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Hughes blog: For WSF, it's all about giving back

Women's Sports Foundation hosts annual gala, honors pioneering women

Women's Sports Foundation attendees, from left to right: Annika Sorenstam, Bonnie St. Jean, Lianna Thomas and Sarah Hughes.
Women's Sports Foundation attendees, from left to right: Annika Sorenstam, Bonnie St. Jean, Lianna Thomas and Sarah Hughes. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(10/22/2012) - On Oct. 17, the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF) -- a nonprofit that is aimed at advancing the lives of women through sports and physical activity -- hosted the 33rd Annual Salute to Women in Sports at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City.

One of the highlights of the gala every year for me is getting the chance to spend time with my fellow female athletes and supporters of the organization. The evening before the gala, the Foundation hosted an Athlete Welcome Dinner to give the athletes a more casual, relaxed setting to hang out and chat. It is hard to put the feeling of being in the presence of women who have made such gigantic strides for women in sports, and in life, into words. It is really extraordinary.

Before we moved over to the mini-golf tournament -- which Jessica Long, 12-time Paralympic champion in swimming, won in a dramatic hole-in-one playoff -- we each went around the room introducing ourselves, our sport and one thing we were proud of doing in our lives. Janet Guthrie (the first woman to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500), Kayla Harrison (2012 Olympic champion in judo, and the first American to ever win Olympic gold in judo) and Paralympian Aimee Mullins were just three of the superstar athletes in attendance.

When Olympic swimming champion and current legal advocate for the Women's Sports Foundation, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, was passed the microphone, she said she was most proud of never losing a case for the Women's Sports Foundation. The room cheered.

The energy and camaraderie among the women -- and yes, men too -- was contagious. The good vibes and ability to make tangible differences in programs that enhance underserved communities -- and lives -- across the country has made my involvement with the Foundation this year extremely rewarding.

I have shared many of those events with everyone here at icenetwork.com:

From supporting and advocating for the National Girls & Women's Day in Washington, D.C. in February; hosting the opening ceremony for a Special Olympics event in March; speaking at the SHARP (Sport, Health, Activity, Research, Policy) Conference at the University of Michigan in May; hosting a mentoring session at the White House to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Title IX in June; and throwing out the first pitch at a New York Yankees Game with Olympic softball champion Christie Rampone to celebrate "Daughters Day" with the Women's Sports Foundation this past August, the WSF has made a difference in the lives of many.

(For Daughters Day at Yankee Stadium, I donated an "experience" item: the chance to come to the Ice Theatre of New York show on Monday, Oct. 22 and have a backstage experience with Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill and Tenley Albright, U.S. champion Ryan Bradley, fashion designer Nicole Miller and other guest stars. I will be co-hosting Monday evening's show with Michael Buckley.)

You can imagine my surprise when I was presented with the "Yolanda L. Jackson Give Back Award" at the Athlete Welcome Dinner. Yolanda L. Jackson is the Senior Director of Athlete Marketing and Promotions for the Women's Sports Foundation. She has been with the WSF since 1989, and always right alongside me as I travel around the country with the Foundation. The award was accompanied by a $1,000 check to donate to a girls' sports program of my choice. It was a no-brainer to give it to GoGirlGo!.

GoGirlGo! is the educational program the WSF launched in 2001 to support programs and organizations that work with elementary, middle and high school girls. My younger sister, 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes, and I have both participated in GoGirlGo! events in the past.

The Annual Salute the following night was highlighted by a stylish red carpet (gold medal accessories galore added additional bling), a "Grand March" of athletes and the presentation of awards to celebrate the past year in sports.

Hosted by sportscaster Mary Carillo and soccer star Julie Foudy, 75 of the nation's most accomplished female athletes walked, danced and twirled across the stage as they were individually introduced.

The individuals honored included:

• Kayla Harrison, Wilma Rudolph Courage Award: Academy Award winner Holly Hunter presented the award to Kayla, recognizing her determination and courage to overcome many obstacles to win the first Olympic gold in judo for any American, male or female.

• Senator Birch Bayh, Billie Jean King Contribution Award: Presented by Billie Jean King, King commended Senator Bayh, who championed Title IX and helped pass the groundbreaking legislation, which legally gives girls equal access to federal funding in the classroom and on the athletic field, 40 years ago. Tennis champion Chris Evert joined Billie Jean at the podium to commend Billie Jean for her dedication to ensuring equality for all people in all walks of life.

• Alex Morgan (soccer), Sportswoman of the Year, Team Sport: Presented by Olympic champions Benita Fitzgerald Mosley and Donna DeVarona.

• Gabby Douglas (gymnastics), Sportswoman of the Year, Individual Sport: Presented by Olympic champion Nastia Liukin (2008 Sportswoman of the Year) and celebrity trainer Jeanette Jenkins

• Lianna Thomas, ANNIKA Inspiration Award: Presented by golfing great Annika Sorenstam.

This was a wonderful surprise. The ANNIKA Foundation, in collaboration with the WSF, gives this award to an exceptional young female athlete who excels in her sport and gives back to the community. This year's winner was 17-year-old figure skater Thomas. Adopted in China as an infant by an American family, she founded Ice Pandas in 2009 to introduce skating and a sense of community to girls adopted from China. Lianna takes on a mentor role with the girls in her program by skating with them, spending time with them at the rink and lending an open ear to listen to their problems and issues -- all with the goal of improving their self-esteem and confidence. Lianna, a Skating Club of New York member, has recently relocated from New York to California to train with Jenni Meno and Todd Sands. She will compete at the 2013 U.S. Championships in the novice pairs division.

The evening was a success in more ways than one. Over $1.2 million was raised for the Foundation.

I cannot end this blog without sending a big congratulations to ice dancer Maia Shibutani for being designated as one of the WSF's 2012 Travel & Training grant recipients. Congrats Maia!

You can visit the WSF at www.womenssportsfoundation.org. You can follow Sarah and all her travels on Twitter and Facebook.