In a day designed to inspire and connect, the Women’s Sports Foundation today hosted the fourth annual Athlete Leadership Connection (ALC) at Morgan Stanley’s headquarters in New York City. More than 80 champion and college athletes gathered to network with one another at the full-day conference featuring panels, a mentorship initiative with the NBA Players’ Association (NBPA) and a keynote address from Billie Jean King.
The ALC was designed both to advance women’s leadership in sport as well as provide skills and practical advice on transitioning to post-athletic careers. This year, for the first time since the event’s inception, girls from our Sports 4 Life programs joined our champion and collegiate athletes for the an afternoon of team-building and play at the NBPA headquarters. The morning session saw athletes in attendance participate in sessions led by fellow athletes and industry professionals related to career and financial planning, coaching, governance, advocacy and sports business. Our suite of ALC programming is inspired by the knowledge that sports build qualities such as confidence, perseverance and leadership in girls and women that translate into success in the workplace.
Following opening remarks from WSF President Grete Eliassen and Morgan Stanley Managing Director Lisa Cregan, some of the most recognizable names in sport opened up about overcoming mental health issues while competing at the highest level. Scout Bassett, Kelly Clark and Missy Franklin led the opening panel moderated by ESPN columnist and feature writer Kate Fagan, who penned the book “What Made Maddy Run” about a young athlete who eventually committed suicide after coping with mental illness.
Among messages about accepting yourself and seeking support, Franklin, a five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer, encouraged the audience to embrace the good rather than skating around the bad.
“I try to do the things I know are good for me instead of avoiding the things I know are bad,” she said. “When I did that, I felt so great that I was taking the time for myself to do things I knew were going to be good for me. That was such a huge thing for me when I was going through therapy. Find those things that are good for you and pursue those.”
Clark, the most decorated snowboarder in history, harped on the benefits of the ALC and Annual Salute and the honesty of the mental health panel.
“I wish I got to experience a panel on the topic we discussed when I was 18,” Clark said. “It’s awesome to be in a room of such inspiring women and get to talk about the things that are hard to talk about. In sports, you can often feel like you’re the only one who’s dealing with these hardships, and to be at an event like this with the Women’s Sports Foundation, you’re able to interact and have conversations with and connect with people who are experiencing the same journey you are. It’s so great for women in sport.”
In King’s keynote address, moderated by Hoda Kotb, co-anchor of NBC News’ “TODAY”, she expressed her desire to see more influencers in the room change their sports. After recalling the exact moment she realized she wanted to fight for equality in athletics — she was 12 years old, and noticed everything in tennis, even the balls, was white — she opened up the room and allowed her audience to talk about their visions for their sports.
“Sports are so powerful,” King said. “They give us a platform to change the world in a more powerful way.”
Sumo wrestler Helen Delpopolo echoed King’s remarks about changing her sport, and touched on the conference’s theme of Carrying the Torch of Leadership Forward by also recalling a childhood memory.
“Being here means more to me than you could ever know,” she said. “My mom volunteered at the Annual Salute 15 years ago. I tagged along as a little kid and I got to see it. I remember tugging on my mom’s pants and saying ‘I’m going to get invited to this. I’m going to make a difference.’ Being with all of these empowering women, it’s so inspirational. I’m so thankful for the Women’s Sports Foundation. There aren’t many opportunities like this out there. Today is cloud nine, for sure.”
Author and founder of What Will It Take Movements Marianne Schnall and Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber discussed the importance of athletes using their national and global platforms to be voices for change. Wieber told attendees that she was not planning on releasing her name in the recent Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, but was encouraged by the other women who initially came forward. Those women, she said, inspired her by using their platform, and eventually, hundreds of fellow survivors came forward because of their bravery and willingness to speak out.
The day concluded on an uplifting note as nearly 50 girls from Sports 4 Life programs around the greater New York City area met our champion and collegiate athletes for an Athlete Ambassador event at the NBPA. In addition to mentoring sessions and team-building activities, the girls got to get on the court with their heroes and play. Recent National Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and New York Liberty head coach Katie Smith led girls in dribbling drills while fencers Margaret Lu, Nzingha Prescod and Natalie Vie taught them technique using pool noodles. Olympic medalist bobsledders Aja Evans and Elana Meyers Taylor and UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi showed them proper warm-up drills.
“This is my favorite year because the next generation is here with us,” Collette Smith, the first female African-American coach in the NFL, said. “They need to be around that. You have to see it to believe it. To have this next generation here with us, being inspired with us, this is the best ALC ever.”
The conference would not have been possible without the support of our ALC Connection Partners – WSF National Partners Gatorade, espnW and NBC Sports Group, our conference host Morgan Stanley and event partner NBPA.
Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Women’s Sports Foundation