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Women who inspire: 5 athletes changing the game, despite COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic may have abbreviated, postponed or canceled their seasons. But these female athletes are using the most of their time to affect change.
2020 US Open - Day 5
Naomi Osaka of Japan wears a protective face mask with the name Ahmaud Arbery stenciled on it, after winning her Women's Singles third round match against Marta Kostyuk of the Ukraine on Day Five of the 2020 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 4, 2020 in Queens, N.Y.Al Bello / Getty Images

This year was set to be a groundbreaking one for women’s sports: the U.S. women’s national soccer team won a lawsuit for gender discrimination, the Women’s National Basketball Association and its players came to a bargaining agreement to increase salaries and provide new maternity benefits, the Women’s Tennis Association awarded record-breaking prize money and the National Women’s Hockey League increased its number of games, as well as new sponsors and owners.

But then the coronavirus pandemic abbreviated, postponed or canceled their seasons. Female athletes, however, were able to use the time to reflect on the opportunities given to them, in addition to using their platforms to affect change. Whether they’re raising awareness or breaking barriers by being the first or best in their sport, these women are changing the game.

Laurie Hernandez

Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez in 2017.Harry How / Getty Images file

American artistic gymnast Laurie Hernandez competed as a member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team dubbed the “Final Five” at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, winning gold in team event and silver on the balance beam. Hernandez also competed in and won the televised dance competition ‘Dancing with the Stars’ in 2016, becoming the show’s youngest winner at just 16.

Her story is featured in “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women's Gymnastics”, a new six-part series by YouTube Originals and Glamour. The series, which debuted September 21, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the road to becoming an elite gymnast.

Hernandez, whose maternal and paternal grandparents are all from Puerto Rico, also touches on what it means to be Latina and competing in gymnastics, something she didn't consider when she was competing in Rio de Janeiro. "I didn't realize the impact of being a Latina gymnast in 2016, how much of an impact that would have on other people watching," she said in an interview with TV Guide. "So now, coming back a second time, I think that's something I'm paying attention to. It's something that I'm proud of. And it's something I own."

I feel I could be a role model to other Hispanic gymnasts interested in the sport, but I also want them to understand the importance of being focused, determined, and not giving up, despite all the struggles. – Laurie Hernandez

Ashleigh Johnson

Water polo player Ashleigh Johnson poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel.Harry How / Getty Images

When gold medal-winning water polo player Ashleigh Johnson heard the Tokyo Olympics were postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic, she was distraught. But thanks to her training as an elite athlete, the 24-year-old goalkeeper is used to shifting gears and recalibrating.

The Florida native was part of the American team that won the gold medal at the 2015 World Aquatics Championship and, in 2016, she became the first Black woman to represent the United States in Olympic water polo. Inspired by Johnson’s trailblazing, and in the wake of George Floyd demonstrations, USA Water Polo General Manager John Abdou decided to create the Alliance for Diversity and Equity in Water Polo, a task force to address systemic injustice and promote inclusion in the sport. The goal of the alliance more access to pools in under-resourced communities.

Although Johnson is still keeping a rigorous training schedule for the postponed Olympics, the pandemic and racial injustice protests have provided her an opportunity to discuss race and equality in sports.

I have the chance to show how much opportunity there is in water polo from social, educational, and health and wellness perspectives and I’m able to do that while helping to tell a new story for Black people in aquatic spaces. – Ashleigh Johnson

Dalilah Muhammad

Dalilah Muhammad poses in the starting blocks on Jan. 15, 2020.Kirby Lee / AP file

Dalilah Muhammad not only won the 400-meter hurdle event at the 2016 Olympics, she also broke her own world record at the 2019 World Championships.

Interestingly, after graduating from University of Southern California in 2012, she went to Olympic trials and completely bombed. Out in the first round, she had neither a spot at the London Games nor a sponsor. She didn’t let that discourage her though, and she put in the work in to win nationals in 2013, then a silver medal at worlds.

Then things changed again: She faltered in 2015 and ended up watching the world championships from home. "I had an epiphany one day, 'Why not me?'" Muhammad said in an interview with ESPN. She continued to compete and set personal records, eventually winning numerous U.S. and world championships in the process. Muhammad remains only the second female 400-meter hurdler in history, after Sally Gunnell, to have won the Olympic and World titles and broken the world record, showing that persevering through obstacles can lead to great things.

It’s been difficult for Black women, especially in track and field, and I’m trying to ease that route for the next person behind me. We all need to work harder today to make this route easier for the people behind us. -- Dalilah Muhammad

Alyssa Nakken

San Francisco Giants coach Alyssa Nakken before a game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on July 24, 2020.Harry How / Getty Images file

Alyssa Nakken made history this summer as the first ever, on-field female coach in Major League Baseball. When new San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler initially told Nakken he was adding her to the baseball operations staff for a jack-of-all-trades role covering player development, she had no clue she was making history.

She didn’t stop climbing after getting her foot in the door with the Giants in 2014. She went from a baseball operations internship to taking on myriad of advising and strategizing positions along the way.

During the changeover from outgoing manager Bruce Bochy, Nakken proactively knocked on the doors of Giants executives, having practical and philosophical conversations on the direction of the team, developing her high-level relationships along the way. Kapler recognized Nakken’s ability through their meetings and her value was evident in her resume. “Simply, I think she’s going to be a great coach,” Kapler said in a statement earlier this year. “Merit and the ability to be a great coach trumps all.”

Nakken, who credits her dedication and willingness to embrace any role as the main reasons for her success, is now is a part of daily life for Giants fans, particularly a generation of young girls who can now see themselves in MLB.

People are always going to look up to you. It’s just that right now I have quite a few more eyes on me and I understand if I stay true to me, these girls, these boys, these people will be inspired by the possibilities. It’s my responsibility to stay true to that. -- Alyssa Nakken

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka of Japan celebrates winning the women's singles final of the U.S. Opn on Sept. 12, 2020.Robert Deutsch / USA Today Sports via Reuters

Japanese tennis player and 2020 U.S. Open champion, Naomi Osaka, has emerged as tennis’ newest global star over the last few years.

As the No. 1 female player in the world and the highest paid female athlete, the 22-year-old has been catapulted into the forefront of pop culture. Prior to the pandemic, Osaka’s focus was mostly on tennis, and shied away from weighing in on what was going on in the world.

However, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and renewed calls for change, Osaka in August made one of the biggest statements of her tennis career by choosing not to play in a semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open, joining the wave of athletes protesting racial injustices following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

When the two-time Grand Slam winner resumed playing days later, she sported new masks with the names racial injustice victims. Raising awareness—even on social media—will hopefully lead to more people talking about them, Osaka said in a statement on social media

“There are more important matters at hand that need immediate attention,” Osaka posted. “…if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction.”

You just gotta keep going and fighting for everything, and one day you’ll get to where you want. -- Naomi Osaka