The Power of Participation: Celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day

Almost four decades ago, in 1987, organizers of the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) and former President Ronald Reagan commemorated the first National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD). Every year since then, the WSF has dedicated a day in February to recognize the deep history of women in sports– whether on the field as an athlete or on the sidelines as a coach – their achievements and the positive influence participation has on generations of all ages.

As a woman who grew up playing sports, my participation taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons, including the power of proficient communication in teams, accountability through individual performance and self-discipline to lead, learn and love.

To acknowledge the power of sports, UN Women says “sport mobilizes the global community and speaks to youth. It unites across national barriers and cultural differences. It teaches women and girls the values of teamwork, self-reliance and resilience; has a multiplier effect on their health, education and leadership development; contributes to self-esteem; builds social connections; and challenges harmful gender norms.”

While sports allowed me the space to grow, women in sports inspired me to flourish. Among the dozens of female athletes I looked up to, I idolized one in particular– Mia Hamm. As a symbol of admiration, I wore her jersey number nine in all sports I participated in, from soccer to softball.

Hamm’s achievements earned her a spot in the National Soccer Hall of Fame and National Women’s Hall of Fame, but for me, it wasn’t just the Olympic gold medals and World Cup titles that made her so impressive. Her character, specifically portrayed in her book, Go For The Goal: A Champion’s Guide To Winning In Soccer And Life, showed me it’s the person behind the sport that matters more than winning. I realized sport gave me a transferable skill set I could use in anything I loved to do.

Hamm wrote, “To be a great soccer player, you must be in love with the game. You must love its culture, its nuances, the equipment, the skills it requires, the lessons it teaches you, and of course, the passion it creates among those who play and watch worldwide,” according to a book review.

If you switch the phrase “soccer player” with whatever your job position may be, the same is applicable. In this way, the power of sports, or the power of loving what you do, can unlock a “limitless potential,” an ideal WSF acknowledges.

For Hamm, if it wasn’t for the women before her who fought for equitable opportunities for men and women to participate in sports under Title IX, she would’ve never been able to pursue a professional soccer career.

In Reagan’s proclamation of a “National Women in Sports Day” in 1987, he affirmed “the history of women in sports is rich and long and has provided millions with an opportunity for growth, development, and the pursuit of challenging goals.”

During the same year, NGWSD also served as a remembrance of Flo Hyman, an Olympic volleyball player who died of Marfan’s syndrome at 31 in 1986. Hyman pioneered and championed her sport and applied strength in all she faced, including promoting equality for women’s sports and team devotion.

As Hyman once said, “to be true to oneself is the ultimate test in life. To have the courage and sensitivity to follow your hidden dreams and stand tall against the odds that are bound to fall in your path. Life is too short and precious to be dealt with in any other fashion.”

By Lilli Iannella, 2023 NYWICI Scholarship recipient (Ellen Levine Memorial Scholarship)


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