Thursday, February 8, 2018

So many strides for women in the sports world

I wouldn't say I'm a movie buff. I enjoy keeping up with favorite television shows more than movies.Still, one of my favorite films, especially in the sports genre, is "A League of Their Own." There are plenty of things to like about it, but it's also based on the true story of women playing professional baseball. The movie did a good job of explaining the premise of women going to work - and playing ball - while the men went away to war in the 1940s. 

That's just one example on the path girls and women have carved over the years. Feb. 7, 2018 was National Girls and Women in Sports Day. 

Technically, the day recognizes athletes and their achievements in sports. I'm jumping on board, too, as a female sports journalist, blogger, social media coordinator and author. Plenty has been accomplished in this arena as well. I'm proud to be a part of that. 

I didn't cover a game on this day, watch any sports or write much. That's weird in itself, I know. It's also Wednesday, which is typically a day for elementary school volunteering and church choir practice. I *did* finish up a story I was working on for an upcoming edition of Minnesota Hockey Magazine. I also conducted a phone interview with a high school softball coach. 

Sometimes, I think it's hard to fathom how things were in the sports world (or any world, really) years ago or before you were around to remember. Perfect example? I've watched plenty of documentaries and footage surrounding the John F. Kennedy assassination and days following. I still can't get over the fact that news anchors could smoke cigarettes on live television. 

It applies with sports, too. It's never been a question for me as to whether I could write about sports. That doesn't mean the job doesn't have it's own challenges - and there are still obstacles to clear in regard to equality. Still, I could do it. It's normal. Job descriptions for sports reporters aren't marked with weird things like "men only" or some such nonsense.

I had to chance to learn more about the women who've come before me in the business in writing my children's book, Women in Sports Media. Women who covered sports decades ago, when it really was a man's world. I read about a woman who sat down on the steps of a hockey arena, setting her typewriter in her lap, because they wouldn't allow her in the press box. Another sat outside in a snowstorm to cover a Minnesota Vikings game because she wasn't allowed into the press box - she sat on top of it. Allowing women in locker rooms? That just wasn't done, until women started pushing back. 

I'm grateful that I've had such positive experiences in this business. I really haven't had to worry about much. 

When it comes to athletics, there have been strides there, too. Just a few random ones listed here:

  • This year marks 20 years since women's hockey entered the Olympics
  • Title IX
  • I wrote a story last year about a high school wrestling team with female wrestlers
  • The WNBA
  • Athletic scholarships for girls
  • The growth of girls hockey over the past couple decades
  • Female race car drivers competing with male drivers
  • Volleyball, soccer, dance, basketball, swimming, tennis
  • And so much more

So many good stories are out there, told by and about women. There are still stories of many "firsts" for women in sports. Some see this in a negative light, asking why we should be celebrating something that should just be the norm. The truth is, it's important to recognize these milestones. In the future, it might not be a big deal when a girl wins a state high school wrestling title. But the first one, like anything done for the first time, is still special. 

Thanks to all the girls and women who have contributed in some way to the sports world. And remember, there's no crying in baseball. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Stephens comments puzzling after opening-round Australian Open loss

A few months ago, tennis player Sloane Stephens was on top of the world. She won her first Grand Slam title in her first appearance in a slam final. It was a 6-3, 6-0 victory over fellow American player Madison Keys at the U.S. Open to finish off the slam calendar of 2017.

It was a bright spot in women's tennis. One that fans hoped would spark some continued success. 

Well, now it hasn't. Stephens is 0-8 since winning her title, with the latest loss coming as the No. 13 seed in the first round of the Australian Open, a 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 loss to Zhang Shuai of China. 

That's all concerning enough, but her words in the post-match presser in Australia were also a little troubling to hear. Sure, she isn't the only American in the women's field to get upset early in Aussie land. Venus Williams and Coco Vandeweghe, just to name a couple Americans that lost in the first round while fans back in the United States were still talking about that finish in an NFC playoff game. 

When it comes to Stephens after this loss, to me there's a difference between keeping a positive attitude and then being so nonchalant about your first-round upset that there's no anger or frustration whatsoever. Stephens didn't seem to have that balance at all. She talked about not getting too down with the long season still ahead. She said she's going to "stay positive." Totally understandable, but aren't you also upset that you were upset in the first round considering you're the last woman to win a Grand Slam? 

So, a reporter asked her, has she had a tough time since the U.S. Open?

"I wouldn't call them tough times," Stephens said. "Everyone's so depressed, so down. It happens to everyone. I'm going to beat someone eventually. I'm going to have the best Instagram picture when I finally snap this losing streak.  
"It's not tough times. It's just learning experience. It's a long journey." 
That's what I'm excited to see: The Instagram picture. 

While I can understand what she's trying to convey here, I'm not sure I follow 100 percent. This isn't like she's a tennis superstar who's hit a slump. The only tennis superstar on the women's circuit has been and still is Serena Williams. Anyone else still needs to prove themselves as a consistent and dominant player, in my opinion.

She said she's "going to beat someone eventually." While that's probably true, it doesn't inspire much confidence when you sit there and don't seem the least bit concerned that you haven't won a match since the biggest victory of your career. How do you plan to beat someone if you just shrug your shoulders about it? 

Now, maybe I'm using Stephens as the scapegoat here. She's just 24 years old and has already had some success; she will always be a Grand Slam champion. If she's happy with that, then who are we to judge?

"For me now, it's not that great," Stephens said. "But it's nothing to panic about, guys. Winning the U.S. Open was the best thing that happened in my tennis career."

Future of women's tennis still a question mark 
ESPN tennis analyst and former tennis player Chris Evert pointed out that with Serena not playing in the tournament (My opinion: She didn't want to come back yet because, while she could play, she doesn't want to return until she knows she can beat everybody.), that means the rest of the field might be feeling the pressure. Meaning, when Serena plays, they're not expected to beat her, so they have nothing to lose. With Serena out, everyone thinks it's up to them to step up and fill the void.

Instead, it's led to more upsets than anything else. Honestly, when I watch these slams, I go in expecting upsets rather than dominant tennis matches, especially on the women's side. And let's picture the women's tennis landscape without Serena in the fold, because that will happen at some point, whether it's in a year or a few years. What will that look like?

Who is going to come on the scene as the next tennis great in the women's game? Meaning, who can be a consistently-ranked player, win some slams and not get upset all the time? I don't have a name to add to this right now.

Maria Sharapova is a weird case, coming back after her two-year ban for breaking the drug-test rules, so the former Grand Slam champion is at a weird spot in the seeding process compared to her level of play. Caroline Wozniacki hasn't shown me she can keep it together mentally to win tournaments. Genie Bouchard is working her way back from concussion issues. Venus has surged back to some success but is still most definitely in the sunset of her career at 37 years old. Simona Halep is ranked No. 1 but has yet to win a Slam.

American fans have their fingers crossed for players like Stephens and Keys, the other U.S. Open finalist last fall who's still alive in the Aussie Open this year. But with every player of promise seems to come more disappointment.

I'd like to look forward to watching some solid women's tennis matches going forward, rather than upset after upset. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Taking inventory of my work in 2017

I'm trying to reflect on the year 2017 in terms of the sports world. I think I already hit my personal highlights in my last blog post, so maybe that's why I'm a bit stuck. Nothing immediately jumps out as a topic to write about as we all ring in 2018.

It's a natural time to take a step back and look at what's happened over the past year. On the other hand, it can also be seen as just another day on the calendar. Kind of like when even-number milestones are celebrated in sports (Is 100 RBI in a season really that much better than 99 or 98?).

With time, my writing biz has grown. So, I decided to look over my color-coded spreadsheet and count up my stories and blogs for the calendar year. Here's what I came up with, keeping in mind a slight margin of error for miscounting (numbers, eek!):

220 stories, gamers, features
31 blog posts
2 books
Thousands of Tweets

I had some new bylines for new outlets, covered new sports and new teams. As always, the preps beat always provides something new and different. Whether it's a school or arena I hadn't been to before, or a team in the state tournament for the first time. The usual state tournaments were covered: Swimming, tennis, volleyball, hockey, plus section football and baseball.

There were Gopher sports with the University of Minnesota. From columns about men's basketball to men's hockey and even a couple stories about women's basketball here recently.

Hockey is still a prominent sport to write about, from preps to the Minnesota Wild. I really enjoyed writing about hockey for The Athletic - about St. Cloud State previewing their season, Olympian and former Gopher standout Krissy Wendell joining FSN hockey broadcasts and sitting down for a great conversation with Mounds View's own from the 1980 men's hockey team, Rob McClanahan and his hockey-standout daughter, Sara.

I wrote some features for USA Hockey as well, talking with prominent coaches, Olympians, writing about hockey's involvement with the Hurricane Harvey aftermath in Houston and the sled hockey tournament.

Then there was the Warroad youth hockey feature story, talking to coaches and experts about cuts in youth sports and whether flag football is a safer option for kids than tackle football.

Auto racing is still a passion, even if I don't have much of an outlet to write about it. I did write about the Indianapolis 500 for ZoneCoverage.com, however, which was nice.

I helped out with a leg of the Minnesota Twins Caravan in the northern part of the state. Thank goodness the weather cooperated that week. That was followed by Twins Fest, of course, a vacation to spring training in Fort Myers and a much-improved 2017 baseball season for the Twins. They followed up their worst season in team history by reaching the AL Wild Card game. No need to relive that result. Along the way, my friends in the press box and I started a 7th-inning-trail-mix tradition.

With so much, I do have a few things that stand out as some of my proudest pieces of work. Topping the list would be my children's books that were published: Women in Sports Media and Women in the Olympics. It was pretty cool to see my name on the cover of a book. I learned a lot writing these and am grateful for those who supported me and purchased them as well.

Writing the stories for The Athletic website was also a nice surprise, and it was great really digging in without the stress of hard deadlines and word count limits. I talked with the McClanahans for nearly an hour about hockey, etc., so that story, plus the one about Wendell were a lot of fun to put together.

I also had the chance to write a bit of an enterprise piece that started last January and published in April in the Chicago Tribune. It started out as a story about a high school boys' swimming and diving team. Just do some phone interviews and find an angle, like usual. But once I talked with the coach of Glenbrook North High School's boys' swimming and diving team, he mentioned Tural Erel, a senior who wasn't able to swim with the team last season because of a neck injury over the summer at the beach.

With some work with my editor, I went back to do more interviews, asked more questions, found out more details about Tural and his recovery as he worked his way back from not being able to move to swimming an adapted race on senior night.

It was nice to have a busy 2017 that brought new opportunities. I hope for more excitement and good things in 2018. Thanks for reading!