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The Women's Sports Foundation Celebrates Top-Female Athletes at 37th Annual Salute to Women in Sports

Billie Jean King, Mary Carillo, Jessica Mendoza and Rio Olympians Claressa Shields, Ashleigh Johnson 
and Helen Maroulis Among Attendees

New York City, NY (October 19, 2016) – The Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF)—the leading authority on the participation of women and girls in athletics — hosted its headline 37th Annual Salute to Women in Sports awards gala at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City.

WSF Founder Billie Jean King and WSF President Angela Hucles were among the high-profile attendees who celebrated the evening’s top honorees; representing 20 sports and seven different countries. The event was co-hosted by Emmy award-winning sports announcer and former professional tennis player Mary Carillo, as well as sports analyst and two-time Olympic softball medalist Jessica Mendoza. Awards were presented by a host of big names including Laila Ali (boxing), Tamika Catchings (basketball), Meryl Davis (ice dancing), Aimee Mullins (track & field) and Sanya Richards-Ross (track & field), to name a few.

The Women’s Sports Foundation’s coveted 2016 Sportswoman of the Year awards were presented to Rio 2016 Olympians Claressa Shields (boxing) and Ashleigh Johnson (water polo); in the individual and team category, respectively. The award is bestowed upon athletes who have distinguished themselves from the field through their supreme athletic performances over a 12-month period. Finalists were voted on by the public in September at

Top-ranked squash player, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, who rose to international success despite repressive regimes in her Taliban-occupied region of Pakistan, was honored with the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. By competing disguised as boy, she showed tremendous courage in her country of Waziristan where girls aren’t allowed to venture outside their home. However, Toorpakai’s family firmly adhered to a spirit of justice and equality, allowing her to excel in sports and inspire a whole generation of Pakistani girls.

The Billie Jean King Contribution Award, an honor that recognizes an individual or organization who has made a significant contribution to the development and advancement of women’s sports, was awarded to BIG EAST Conference Commissioner Val Ackerman. From receiving one of the first post-Title IX women’s basketball scholarships to the University of Virginia, to first president of the WNBA l- and now overseeing one of the nation’s preeminent intercollegiate athletic conferences – Val Ackerman is a steadfast champion of women’s sports.

“For over 40 years, we have recognized the accomplishments of the world’s greatest female athletes and leaders in sports. We are proud to do so again tonight after what was one of the most successful Olympic and Paralympic Games for women in history,” said WSF Founder Billie Jean King. “The Women’s Sports Foundation is proud to have played a small part in what we saw this year in Rio and we plan to continue working to bring women sports to the next level for years to come.”

NBC Olympics announcer Mary Carillo and two-time Olympic softball medalist Jessica Mendoza opened the fundraising gala. The evening then proceeded with the traditional Grand March of Athletes where all 70 athletes in attendance were honored for their contributions to sports.

The Women’s Sports Foundation also payed special tribute to the late legend Pat Summitt, college basketball’s all-time wins leader with 1,098 victories and eight national titles with the Tennessee Lady Vols. University of Tennessee athletic director Joan Cronan, and WNBA and former Lady Vols players Tamika Catchings and Kara Lawson honored the iconic head coach.

Angela Hucles, WSF President and two-time Olympic gold medalist soccer player, took the stage along with WSF President-elect Grete Eliassen, a freestyle skier and six-time Winter X Games medalist.

Hucles discussed the ongoing initiatives of the WSF, specifically showcasing the Sports 4 Life program. Sports 4 Life is a national effort to increase the participation and retention of African-American and Hispanic girls in youth sports programs. By making sports more accessible, Sports 4 Life gives young females the chance to learn the foundational benefits of sports, such as leadership, confidence, self-esteem, and perseverance. This year alone, WSF awarded $194,250 in funding to 40 organizations to serve more than 10,000 middle and high school girls across the nation. All of the money raised in the room this evening benefits towards the 2017 grant program, which is now accepting applications for the coming year. The 37th Annual Salute to Women in Sports was co-presented by WSF National Partners: espnW, FOX Sports, Gatorade and NBC Sports Group.

Award recipients at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 37th Annual Salute to Women in Sports:

Ashleigh Johnson, Winner of the Sportswoman of the Year Award (Team Sport)
Ashleigh Johnson stands out as the first female African-American to ever play for the U.S. Water Polo Olympic Team. Headed into the Rio 2016 Games, Johnson secured 62 saves with Team USA, which finished first at the 2016 FINA World League Super Final and Olympic Qualification Tournament.

With a 64.5 save percentage, Johnson helped Team USA take the Rio Games gold medal with a 12 to five victory over Italy. With the win, the Americans became the first women’s water polo team to take home consecutive Olympic gold medals. Johnson was the key in what many consider the pivotal moment in the gold medal game. With 4:29 left in the third quarter, she blocked a penalty shot that seemed to spark a U.S. rally and set the team up for the win. In the match, Johnson recorded nine saves and was voted top goalkeeper of the tournament by the media.

Past winners include Carli Lloyd, Meryl Davis, Candace Parker, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Venus and Serena Williams, Jessica Mendoza and Lisa Leslie.

Claressa Shields, Winner of the Sportswoman of the Year Award (Individual Sport)
In this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, Claressa Shields became the first American boxer, male or female, to win back-to-back gold medals. She followed up her first gold at the 2012 Games in London — where women’s boxing made its Olympic debut — with another gold medal in Rio de Janeiro. Her Olympic win capped an outstanding year for the 21-year-old. She took gold in the women’s 75kg at the 2016 AIBA American Olympic Qualification Tournament in March and followed that with a victory at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in May. In June, Shields was ranked first in her division in

the International Boxing Association’s world rankings. Shields has her sights set on medaling in the next two Olympiads.

Past winners include Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Missy Franklin, Yani Tseng, Erin Popovich, Natalie Coughlin, Michelle Kwan and Gail Devers. The Sportswoman of the Year Award is presented to athletes who exhibit exceptional performances over a 12-month period. Finalists were selected and voted on by the public and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Awards Committee.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Recipient of the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award
Toorpakai Wazir was born in 1990 in Waziristan, Pakistan, a remote region bordering Afghanistan that has been referred to by journalists as the “most dangerous place on earth.” Fundamentalist and repressive Taliban leaders in Waziristan don’t allow girls to attend school. With a population of roughly 10 million, male literacy rates are approximately 33 percent, and female literacy rates are less than eight percent. Most girls in Waziristan aren’t even allowed to venture outside their home. As a female athlete who played without a veil and in shorts, Toorpakai Wazir was perceived as “un-Islamic,” causing legitimate concerns for her safety and the safety of her family. In 2009, she was nominated for the Best Player of the Year Award by the World Squash Federation. Toorpakai Wazir currently ranks No. 1 in Pakistan; her highest world senior ranking is No. 41.

The Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is presented to a female athlete who exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model for others. This award was first given in 1996 to Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Val Ackerman, Recipient of the Billie Jean King Contribution Award
In 1989, Val Ackerman was one of the NBA’s first appointees to the Board of Directors of USA Basketball and, in 1996, Ackerman was named the first president of the WNBA. Ackerman would become the first woman to successfully lead a women’s team sports league for a historic run of eight years. Due in part to her early leadership, the WNBA has endured and is celebrating its 20th season this year. As the president of USA Basketball from 2005 to 2008, she led the organization to an overall competitive record of 222-23 and gold-medal performances by the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Today, Ackerman leads the BIG EAST as Commissioner with 10 universities in the conference. As a long-time supporter of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Ackerman has participated in numerous summits, councils and events over three decades. She also provided expert review for the Foundation’s 2016 research study of intercollegiate coaching, Beyond X’s and O’s.

The Billie Jean King Contribution Award is presented to an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the development and advancement of women’s sports and to the Women’s Sports Foundation specifically and/or who has, through personal achievements demonstrated a lasting commitment and dedication to the growth of sports, fitness and physical activity for women and girls. Established in 1980, past winners include Tegla Loroupe, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Birch Bayh, Michelle Kwan and Robin Roberts.

About The Women’s Sports Foundation

The Women’s Sports Foundation — the leading authority on the participation of women and girls in sports — is dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring girls access to sports. Founded by Billie Jean King in 1974, our work shapes public attitude about women’s sports and athletes, builds capacities for organizations that get girls active, ensures equal opportunities for girls and women, and supports physically and emotionally healthy lifestyles. The Women’s Sports Foundation has relationships with more than 1,000 of the world’s elite female athletes and is recognized globally for its leadership, vision, expertise and influence. For more information, visit Follow us: or on Twitter @WomensSportsFdn.


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PR Contact: Kelsey Curtis
Women’s Sports Foundation
Photos available upon request