From the World Cup to Wimbledon, equal pay to unequaled talent, it was another whirlwind year in women’s sports. There was plenty to sit back and cheer for, and plenty to stand up and protest. Continuing a year-end tradition, it’s time to revisit nine stories in honor of Title IX. The stories capture the range of what happened in women’s sports in 2019. Some stories made international headlines. Some played out on a much smaller scale. Together they recognize progress and perseverance.
Allison Feaster and Kara Lawson join the Celtics
When asked about adding Allison Feaster and Kara Lawson to the Celtics’ staff, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said, “If I had a board of 15 people, I would want probably 14 women and me . . . at least 50/50. [Coach] Brad [Stevens] feels the same way.” Over the summer, Feaster joined the team as director of player development and Lawson started as an assistant coach. Both women bring WNBA experience and, as Ainge put it, “a different perspective” to the team. For Feaster, that different perspective comes from her college career at Harvard and her professional career in the WNBA and overseas. She earned an MBA while playing in Spain. Lawson went to three Final Fours while playing under legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summit. Then, she went on to win a WNBA title with the Sacramento Monarchs and an Olympic gold medal with Team USA. She also spent time as a television analyst. Lawson is one of 11 female assistant coaches in the NBA. It appears only a matter of time before more NBA teams add more women to their basketball staffs. The league is learning “a different perspective” can be a competitive advantage.
Lindsey Vonn and Shalane Flanagan retire
At the most elite level, you can measure athletic success in many ways. Olympic medals. Records broken. Historic, iconic victories. Throughout their careers, skier Lindsey Vonn and runner Shalane Flanagan collected them all. In February, Vonn retired with four World Cup titles, three Olympic medals (one gold), and 82 World Cup wins (four short of the all-time record). In October, Flanagan retired with a New York City Marathon title, Olympic silver medal (and four Olympic team berths), and numerous American records. But beyond being two of the most decorated athletes in their sports, Vonn and Flanagan displayed a toughness, fearlessness, and competitive determination that inspired girls and women. For the female athletes who followed them into the elite ranks, especially athletes from the US, Vonn and Flanagan set new standards and redefined what was possible. That’s the most significant part of their legacies.
Coco Gauff makes grand entrance
Along with retirements come breakout stars. That’s how the cycle of life works in sports. With all due respect to Serena Williams, the next decade in tennis could belong to Coco Gauff. At least, a good chunk of it. At Wimbledon this summer, the 15-year-old Gauff knocked out Venus Williams in the first round and reached the fourth round. That’s when sports fans first noticed her speed, precision, and poise under pressure. Really, it was hard to look away. Everyone wanted to witness the emergence of the next big thing in tennis. At the US Open, Gauff reached the third round. In October, Gauff won her first WTA tournament in Linz, Austria. That made her the youngest tournament winner in 15 years. And that gave fans further proof that she’ll be one to watch, if not the one to watch, in the years to come.
Coco Gauff reacted after defeating Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon.
Coco Gauff reacted after defeating Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon.
Maggie Guterl becomes “last man standing” at Big’s Backyard Ultra
One of the world’s toughest races takes place in October in Bell Buckle, Tenn. It’s known as Big’s Backyard Ultra. It’s billed as a “last man standing” competition. Except this year, the “last man” standing was Maggie Guterl. Here’s how the race works: Runners get one hour to complete a 4.166667-mile trail loop. They repeat the loop every hour until there’s one runner left. Men and women race in the same open division. Basically, if you don’t quit, you win. Going into this year’s race, Guterl vowed not to quit. She didn’t. In ultra races, women have proven they can compete with men. Sometimes earning podium or prestigious top-10 spots. Sometimes winning overall. What happens when the “last man standing” isn’t a man? Maybe some new race taglines. Ideally, some more respect for the physical and mental strength of female athletes.
Matildas get equal pay
And now some impressive Australian history: In December 1894, the South Australian Parliament gave women the right to vote and run for office. That meant for the first time in world history there was a place where men and women had equal political rights. Fast forward to November 2019. That’s when the governing body for Australian soccer announced a landmark equal pay deal. The Matildas, a.k.a. the Australian women’s national team, and the Socceroos, a.k.a. the Australian men’s national team, will receive equal shares of total player revenue as part of a four-year agreement. Could Australia be a trendsetter for women’s sports equality in the 2020s as it was for women’s political rights in the 1890s? Other women’s national teams certainly hope so. If nothing else, the Matildas make it harder to accept the arguments of national soccer federations that won’t work toward more equal status for their men’s and women’s teams.
The USWNT and its World Cup legacy
No list about sports in 2019 would be complete without the US women’s national team and its World Cup win in France. The team pushed for equal pay and played through the kind of controversies that often find successful female athletes. From the players celebrating all 13 goals in their opener to Megan Rapinoe taking on President Trump and not backing down to Alex Morgan sipping tea, the world weighed in. And the USWNT kept winning. The team shrugged off the critics and embraced the pressure of impossibly high expectations. In the end, it seemed the whole world watched, if not cheered, the US victory. FIFA research put the average audience for the US-Netherlands final at 82.18 million in-home viewers. For anyone wondering about the impact of the USWNT, consider this: In October, more than three months after the World Cup final, players on the Burlington (Vt.) high school girls’ soccer team celebrated a goal by pulling off their blue uniform tops and revealing white T-shirts that read #EqualPay. The girls got penalized with yellow cards but didn’t let that take away their pride in their protest.
Pro women hockey players form union
The fight for sustainable women’s pro leagues never ends. In May, more than 200 of the world’s best female hockey players formed a union. In a statement, 2018 Olympic gold medalist and Northeastern University graduate Kendall Coyne Schofield spoke on behalf of her peers and said, “It is our responsibility to make sure the next generation of players have more opportunities than we had.” The main goal of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA): create a “single, viable women’s professional league in North America.” Specifically, the union wants an economically viable league. Over the past few years, female pro players have faced massive salary cuts in the National Women’s Hockey League and the sudden shutdown of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Prior to unionizing, the players announced they would not play professional hockey in North America for the 2019-20 season. Will the boycott work? The US team threatened to boycott the 2017 World Championships. With the players united, USA Hockey agreed to more equitable treatment of the women’s team. That’s a positive precedent to build on.
Ionescu jerseys sell out
What can you learn from a replica jersey? If it’s Sabrina Ionescu’s white Oregon jersey, then an important lesson in supply and demand in women’s sports. Or, maybe, it’s demand and supply in this case. On Nov. 5, Ionescu tagged Nike in a tweet and asked why the company wasn’t making Oregon women’s basketball jerseys. “I’m running out of excuses,” she wrote. Some important background: Ionescu is widely considered the best player in women’s college basketball. She stars at guard for the Ducks and racks up triple-doubles on a regular basis. On Nov. 9, Ionescu took to social media again and basically announced that her No. 20 jersey would be out soon. On Nov. 11, the official Oregon Ducks store tweeted that the jerseys were available. A couple of hours later, they were sold out. Now, the lesson: Women’s sports merchandise will sell and sell big. It’s past time for sports apparel companies to realize that and get it together.
Boston Renegades, rower Gevvie Stone, and runner Diane Hoffman win big again
Year in and year out, some athletes make the case for a permanent place on this list. Let’s start with the Renegades. This summer, the team won its second straight professional women’s football title, and its fifth since 2010. At the Head of the Charles, Gevvie Stone won the women’s championship singles for a record 10th time. Also, it was her sixth straight victory in the event. Then, there is Diane Hoffman. The 91-year-old Boston native started running competitively at 90. She set a US record in the 100-meter dash last year. In July, at the USATF New England Open & Masters Championship, she broke the world record in the 400 meters in the 90-94 age group. Her time: 2:44.25. Is it too soon to start expecting more big things in 2020 from the Renegades, Stone, and Hoffman? Don’t think so.Fair Play is a column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments.