It's been 169 years since former slave and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth delivered her "Ain't I a Woman" speech at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. One hundred years since women won the right to vote, 57 years since they were afforded the right to equal pay, and 39 years since Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman justice in Supreme Court history. But it's also been 33 years since an annual day was enacted to celebrate, acknowledge and recognize the effect of sports participation for female athletes, while honoring the progress and ongoing struggle for equality for women's sports — and that day is National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD).
Wednesday, Feb. 5, is that day, and as part of the celebration Pacific University will be honoring past and present women of sport by way of a free clinic and confidence-boosting session for girls ages 5-14.
The event will be two hours long and will consist of a short check-in, a series of stations where girls can learn the basics of tennis, lacrosse, cheer, soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball and will conclude with a session providing tips for positive self-talk and affirmations, along with the benefits of mental imagery.
Pacific senior volleyball player and youth volleyball coach Milana Ivkovic, along with assistant softball coach Jennifer Bhalla — who's also an assistant professor in Pacific's department of exercise science and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia — are the co-creators of the event, and both are eager to give back to young girls by way of the very conduit that brought them to Pacific to begin with: sports.
"I was beyond excited to take on this event as my senior capstone (project) because I knew with my experience coaching young ladies, working with youth and being an athlete myself, it would be a great chance to reach out to other girls," Ivkovic said. "I am so proud to provide opportunities for young ladies who have nothing but great potential to make a difference in the community around them in some way. I strive for the idea of having a purpose beyond myself, and this is the perfect chance."
Bhalla added that while female participation in sports has been slowly rising since the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972, it still lags in comparison to similar rates among males — and it's events like NGWSD that can give a young girl a gift that continues to give far beyond the competitive arena later in life.
"This may just be the spark they need to start participating in sport or just be more physically active in their lives," Bhalla said. "We want girls to leave with the confidence to try new sports that may later lead them to live a more physically active and healthier life. We also want them to use (newfound) confidence skills in other parts of their lives."
Created in 1987, National Girls and Women in Sports Day is an annual day of observance designed to acknowledge the accomplishments of female athletes, recognize their influence on female sports participation and honor the ongoing struggle, as well as the progress regarding equality for women in sports. In the past 32 years many strides have been made in those areas, but while momentum has shifted, it's keeping that momentum that's now front and center for advocates such as the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), an organization established in 1974 by founder Billie Jean King.
"When NGWSD was started in 1987, we were still fighting to get opportunities for girls in sports," Women's Sports Foundation Senior Director of Advocacy Sarah Axelson said. "Today, I'd say many girls have the access and opportunity to sports, but now we have to keep them there."
Much of the WSF's mission is to draw attention to female athletics and the athletes that play them. As part of that campaign, members and premiere athletes annually spread their word to the powers-that-be in the country's most powerful place — Washington, D.C.
"We'll be going down to Capitol Hill, talking with legislators and lawmakers with our champion athletes, about the issues in women's sports and the policies that may advance our cause," Axelson said. "On top of that — like Pacific — we'll be having our own clinic."
Axelson said there are hundreds of partners spanning the country who are organizing events across nearly all 50 states, citing the importance of each and every one — which is what makes what they're doing at Pacific so important to the foundation.
"I'm excited about what Pacific University is doing, and it really holds true to the purpose of the day," she said. "They're giving young girls opportunities to expose them to sports and showing them role models."
Some of those role models will be on display during Pacific's event this Sunday, with representatives from more than a handful of Boxer teams ready and willing to speak to young participants about their experiences both on and off of the field. Young girls can see someone like University of Oregon basketball player Sabrina Ionescu, U.S. Women's National Team member Megan Rapinoe or tennis great Serena Williams on television, but to see an athlete like Ivkovic up close, on top of being able to speak with her, can be invaluable to impressionable young girls who may see themselves as incapable in the same way that many of these accomplished athletes once did, as well.
"This age range of 5-14 can be tough for young ladies, so it is important for them to picture and imagine themselves being successful," Ivkovic said. "As women, we need to love ourselves and know that we are capable of a lot."
Ivkovic was particularly excited about the confidence-boosting session, speaking to the benefits of positive self-talk and mental imagery, which the decorated volleyball player said has already helped her tremendously both on and off the court.
"I have used imagery to help prep myself for interviews, tests, meetings, etc.," she said. "So I hope the girls do the same."
Axelson piggy-backed on Ivkovic's comment, citing not just the importance of building skills, but also encouraging young women to promote them when seeking opportunities beyond the field of play.
"It's important for us that really understand the connection between sports and success in business, to pass that knowledge down," Axelson said. "Your athletic career should be highlighted in a resume or cover letter, and shouldn't be a footnote."
In the end, National Girls and Women in Sports Day isn't just about sports, nor is it simply about empowerment. It's about helping girls to build both the physical and mental skills necessary for success in life going forward, and doing so by way of the games they love to play. Ivkovic knows that, and Bhalla does, too, which is why they're proud to help — and why Axelson and others at the Women's Sports Foundation are proud of Ivkovic, Bhalla and everyone else at Pacific University for doing their part.
"I think that the more people we have advancing the mission, that every girl and woman realize their potential in sport and in life, the better," Axelson said. "We call on everyone across the country to help realize that mission, which is why we applaud Pacific for holding a day that will allow them to carry our mission forward in their community."
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