2004 Olympian and former co-captain of the Nigerian women’s national basketball team, was stunned to see her name among those of women’s sports trailblazers like Serena Williams, Becky Hammon, Mo’ne Davis, Robin Roberts, and even First Lady Michelle Obama.

“To be on the same list as people who are all superstars in their own right is just amazing,” the 2004 graduate of Fordham University said. “It’s such an honor for me, especially because my work doesn’t deal with sports here in America. I don’t know if I’ll ever be on the same list as Michelle Obama again.”

Don’t let Akiode’s humility and unassuming nature fool you about the tremendous impact she has made for African females, however. Akiode’s organization is based in both America and Nigeria and is dedicated to the increased participation and empowerment of young and disadvantaged African women in basketball. Her groundbreaking work as the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Girls has made her a spearheading leader for international women’s sports initiatives.

Following her three-year stint with the Nigerian women’s national basketball team after college, Akiode worked as an accountant for ESPN in Bristol, CT until 2009. It was then that she felt motivated to start Hope 4 Girls, in order to serve others on a larger scale.

“When I was working at ESPN, I had the opportunity to do community service,” Akiode recollected. “It made me think about Nigeria and what it’s like to grow up as a girl there and I just felt compelled to act. So, I decided to jump two feet in with Hope 4 Girls, and here we are now.”

Since 2010, Hope 4 Girls has created a gateway to basketball for young African women through a series of camps and clinics run by Akiode throughout the calendar year. At each Hope 4 Girls event, the messages delivered to participants go far beyond basketball instruction. Akiode and her staff work to mentor girls about the need for education, health, wellness, and social awareness in today’s global society.

“The mentoring is the most gratifying thing about Hope 4 Girls,” Akiode said. “I have a great time playing big sister, both as a disciplinarian and voice of reason.”

Akiode’s work has extended beyond the confines of the African continent and stretched into the American college basketball landscape. To date, Hope 4 Girls has helped six African girls land basketball scholarships through its fundraising and recruiting efforts, including Division I offers to Virginia Tech, Texas, Northwestern, and Butler.

As a standout during her own college career, Akiode was an All-Atlantic 10 Conference performer who finished her run with the Rams ranked in Fordham’s top 10 all-time in scoring and rebounding with 1,167 points and 554 rebounds, respectively. She was inducted into the Fordham Athletics Hall of Fame last January.

Aside from basketball, however, Akiode knows the value of a great education in an enriching environment. The Gabelli School of Business graduate developed her talents and found her voice while at Fordham.

“I really blossomed during my time at Fordham, and not just athletically and academically, but also personally and emotionally, learning that I could be anything that I wanted to be,” Akiode stated. “It was a great foundation that prepared me for the global life that I live now.”

The self-discovery that Akiode experienced as a student-athlete at Fordham is what motivates her to help other African girls find themselves through basketball.

“The girls in Africa don’t know what the possibilities for their lives can be through sports, and that’s something I want to continue to expose to them,” Akiode said. “I want to show girls that they can be leaders in whatever they choose to do.”

Although the recognition she received from espnW serves as a delightful reminder that she is living her purpose and aiding in the progress of African female athletes, Akiode is far from satisfied with her efforts.

“Working towards building a concession of role models in the continent of Africa that young girls can look up to is what motivates me on a daily basis,” Akiode revealed. “I never wake up feeling satisfied.”

While Hope 4 Girls has made great progress for young African women in basketball, plenty of barriers still exist for females interested in sports within the turmoil-ridden continent. And due to the absence of sports for girls in most African schools and a general discouragement of female participation in sports in Africa, Akiode believes it will take an aggressive effort by women across the world to create meaningful and lasting global changes.

“I think that we women need to have somewhat of a chip on our shoulders that says we haven’t come far enough, and we’re not just going to relax because we’ve made some progress,” Akiode stated. “We can do more, and if we continue to work and fight like we haven’t achieved that much, then I think we will continue to break more barriers.”

As long as Mobolaji Akiode and other impactful trailblazers are leading the charge for women in sports both in America and abroad, you can bet an unparalleled amount of passion and purpose will be on full display, and continue to make females eager to tackle any obstacles standing in their way.

“Hidden Gems” on the Hardwood Key Fordham’s Recent Success

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Stephanie Gaitley. (Courtesy of Geoff Burke)

Like a pirate searching the sea for hidden treasure, Fordham Women’s Basketball head coach Stephanie Gaitley looks high and low to find talented recruits. Unlike a pirate, however, Fordham’s fourth year coach doesn’t find her treasure in the sea, but rather on hardwood courts overseas.

“It’s an untapped market,” Gaitley, the winningest active coach in the Atlantic 10 Conference, said. “We hit heads with every school in the conference for certain kids when we go out recruiting, but when we go overseas, some coaches know nothing about those kids, so they are like hidden gems that you might steal.”

Last season, Gaitley’s gems certainly helped her discover the treasure that she so earnestly sought after: Fordham’s first Atlantic 10 championship and diamond-studded championship rings, to boot.

Gaitley’s championship squad involved three international players, including 2014 graduate and First Team All-Conference selection Erin Rooney (17.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg & 5.2 apg) from Christchurch, New Zealand.

“Erin, who was the best young player in New Zealand, took us to a title, but not a lot of coaches even knew about her,” Gaitley said. “She looked at some west coast schools, but the difference for us was that we went over there and took the time to meet her family.”

With just 18 total international players in the 13-team Atlantic 10 Conference this season – four of which attend Fordham – Gaitley has set a precedent for the rest of the conference to follow by attracting and developing overseas talent.

Gaitley and her coaching mates believe their ability to cultivate bonds with international recruits and their families ultimately aids in their eventual arrivals, and subsequent successes, at Rose Hill.

“For most of the international kids, it’s about relationships,” the 1982 Villanova graduate said. “They want to know that people will care about them, and that if they come over here, they are going to be in good hands.”

While Gaitley and her staff take the time to establish relationships with international recruits during the summer, they have another invaluable element helping their efforts during the recruiting process: New York City.

“I think for the international player, New York is a huge market,” Gaitley stated. “The number one American city they know is New York. So, not only do you have a great city, but you have a beautiful school, with a great academic reputation, and a great basketball conference. And now that we’ve won, we’ve kind of put the whole package together.”

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

Asnate Fomina (21). (Courtesy of Romualds Vambuts)

This package that Gaitley speaks of is what lured Latvian freshman guard Asnate Fomina to Fordham.

“The most important thing was the education,” Fomina said. “Fordham is a good school and the basketball team was conference champions last year, and I liked coach and my teammates, so it was a good decision for me.”

Fomina, a member of the 2013 Latvian National Team at the European Championship, chose the American college experience because it allowed her to pursue both an athletic and academic focus.

“It’s different from Europe to study here because you can be an athlete and a student,” the graduate of Riga Secondary School No. 49 said. “The schools in my country separate athletes and students, so I chose America to be able to do both things.”

Similarly, Slovenian sophomore Alina Gjerkes, a contributing member of Gaitley’s championship squad last season as a freshman (2.5 ppg), saw Fordham as an opportunity to pursue her passions both on the court and in the classroom.

“What attracted me to Fordham was the possibly that I would be able to merge basketball and great academics,” the guard said. “If I stayed back home and wanted to play at a high level, I wouldn’t be able to go to the type of academic school I would want to go to.”

For both Fomina and Gjerkes, the biggest adjustment to life at Fordham wasn’t the language barrier or feeling of homesickness, but rather, the style of play on the basketball court.

“Here, there is more aggressive basketball,” Fomina asserted. “Individually, girls are more aggressive and physically stronger.”

“The American game is way more structured than back home, where we have less plays and the details are not as important,” Gjerkes said. “Everything is way more competitive here because everyone is on scholarship and fighting for positions, so practices are way more intense than what we have back home.”

For Gjerkes, however, a year of college basketball in America has paid dividends athletically, by both increasing her level of play and basketball maturity.

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

Alina Gjerkes (3). (Courtesy of Richmond.com)

“I think I’ve learned to take instructions better and become a more complete player,” Gjerkes claimed. “I’ve also learned that when you think you can’t go any further, you have to just keep going. I didn’t know that concept before Fordham.”

Gjerkes learned these invaluable lessons in maturity and hard work from Fordham’s aforementioned former-star Erin Rooney.

“Last year in the summer, Erin would say, ‘I know your legs hurt, but they’re not going to fall off and you’re not going to die,’” Gjerkes said. “It made me better.”

Although Gaitley’s international players often encounter a learning curve when they first arrive at Fordham due to the physicality of the American game, they also present more-inclusive skillsets than first-year American college players usually possess.

“The style of play is more physical over here, but I think skill-wise, they come in more versatile because they get taught everything at a young age,” Gaitley said. “Sometimes over here, if you’re big, you stay in the post, if you’re little, you’re a guard. There, they teach them a little of every skill.”

While Gaitley’s quest for international treasure is somewhat uncommon and perhaps even unconventional by women’s college basketball standards today, it has proven to be as edifying for Fordham’s program on the court as it is off of it.

“Just having that diversity on the team and that cultural experience I think broadens the horizons of everyone,” Gaitley said. “It brings a completely different element to our program.”

For Fordham Women’s Basketball, the international treasure chest has proven to house the riches that money can’t buy. And, with Gaitley continuing to steer Fordham’s recruiting ship in the direction of undiscovered players and Atlantic 10 championships, more hidden gems are surely on their way to the Bronx.

Clinton Creates Winning Culture for Fordham Women’s Soccer

In just one year at the helm of Fordham University’s women’s soccer team, head coach Jessica Clinton has changed the entire complexity of the program. After demonstrating substantial on-field improvements during Clinton’s first season, coupled with a newly established winning mindset, the Rams are primed for great success in upcoming years.

A Tribute to 30 Years of Fordham Softball

This upcoming spring will mark Fordham University Softball’s 30th season in existence. Over the past three decades, the Rams from the Bronx have gone from college softball obscurity to excellence on the national level. Fordham posted its first-ever winning season in 2003 and hasn’t looked back since. Under the tutelage of head coach Bridget Orchard, the Rams have had 12-straight winning seasons and have won the Atlantic 10 title in three out of the last four years. With four recent trips to the NCAA tournament under Orchard’s belt and a firmly established winning culture in place, she believes her program is poised for even greater success in upcoming years. Take a trip down memory lane, and relive 30 years of progress for Fordham University Softball:

Indian Tennis Star Sania Mirza, a Pro at Being “First”

Sania Mirza. (Courtesy of ndtv.com)

Sania Mirza. (Courtesy of ndtv.com)

Sania Mirza knows what it’s like to be the first. From 2003 to 2013, the women’s tennis star was ranked as the No.1 player in India in both singles and doubles, as well as the Association of Tennis Professionals’ (ATP) overall highest-ranking female tennis player in Indian history. The 3-time major mixed doubles champion is also the first-ever Indian to surpass $1 million in tennis earnings.

In a storied career of Indian-firsts, however, Mirza’s most honorable “first” distinction could very well be the one she most-recently earned off the tennis court.

On Nov. 25, the United Nations named Mirza the Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia at its International Day to End Violence Against Women. The 28-year-old is the first-ever South Asian woman to be appointed Goodwill Ambassador.

Upon receiving the UN’s distinction, Mirza voiced her desire to fight the epidemic of gender disparity and violence against women in South Asia, while also empowering women to strive for equality.

“My role is a very important battle that I will fight off the tennis court for gender equality,” the 2014 WTA Finals champion said. “Gender equality is what I believe in.”

To Mirza, the problem is cultural, as women are often made to feel like second-rate citizens by their male counterparts.

“To that effect, there is an urgent need to change this mindset,” Mirza said. “Women must be made aware that they are equal to men.”

At the UN event, Mirza also emphasized the need for men and women of all walks of life to get on board with making sports, as well as life, more female friendly in South Asia.

“Equality depends on each and all of us,” said the 2014 mixed doubles US Open champion. “From the government that changes its laws, to the company that advances equal pay and equal opportunity, to the mother and father who teach their daughter and son that all human beings should be treated equally, to the athletes who demonstrate equality and excellence.”

Likewise, the tennis star urged members of the media to advocate for gender equality, as she acknowledged that their influence on modern South Asian society is considerable and far-reaching.

“Media has the biggest voice; they can and should make a difference,” Mirza stated.

At the UN event, Mirza also opened up about her own struggles as a female athlete in India.

“It is difficult to be Sania Mirza in this country,” admitted the first-ever Indian to crack the World Tennis Association’s top 50 rankings. “I think a lot of controversies that I had faced in my career was because I am woman. Had I been a man, I could have avoided some of the controversies.”

UN Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri touted Mirza’s vast athletic achievements and fervent voice for social issues as reasons for her appointment as the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador.

“She has been a role model to many children, including girls to break barriers and strive for their goals in life and career choices,” Puri said. “She has used the spotlight on her professional success to highlight social issues that are of concern for many Indians.”

With her most-recent distinction, Mirza looks forward to serving as an even louder voice for women’s equality than she was in the past.

“It inspires me to work hard towards a level playing field for women,” Mirza declared. “Gender equality in sports as well as using sports to advocate for gender equality in communities is essential.”

If Mirza’s track record of barrier-breaking feats is any indication of what to expect from her tenure as Goodwill Ambassador, more “firsts” are surely on the way for women in the movement towards gender equality in South Asia.

Softball Stars Honor Late NCTC Players

North Central Texas College has never produced any big names in softball. In fact, NCTC’s softball team, of the National Junior College Athletic Association, doesn’t frequently play on television and has never won a national championship.

(Courtesy of the Star-Telegram)

(Courtesy of the Star-Telegram)

But, when NCTC players Brooke Deckard, Jaiden Pelton, Meagan Richardson, and Katelynn Woodlee tragically lost their lives after an 18-wheeler collided with the team’s bus following a fall ball game in September, the entire softball world was shaken. A dozen other players, as well as the team’s head coach, were also injured in the crash.

That’s why some of the sport’s biggest names were honorary Lions on Saturday at this year’s annual NCTC Softball Alumni Day.

The Gainesville, Texas community college hosted Olympic medalists Jennie Finch, Danielle Lawrie, and Lauren Lappin, who served as guest coaches at Alumni Day, while Division I All-Americans Amanda Scarborough, Taylor Hoagland, and Lauren Chamberlain also attended the event.

Chamberlain
, a current senior at the University of Oklahoma and arguably the sport’s most popular active star, was especially moved by the tragedy in September, and thus, aspired to help the NCTC team in any way she could.

“I immediately thought, what if that was my team,” the Sooner first baseman said. “It hit me hard.”

For former Olympic teammates Jennie Finch and Lauren Lappin, hundreds of miles of travel couldn’t keep them from showing support for NCTC’s softball family.

“This community has been an inspiration to the entire softball community across the country and we just hope that we can show any support that we can to the people here,” said Lappin, a Stanford standout from 2003-2006.

“This game is so much bigger than the wins, losses, and championships,” former Team USA-ace Jennie Finch disclosed. “It’s about the relationships and just showing support for the organization.”

Similarly, Danielle Lawrie, the 2009 and 2010 National Softball Player of the Year at the University of Washington, was happy to make the trip to Texas to honor the late athletes and provide support for the heartbroken community.

“It was no hesitation for me,” Lawrie said. “With the softball community, you feel really connected, you know, a special bond exists.”

This bond, shared between some of the sport’s greatest talents of all-time and junior college players alike, provided healing and unifying powers in the midst of great sadness this past weekend at NCTC.

“Everybody rallying around each other, it’s really inspiring,” said Amanda Scarborough, a two-time All-American at Texas A&M. “It’s not just inspiring to Texas. It’s not just inspiring to Dallas. It’s inspiring to the entire softball community across the country.”

Saturday’s Alumni Day included two exhibition games involving NCTC players from the past 15 years, a home run derby featuring the honorary Lions for a day, and a silent auction. All proceeds from the event went to the NCTC Angels in the Infield Scholarship Fund honoring Deckard, Pelton, Richardson, and Woodlee.

Middle Eastern Women Face Ongoing Battle for Sports Rights

For Middle Eastern women, conflicts exist far beyond the political and military landscapes in the turmoil-laden region. Amid constant battles for fundamental human rights lie the issues of women’s rights to play sports and attend sporting events. But, because of the dominating presence of male authorities in Middle Eastern nations, women are often overmatched, and even unarmed, in the battle for sports rights.

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics (Courtesy of Buzzfeed).

Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics. (Courtesy of Buzzfeed)

In Saudi Arabia, women and their participation in sports are largely left by the wayside, and often neglected altogether. In September, Saudi Arabian government officials denied female athletes the right to compete at the Asian Games, after allowing two of their women to compete in the 2012 London Olympics -– Sarah Attar in track and field and Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo -– for the first time in the country’s history.

Although neither woman met the qualifying standards set by the International Olympic Committee, they gained entry because of the IOC’s “universality” clause that permits athletes with special circumstances to compete “for reasons of equality.” While at the Olympic Games, however, both women had to wear traditional Saudi clothing and be under the constant guardianship of men.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee, justified his country’s decision to omit Saudi female athletes from this year’s Asian Games by saying “they were not yet competitive enough.” The kingdom’s justification, however, fails to acknowledge its age-old rejection of women’s rights, especially those of the sporting variety.

While al-Mishal added that Saudi Arabia promises to permit female athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he says their participation will be reduced to equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery -– as dictated by the Quran.

Despite the strides Saudi Arabian officials are promising to make for female athletes in 2016, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson isn’t yet sold on the government’s efforts.

Whitson said, “Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over -– Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men.”

Saudi Arabia's Wujdan Shahrkhani (Courtesy of feministing.com).

Saudi Arabia’s Wujdan Shahrkhani. (Courtesy of feministing.com)

However, it will take more than just the entry of Saudi Arabian women into the 2016 Olympics to reverse the trend of gender discrimination in the tumultuous Middle Eastern nation.

The first step is to lift the ban on women’s sports in Saudi Arabian public schools. With the absence of physical education and female sports teams in the country’s schools and universities, there aren’t any easily accessible feeder outlets available for women’s competition on the international level.

In addition, private training facilities are in short supply for Saudi women, and are usually limited to the country’s upper echelon. Plus, without the presence of females in Saudi Arabia’s sporting federations, aside from Arwa Mutabagani in the Equestrian Federation, Saudi women are lacking a voice in the sports world.

Apart from the ongoing battle for rights to play sports, Saudi women have long since struggled for rights to attend sporting events. Although plans to build separate sections for women in Saudi Arabian stadia have been in the works for years, they have been fervently quelled by conservative government officials, who wish to keep men and women apart in social settings like sporting events.

According to BBC News, a brave Saudi female soccer fan caused a social media uproar when she attended a match between Saudi Arabia’s team Al Hilal and the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) Al Ain in October. Even though the match was played in the UAE, which allows females to attend sporting events, the Saudi woman’s act of defiance against her motherland’s laws was not well-received amongst Saudi men.

A video posted to YouTube captures the female soccer fan in attendance, and displays over 900 angry comments from heated Saudi Arabians.

One reads, “Women aren’t interested in football, so why go to a stadium to watch a live match.”

Another says, “Does this woman not have a man? Her place is in the house.”

This incident reflects a similar situation in Iran, which, like Saudi Arabia, prevents the entry of women into sports stadia.

Also in October, 25-year-old British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami was sentenced to one year in prison after having been arrested in June while attending a volleyball match between Iran and Italy. Ghavami subsequently underwent a hunger strike while incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison.

According to an article in the New York Times, “she was protesting against a new rule barring women from attending men’s volleyball matches.”

While human rights activists have rallied for Ghavami’s release from jail for simply attending a volleyball match, Iran’s judiciary officials are rejecting the notion that her case is a sports issue.

Ghavami was charged with dispersing anti-Iran propaganda during the match, along with several other female protestors. According to her lawyer, however, “she will be retried.”

However, good news finally came for Ghavami and other Iranian female sports fans. The Huffington Post recently reported that the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) threatened to strip Iran of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s world volleyball championship if it continues banning the attendance of women from matches.

Although the recent action of the FIVB is a step in the right direction for Middle Eastern women, the battle for sports rights will be ongoing for years to come.

According to Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, achieving progress in a country that is firmly set in its conservative cultural and religious ways involves help from outsiders, as well as the passing of time.

“There are a lot of serious reformists who want to see change but it takes a lot of time, months and years, to get the smallest changes,” Coogle told Reuters.

In the meantime, Middle Eastern women are hoping that the achievement of sports rights will someday be a peaceful endeavor. But, only time will tell if it will prove to be the fight of their lives.