by Ashlee Peña
It’s the bottom of the 7th in the championship game, the crowd is roaring, your team is up by one run, there are two outs, and a runner is on second base. Can you picture it? Can you feel yourself in the moment? I can. Crack! The ball is hit to you. What do you do? I have played this scenario over in my head a million times. I lived for these moments. Every athlete I know has imagined what they would do in these situations. They’ve imagined being the hero that gets the last out that makes their team the State Champions, or hit that three-point shot at the buzzer to win the game, or stick a landing to win gold at the Olympics. But ask me today what I remember most about playing softball growing up and I’d recall the times I spent with teammates who were more like family. I’ll reminisce about the team cheer we yelled at the top of our lungs before every game; one that I still know and can recite on cue. I’d tell you about all the moments that happened off the field. Those are the moments that stick with you; the memories that last a lifetime.
I attribute my love of sports to my father and joke that he is a walking sports almanac. As a daddy’s girl, I wanted to be with my father every minute of every day. He was always playing basketball, watching sports, or taking me to Spurs games long before I could walk. Naturally, the desire to play rubbed off on me. I experimented with nearly every sport. Basketball was by far my favorite. Alas, I’m too short to be a power forward so I switched to softball.
When I started playing club softball I could have never guessed how much it would impact my life. I went from playing in a church league once a week to playing or practicing everyday. Softball was my life. I loved every minute of it. I loved the three-hour practices in 100 degree weather…okay, that’s a lie. It was hot and I was exhausted, beat up and bruised, but I wasn’t alone. I was living this life with 12 other girls who knew that every three-hour practice, every bruise or scar was worth it for that moment. That moment when your hard work and dedication came together and those incredible plays you see on TV become routine, almost second nature.
Playing sports as a young girl was not always easy. People are quick to pass judgment, and more often than not my coaches were men that could not relate as well to me. I’ve heard it all: you’re too fat, you’re too short, you’re too tall, you’re too muscular, why are you crying, you’re going to hurt yourself, etc. I was a fighter so for every negative comment I came back stronger; not to prove anything to the naysayers, but to myself. It helped that I was buoyed by my family and teammates. I gained so much more than the ability to catch and throw a ball from playing sports. I gained a second family. I gained confidence, a sense of worth beyond my looks, mental and physical strength, loyalty, dedication, and hard work that transfers over into my daily life and career as an adult.
I have a goddaughter and I hope she one day decides to play sports as well. Not because I want her to be a star athlete – although watching her play in the Olympics would be amazing – but because playing sports helped me as a young girl in ways I would not trade for the world. I hope, for her sake, the narrative around females in sports changes and we talk more about a female’s athletic abilities and less about how she looks in her uniform. I hope when someone says you hit “like a girl” she thinks of softball players like Dot Richardson or Jessica Mendoza, and doesn’t see it as an insult. I hope playing sports empowers her and leaves her with lifelong friendships and memories as it has done for me.
The Olympics start August 5th, and for those sixteen days people around the world will cheer for athletes from their country – athletes who live and breathe their respective sport; athletes who have shed tears of both joy and sorrow throughout their journey. Whether a seasoned veteran like volleyball player Kerri Walsh, or the young gymnast Laurie Hernandez embarking on her first Olympics, let us celebrate the sacrifice and dedication these women have put forth to represent their country as female athletes and the example they provide for the next generation of female athletes.
About the Author: Ashlee Peña is 2016 Graduate Public Service Scholar and an intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She is pursuing a Master’s degree in Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin. Ashlee hopes to combine her knowledge of law and education policy in order to pursue a career advocating for the betterment of equal and adequate educational opportunities for all.