Growing up with U-M's sports heroes
by Shelley Daily
From the January, 2019 issue
Jessie was nine when she spied her at the Pittsfield library. She gave me a nudge. "Mom!" she whispered loudly, "It's Nicole Elmblad!"
Elmblad, then a captain on the U-M women's basketball team, was Jessie's favorite player. She'd met her a couple of times at postgame autograph sessions. When she went up to say hello, Elmblad smiled warmly and said, "I remember you!" Jessie beamed.
If your sports hero takes the time to notice you, it can make your day. If you're an Ann Arbor girl and you grow up around your heroes, it can change your life.
U-M football and men's basketball may pack the stands and get the TV glory, but for girls like Jessie, now thirteen, U-M's female student-athletes are where it's at. As Jessie joined Rec & Ed teams for basketball, field hockey, and volleyball, she found her inspiration just a mile down the road in the student-athletes at Crisler Center, Ocker Field, and Cliff Keen Arena. She taped their team posters to her walls and decorated her room with game pom-poms and player bobbleheads. Along with her souvenirs, she collected something intangible: confidence in what girls can accomplish.
"Even if you don't become a basketball player, it's about being a strong, confident female," says U-M women's basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico. She says her players "fully embrace" their stature as role models when they're out in the community. During games, "when they look up and see these kids-that's special … and these little girls [realize] 'this can be me.'"
Jessie's celebrity sightings continued: There was Elmblad in the car next to us going through the TCF Bank drive-through! Here she was getting subs at Jimmy John's! To Jessie, it seemed like Elmblad was a normal person who did all the normal things we did-except that she did them while also playing Division I basketball and earning a 3.9 GPA. The five-foot-eleven Elmblad-and team members since-have helped Jessie, who's tall for her age,
see that all shapes and sizes are to be celebrated. Jessie wants to be six feet tall.
I tracked down Elmblad, who's now in her second year of medical school at U-M. "Our fan interactions were always genuine," she recalls. "We weren't the most popular people" on campus, she says, compared to the "easily recognizable" male players. Meeting her fans "reminded me of the little girl I was once," she says.
Growing up in St. Ignace with two older brothers, she was "not afraid to play with the boys." She herself was inspired by her local basketball star Krista Clement, who was several years older and also played at U-M.
"Don't be afraid to go for it," Elmblad advises her young fans. "Not everyone will believe in you all the time, and that translates to everything in life. It starts with believing in yourself."
It's important for girls to "have role models who understand the community culture-who can connect and build relationships," says Marjorie Snyder, senior director of research and programs at the Women's Sports Foundation. But girls need even more, she says.
"There's a culture that does not recognize or support girls in sports," Snyder says. "It's so difficult for girls to watch women's sports on TV." At the professional level women don't get paid as much as men, and they don't get the same type of coverage. Snyder says this leaves girls wondering "where does this activity rank in the world? Is this activity being valued?"
The U-M women's basketball team is working to change that. In 2017, they set a new attendance record with a sellout crowd of 12,707 for the game against Michigan State.
Although women's share of college sports participation has grown 29 percent since Title IX's passage, according to the NCAA, "we're not there yet," Snyder says. "The gap is persistent." While women make up 54 percent of the undergraduate population, they're just 45 percent of student-athletes. Coach Barnes Arico says, "We have a responsibility to move Title IX forward-to keep pushing that gas pedal."
U-M field hockey sophomore Maya Gompper started playing on Ann Arbor Rec & Ed teams in third grade and worked the sidelines as a ball girl for U-M field hockey. Gompper committed to U-M's team as a Pioneer High junior and now coaches girls' teams during the summers.
She says she's noticed a shift in thinking: "Girls want to have muscles and to be tough. It's coming around for women to be physically strong. I love to see young girls aspire to this." And Gompper says pushing herself on the field has in turn boosted her confidence off the field. "I used to be really shy in classes," she says-but she's learning that "nothing bad is going to happen from stepping up."
Nancy Fonte, who's followed U-M women's basketball since the mid-1990s-and who's traveled to several NCAA tourneys to cheer them on-shares her passion for the game by occasionally inviting friends, including me and Jessie, to sit in her family's courtside seats. To high-five the players and coaches and to see the players' grit and determination up close inspires the inner girl in me. Fonte wishes she'd had these sports role models growing up and says it's important for her to show her daughter-and especially her four sons-their embodiment of female strength. She says, "It makes me want to be a stronger woman."
In her seventh season, Barnes Arico is the winningest coach in the history of the U-M women's program. In 2017, the team hung the WNIT championship banner at Crisler, and in 2018 they made it to the second round of the NCAA tourney. With scoring phenom Katelynn Flaherty now graduated, the team still has powerhouse seniors Hallie Thome and Nicole Munger-and a roster that includes five highly ranked freshmen recruits. The early season shows promise (8-3) as the team faces the start of tough Big Ten play at the end of December.
We will be cheering them on from the second row. Win or lose, these women are champions in our eyes.
[Originally published in January, 2019.]
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