“Don’t let anyone define your dream,” Megan Rapinoe—two-time Women’s World Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist and equal pay activist—declared from the stage at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 40th Annual Salute to Women in Sports. “Dream way bigger than anything you’re seeing right now. Hopefully, we’re setting the groundwork for the next generation to be massive superstars.”
Rapinoe’s message of encouragement perfectly captured the mission of the foundation, which works from the intersection of equality and empowerment in sports. WSF’s fight for gender equality in sports is centered on uplifting, supporting and inspiring young women athletes to do more and to be more—on and off the field.
The WSF event in New York City began with a spirited “Grand March of Athletes,” during which co-hosts Julie Foundy, two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, and Phaidra Knight, World Rugby Hall of Famer, announced the achievements of stars while they crossed the stage. Later on, the room filled with applause as Marta Vieira da Silva, two-time soccer Olympic medalist; Claressa Shields, the undisputed middleweight boxing champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist; and Rapinoe were honored with special awards.
“Courage was a word I had to learn very soon in my life,” Vieira da Silva told the crowd as she accepted the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award, opening up about the incredible adversity that she overcame to rise in the ranks as a soccer player.
Shields, who was named Sportswoman of the Year in an individual sport, cautioned aspiring stars in the audience that sexism was still a hurdle for women in sports. “You have to be ten times better than the boys to get recognition,” she remembered. “Something inside of me yelled for equality.”
Rapinoe, who credited her team with her success during her acceptance speech for the Sportswoman of the Year Award in a team sport award, echoed the sentiment in an interview with Ms., calling for “the same care and respect that’s put towards the men’s side [to be] put towards the women’s side.”
Many of the athletes in attendance similarly spoke with Ms. about the sexism they face in their respective sports.
“It would be incredible if women’s sports were considered as exciting or fun to watch as men’s sports,” Sportswoman of the Year finalist and water polo Olympic gold medalist Makenzie Fischer confided. Miranda Mendoza, Special Olympic gold medalist in mini javelin, said that she “still wants to see more inclusion” at the biennial competition; Candace Cable, a pioneer of wheelchair racing and 12-time Paralympic medalist, shared that she “hopes people look towards the Paralympic Games and adaptive sport to be able to build a new narrative” for women and athletes with disabilities.
The event also made much room for celebrating the work of women coaches, who can play a critical role in motivating and inspiring girls in sports. Those intergenerational conversations were close to the heart of the salute, in which young athletes like Sofia Torres, an 11-year-old basketball player, rubbed shoulders with legends like Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston marathon in 1967. (The foundation’s similarly iconic founder, tennis player and women’s rights activist Billie Jean King, also steered the celebration from the stage.)
Ann “Muffet” McGraw, the head coach of Notre Dame Women’s Basketball and two-time national champion coach, went viral earlier this year for slamming sports sexism to the press. During a conversation with Ms. at the salute, she offered advice to those aspiring sports stars: “Use your voice. Do not be afraid. Stand up for what you believe in.”