Six times women’s sports led the way in 2021

Naomi Osaka
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Before the calendar flips over to 2022 – a year that will mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX – On Her Turf is revisiting a few of the many times women’s sports led the way in 2021.

Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles helped mental health take center stage

2021 will likely be best remembered for the impact that women – and especially women of color – had on the conversation about mental health.

Ahead of the 2021 French Open, tennis champ Naomi Osaka said she wouldn’t participate in press conferences, citing the impact they had on her mental health.

Tournament officials responded by fining Osaka $15,000 and threatening to remove her from the tournament. Osaka opted to withdraw, revealing her struggles with depression in a lengthy Instagram post.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka wrote.

Osaka – the highest paid female athlete – was not the only athlete to speak out about the importance of mental health in 2021.

After failing to qualify for the U.S. Olympic swimming team in the 100m freestyle, Simone Manuel revealed that she had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, a condition accompanied by symptoms including increased heart rate, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and soreness.

“I want to inspire others taking care of your body, focusing on mental health,” Manuel said in a 24-minute press conference at U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. “This was the first time I showed up to a meet – and before I even dove in to do a race – I was proud of myself. I think that’s a big step. And I hope that inspires more athletes to feel that way.”

A few weeks later at the Tokyo Games, gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the women’s team competition due to “the twisties,” a frightening phenomenon in which gymnasts lose their ability to track where they are in the air. “I just physically and mentally was not in the right head space and I didn’t want to jeopardize my health and my safety, because at the end of the day it’s not worth it,” Biles said.

Also in Tokyo, shot put silver medalist Raven Saunders used her new platform to destigmatize the topic of mental health.
“I’m not just fighting for myself, I’m fighting for a lot more people,” Saunders said. “I want to give a shoutout to all of the LGBTQ community. Everybody that is dealing with mental health issues. Everybody who is Black. I’m giving a shoutout to everybody.”

READ MORE: Raven Saunders opens up about mother’s death, managing grief

Gender disparities exposed at NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments

Ahead of the 2021 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, social media posts from Stanford performance coach Ali Kershner and Oregon player Sedona Price went viral. Their posts revealed that while men’s teams had access to a full weight room, players at the women’s competition were only provided dumbbells and yoga mats.

While it was the disparate weight room photos that caught people’s attention, it wasn’t the only example of how the NCAA was treating the women’s tournament as a second-class event. From less accurate Covid-19 testing to restricting the use of “March Madness” branding, the gender disparities between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments quickly added up.

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In August, a report by a law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (KHF) found that the NCAA has “significantly” undervalued women’s basketball, from the resources provided to women’s teams to the broadcast package the NCAA signed with ESPN. A second report – released in October – showed that gender inequities exist in a variety of NCAA tournaments.

Some progress has already been made. In September, the NCAA announced that the women’s tournament will begin using “March Madness” branding in 2022. And earlier this month, the NCAA said it will begin paying referees for the women’s tournament the same amount it pays referees of the men’s tournament.

The 2021 Super Bowl featured three barrier-breaking women

At Super Bowl LV, three women wrote their way into the history books.

Serving as a down judge, Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl.

On the sidelines, Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust became the first female coaches to win a Super Bowl. (They also were just the second and third women to coach a team in the Super Bowl.)

Less than a decade after Jen Welter became the first woman to serve in an NFL coaching role, the NFL started the 2021-22 season with a record-breaking 12 women serving in coaching positions. Still, a majority of the NFL’s teams – most of which have upwards of 20 or 25 individuals serving as coaches – do not include a single woman on their coaching roster.

U.S. women led the way at Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics

Of the 113 medals Team USA earned at the Tokyo Olympics, 66 were earned by women (58.4%). A few weeks later, a similar picture emerged at the Tokyo Paralympics, where American women won 64 of Team USA’s 104 medals (61.5%).

At both the Olympics and Paralympics, the U.S. had an especially strong showing in team sports: from the U.S. women’s (standing) volleyball team winning its first ever gold medal to a gutsy performance by the U.S. women’s goalball team that resulted in silver.

In individual Olympic events, American women also achieved several notable firsts, including:

  • The Tokyo Olympics marked the debut of women’s canoeing (women had previously been limited only to kayaking events). Competing in the debut women’s C-1 200m sprint, Nevin Harrison became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in canoe sprint or slalom event.
  • In fencing, Lee Kiefer claimed gold, becoming the first American woman to win a medal of any color in an individual foil event.
  • Teenager Anastasija Zolotic became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in the sport of taekwondo.
  • In the Olympic debut of surfing, Carissa Moore claimed gold. A few weeks later, she went on to win her fifth world title.

At the Paralympics, Nordic skiing teammates Kendall Gretsch and Oksana Masters became just the fifth and sixth American athletes, respectively, to win Paralympic gold medals at both the summer and winter Games. Gretsch topped the triathlon podium in a thrilling sprint finish, while Masters won double gold in cycling’s road race and time trial. Both Gretsch and Masters are now aiming to add to their medal haul at the upcoming Winter Paralympics in Beijing.

Tokyo Olympics marked a historic first for transgender athlete inclusion 

While transgender women have been eligible to compete at the Olympics since the 2004 Athens Games, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first when she competed at the Tokyo Olympics.

In addition to Hubbard, two out non-binary athletes also competed in Japan: Canadian soccer player Quinn (who helped their team win Olympic gold) and American skateboarder Alana Smith.

“I feel sad knowing there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of the world,” Quinn wrote on Instagram after Canada’s opening match of the tournament. “I feel optimistic for change. Change in legislature. Changes in rules, structures, and mindsets. Mostly, I feel aware of the realities. Trans girls being banned from sports. Trans women facing discrimination and bias while trying to pursue their olympic dreams. The fight isn’t close to over… and I’ll celebrate when we’re all here.”

In November, the IOC introduced a new framework for the inclusion of transgender and intersex athletes. Instead of a testosterone-cap policy, the IOC’s new framework – which features 10 principles – entrusts the process of creating eligibility requirements to individual sport federations.

EXPLAINER: How will the IOC’s new framework impact transgender athletes?

While the IOC’s guidance was written with elite sport at the forefront, the organization also said that the same principles of inclusion and non-discrimination “should be promoted and defended at all levels of sport, especially for recreational and grass-roots sport.”

NWSL players called for systemic change in women’s soccer

During the 2021 season, nine of 10 NWSL teams saw their head coach depart – five of whom either resigned or were fired following allegations of abuse. Players have also spoken up against racism in the NWSL, a league where the majority of coaches, owners, and executives are white men.

The height of the reckoning came after the Athletic‘s Meg Linehan published a report in which former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim accused now former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and emotional abuse.

In the first games after that story was published, players paused and gathered at the center of each field six minutes into each match. The NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) released a statement saying that the moment of solidarity was “in honor of the 6 years it took for Mana, Sinead, and all those who fought for too long to be heard.”

Amid this reckoning over player safety and treatment, the NWSLPA has been been attempting to negotiate the league’s first ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA). A full timeline of the 2021 NWSL season can be found here.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC