There is an assumption, I think, that it’s only little boys who dream of growing up and playing for their hometown sports teams.
My first hope after watching the 1984 Olympics, was that I would be Mary Lou Retton. As it turns out, I couldn’t do a cartwheel without throwing up.
My second hope was that I would play for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And the better I got at T-ball and Little League, the more I believed that I would be the first woman to play professional baseball. But in the summer of 1989 my Dad had that first heart-to-heart conversation with me. I wasn’t allowed to play Pony League.
“The bases are further apart,” he said.
“The mound is further away,” he said.
“And you won’t be able to keep up,” he said. “Boys will get faster and bigger and stronger.”
He wasn’t being cruel. He was being realistic. And it broke my heart. My talent would not be my limiting factor. It was my gender. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't out-work my gender.
So it was all the more important when I tuned in to a Penn State v. Tennessee women’s basketball game one Saturday afternoon in January of 1990. That’s when I saw Coach Pat Summitt for the first time. That’s when I saw the crowd.
That’s when it occurred to me, at the ripe old age of 13, that women’s sports mattered too. Up until that point I'd see the Steelers, the Pirates, the Penguins. Except for the Olympics, I never saw women compete in athletics on a national level.
I never met Pat Summitt. I never set foot on the University of Tennessee campus. And I never wanted to play for her. Really I wanted to play for my hometown Penn State Lady Lions. In the end I turned out to be an average basketball player.
But I was a good softball player. And because of women like Pat Summitt, I played four years on a traveling softball team. Because of women like Pat Summitt, I had the opportunity to play college athletics. I had the opportunity to coach college athletics.
It’s amazing to me how much we can feel affected by the loss of someone we never met. But this morning when I woke up and saw the news, my heart broke a lot. I cried watching the tributes on SportsCenter. (And the fact that the news of Coach Summitt's death dominated SportsCenter says everything we need to know.)
Because I know and recognize now as an adult that the opportunities I have been granted as an athlete and a coach would never have existed if it wasn’t for fierce, strong, brave women like Coach Summitt who paved the way for the rest of us.
For any of us who coach, it is our distinct privilege to be in a position to impact the lives of others. It is both our gift and our burden to carry the responsibility of changing lives for the better. To understand that our words, our body language (the stare from Coach Pat), and our actions have ripple effects far beyond what we will ever know.
No, I didn’t get to grow up to be a Major League baseball player. But I grew up to be a coach. And that’s not an opportunity I would have without the likes of Coach Summitt and those who broke through the gender barriers.
RIP Coach. We never met, but you changed my life.