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Sisters by Ball

As often as the early history of basketball appears in trivia games and PE class quizzes, the special place that basketball holds in the history of women’s athletics is still unknown to many. Thanks to Senda Berenson, the women’s game was introduced at Smith College within months of the sport’s founding in 1891 and quickly caught on at women’s schools across the US.

The early years of basketball corresponded with an era of increased activism for women’s rights. Scholars have observed that, “Battles for women’s sports have gone hand in hand with those for women’s rights. Both athletes and activists have worked to highlight women’s physical and mental abilities, to win women greater roles in public life and to push views of womanhood beyond fixed definitions of distinctly ‘feminine’ appearance and behavior.

Abby Palko, Women’s Center Director

Here at UVA, we were lucky enough to spend our 2018 National Girls and Women in Sports Day with a storied team of women and hear directly from them about how basketball formed their sense of solidarity with women across geographies and generations. We gathered at JPJ Arena to honor the University’s 1992-93 Women’s Basketball Team - and to watch the current women’s team beat Tech (Wahoo wa)!

It was truly moving to experience the joy that these women felt at being together on Grounds 25 years after the season in which they were 26-6 overall and 13-3 in the ACC leading up to a TRIPLE overtime 106-103 ACC tournament victory over Maryland. These alumnae, and their legendary, beloved coach, Debby Ryan, shared observations on the bond they built, how it helped them excel as a basketball team, and how it has stayed with them through more than two decades since in their lives as teachers and coaches, mothers and daughters.

Photo credit: Matt Riley

Jeffra Gausepohl Leo (CLAS 1997) sees what the members gained from their time on this team, and the responsibility they have to pass that gift along, this way:

“In its simplicity, basketball is also an amazingly powerful game. It turns strangers from all over the country and all walks of life into sisters. An outsider would look at our team and see some small town country girls, a couple of free spirits from California, city girls, farm girls, kids from the wrong side of the tracks, and girls born with silver spoons in their mouths. Maybe they would even see black girls and white girls.

But we don’t see that, we see teammates. Teammates that have been together at 6am practices where we can barely keep our eyes open, let alone run a drill correctly. Teammates that suffered together when we were running on that darn blue track over there and hating every minute. Teammates that were there for the joyous celebrations of cutting down championship nets. Teammates that were there for the crushing blows of NCAA tournament losses. And through it all, we were together. We never left each other’s sides, and we never have – 25 years later. We are more than just friends, more than just teammates, we are sisters.  Sisters not by blood (although we do have 2 of those), but sisters by ball. 

Photo credit: Matt Riley

And in that bond of sisterhood there is true power and strength. It is our responsibility to pass that power along to the next generation. To lead by example and show that as a unified front of strong women, we have power. Together we can help make the world the way it should be – and not just accept it for the way that it is. It just takes time and a little bit of effort to make the world a better place, moment by small moment.

Reaching out to the next generation was probably one of my favorite things about playing at UVA. Building relationships with the girls who came to watch us play. I loved that I could make a kid’s day by smiling at them and saying hello. A high five in the grocery store took me 2 seconds, but could make a kid’s day. Just a moment of kindness. One young lady asked me to come to her birthday party. I happened to have time that weekend, so I went. She and I are still friends and she still talks about that special day. It only took a few hours to make a memory of a lifetime and a lifelong friend.”

At the Women’s Center, celebrating the trailblazing women of the University is important to us. The award we present for National Girls and Women in Sports Day each year is an expression of our gratitude. We thank all of our National Girls and Women in Sports Award winners for putting the world on notice of what can be achieved by a tenacious woman in pursuit of her dream. These resolute women inspire each of us to persist in our own vocations.

But this year’s National Girls and Women in Sports Award gives us an opportunity to see something more. These Champions for Life showed us a collective fortitude that inspires us to look beyond the ordinary challenges we all face in trying to be our best selves. As we honor them, let’s consider the teams of which we are all a part in our own endeavors. What would it take for our own teams to excel as they did? What bonds would we forge to do that? How would we each grow in working with such sheer commitment to a shared goal? And having done that, who might we be ready to encourage to do the same?

The Women’s Center has many steadfast partnerships that make us more effective in our work. Each year as we come together to celebrate the University’s most remarkable female athletes, we are pleased to count the Athletics Department among the Women’s Center’s collaborators. Hearing from the University’s athletes about how fully they embrace their status as role models reminds us all of how long even our smallest efforts live on in the lives of the young women to whom we extend a hand.


Additional photos from UVA’s 2018 National Girls and Women in Sports Day celebration are here.


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