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

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.