From baseball to sumo wrestling, meet some of the women challenging the sport status quo

From baseball to sumo wrestling, meet some of the women challenging the sport status quo

These are banner times for women in sports. The last few weeks has seen a troop of female athletes making extraordinary strides particularly in historically male-dominated areas of sport. Here at Women’s Agenda, we’ve been charting some key victories occurring internationally, and have listed just a few below:

Alyssa Nakken, BASEBALL

Former softball star at Sacramento State, Alyssa Nakken, will become the first female full-time assistant coach in Major League Baseball history as a member of the San Francisco Giants coaching staff. As an assistant to head coach Gabe Kapler, Nakken, will “work to promote high performance along with a close-knit team atmosphere,” according to The Guardian.

The 29-year old has a master’s degree in sport management from the University of San Francisco and was previously a softball standout at first base for Sacramento State. When she graduated in 2012, she was in the top 10 for the most home runs and runs scored ever in the team’s history.

Six years ago, she joined the San Francisco Giants’ as an intern in team operations, managing the players’ health and wellness programs. In her new role, which she will share with Mark Hallberg, head coach Kapler hopes Nakken will “focus on fostering a clubhouse culture that promote high performance through a deep sense of collaboration and team.”

CBS interviewed Nakken’s mother, Gaye Nakken, who said her daughter always had hopes of paving the path for others. “She really wanted to be an advocate for women and young girls… that if you really work hard, you can do this.”

Kate Sowers, NFL

Staying in San Francisco, the offensive assistant coach of the NFL San Francisco 49ers, Katie Sowers, will be the first female and the first openly LGBTQI assistant coach in a Super Bowl game, when her team take on the Kansas City Chiefs on February 2nd.

Sowers is the second woman to be in a full-time coaching position in the NFL, proceeding Kathryn Smith, who was hired by the Buffalo Bills in 2016. Sowers has been in the role of assistant coach since 2017, and previously worked as a coach for the Atlanta Falcons training camp. She has also played for the Kansas City Titans in the Women’s Football Alliance and was a member of the USA Women’s National Football Team in 2013.

In August 2017, she spoke to Outsports magazine about coming out openly about her sexual orientation. “No matter what you do in life, one of the most important things is to be true to who you are,” she said. “There are so many people who identify as LGBT in the NFL, as in any business, that do not feel comfortable being public about their sexual orientation.”

Sabrina Ionescu, BASKETBALL

Turning to college athletes now, Sabrina Ionescu, a point guard at Oregon University, is transforming women’s college basketball. She scored 29 points in her game over the weekend against Mississippi State, continuing to garner national and international acclaim.

The 22-year old currently holds the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s record 22 triple-doubles in her college career. (A triple double is where a player accumulates a double-digit number total in three of the five categories; points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots, in a single game.)

Last week, Lonescu scored a career-high of 37 points, making her the state’s all-time best scorer, and the first woman in the past 20 seasons to tally 30 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists against a top-five opponent.

She has been named the “Hottest Player in College Basketball” by the Wall Street Journal ,  and she is boosting attendance, selling jerseys and drawing praise from last year’s richest basketball LeBron James.

Her coach Kelly Graves, calls Ionescu ‘magical’. Tara VanDerveer, the coach of Stanford’s Cardinal women’s team said of Lonescu, “She’s very physical, she’s very skilled. She’s kind of the golfer who can hit the long drive, has the midrange game and can putt. She has it all.”

Lonescu, the only daughter of immigrants from Romania, told The Washington Post in 2019, “When I was younger, I was always playing with the guys, and I had to find ways to get the ball, because they never wanted to pass to me. I figured that if I could rebound, I would be able to get the ball myself. Passing-wise, when I was in sixth grade playing with the eighth-grade team, I was obviously a lot shorter, skinnier, smaller than they were. I would just have to find ways to impact the game other than shooting or scoring, and that was passing.”

Good thing she’s 5’11.

Eniola Aluko, FOOTBALL

Moving continents now; the women’s football team Aston Villa Women, have this week appointed their first sporting director Eniola Aluko. The 32-year old former England forward will oversee the club’s women’s team.

“I’ve always been passionate about the women’s game,” Aluko said in a statement. “I’m passionate about its development and setting cultures that drive excellence.”

“I’ll be helping to create a successful club in Aston Villa Women, and obviously I’m back home in Birmingham where it all started for me. I’m excited for this next step.”

Aluko played for the U.K Women’s Team at the 2012 Olympic Games, and has carved a career where she has become “an inspiration and inspiring role model to young girls and women in Birmingham and will help Aston Villa to be an exemplar of women’s and girl’s football in the region,” according to Christian Purslow, Aston Villa’s chief executive.

Jamie Chadwick, F1 RACING

Staying in the U.K, the young trailblazer Jamie Chadwick joins the ranks of the extremely few women in Formula 1 Racing in her dreams to become the first woman to win a Formula One Grand Prix. The last time this was done by a woman was in 1980, when South African Desiré Wilson won in the British Aurora F1 championship. No need to state that the world of motorsports is extremely and ruthlessly male-saturated.

Since the age of 11, Chadwick has raced go-kart competitively. At 17, she won the British GT Championships, making her the youngest ever winner, and the first woman ever to do so. She was also the first woman to win a British F3 race in 2018 and a year later won the MRF Challenge series in Chennai, the first time a woman has won. 

Last August, she won the inaugural W Series, an all-female championship which featured twenty drivers contesting six races across various locations in Europe. It was an event Chadwick was keen about, as it was created in response to the lack of female drivers progressing to the highest levels of motorsport.

Chadwick races for Williams, who took her under as a development driver in early 2019 and will train her towards a pathway to Formula 1 success. The young sportsperson is conscious and resilient about the inevitable sexism she faces as one of only a few women in her sport.

“There are people who think, OK, you’re good for a girl,” she told The Guardian, “but you might not necessarily make it to the top. I see it as motivation. I genuinely believe that it is possible and, if not me, there is a female out there who is definitely capable.”

Chisaki Okumura, SUMO WRESTLING

Finally, in Japan, a growing crowd of female sumo wrestlers are breaking the surface mould of the world of  Professional sumo wrestling. Historically, the country has been “reluctant to embrace female competitors”, reflecting the nation’s disparity with gender equity.

A change of perception is being called for to develop the sport and expand it globally reach. “Professional sumo is steeped in ancient Shinto rituals”, Rick Maese observes in The Washington Post, and “intricately woven into Japanese culture.” Historically, women are not allowed in the ring; a space considered  sacred. It was only 22 years ago when Japan hosted its first national competition for women.

One of the country’s most acclaimed female wrestlers, Chisaki Okumura, said in an interview with The Guardian,“Sumo is for everyone. I definitely benefit from being able to train with the men, and I don’t get the impression that they’re looking down on me and the other women. If I were allowed to compete against them in a proper bout, I think I could hold my own.”

Currently, across the world there are roughly 20,000 female sumo wrestlers. 3,000 of them are in Japan. Many of the top female competitors are from Russia or Eastern Europe.

Kumiko Nemoto, a professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies told Maese that inspiration is being drawn from countries like the U.S.

“Everybody’s kind of encouraged to participate in some kind of sports and be active [in the U.S],” she said. “In Japan, it’s not, which is very sad. There’s so much emphasis on appearance and everything, but not really internal strength or independence or physical strength.”

Former sumo wrestling champion Ken Nakatani believes women must be included in the sport. “Just like any other sports or any other thing, if more people start to do it, then that can change the perceptions. That’s what’s happening here. “If you see people play sumo, there’s less sense of embarrassment and more sense of, ‘I can do it.’ I believe unless women participate, things don’t change.”

Last year, Netflix released a documentary following the journey of 22-year old Hiyori Kon, a sumo-wrestler who is an outspoken advocate for women’s participation in the sport. She was also on the BBC’s list of 100 most inspiring and influential women in 2019.


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