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Over 50 A-list athletes (from Adeline to Winter) made their way onto the red-carpet Oct. 16, 2019, to show their support for the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Of the multiple fundraisers I attend each year, the Women’s Sports Foundation Annual Salute is among my favorite.  In 2010, I attended my first WSF dinner and remember being blown away by the electricity in the air. It followed the inaugural espnW Summit, and seeing female athletes celebrated like rock stars at these back-to-back events was so empowering.

For WSF’s big night, honorees swap their kits and cleats for cocktail dresses and heels. Looking like Hollywood’s top stars, these women get to enjoy the spotlight and showcase their individuality. And since these badasses log extra hours at the gym, there’s no need for Spanx; they have bitchin bodies and naturally know how to rock a red-carpet look.

Things have shifted in the decade since my first WSF Salute, and its left coast predecessor The Billie Awards (where I sat less than ten feet from Billie’s BFF Elton John as he crooned from his piano in the intimate Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom as the event headliner).  While women’s sports are still in their infancy (relatively speaking) they have been elevated significantly over the past few years via increased support across the board. At long last, there are legitimate opportunities for women to pursue professional athletic careers as evidenced by the corporate sponsorship present at the gala.

This is all due, in no small part, to Women’s Sports Foundation Founder, Billie Jean King. BJK has moved the needle for so many female athletes, and their gratitude on this night (and throughout the year) is profound. She and her team understand that the youth are our future, which is why they work so hard to make an impact on underserved girls in some of the most challenged neighborhoods around the country. People with a seat at the table – physically and metaphorically – can change the trajectory of someone’s life and King is the person who has opened that door for countless girls and women. 

The notion of gala-ready has changed over the years, and attendees last week rocked a wide assortment of attire. Many paired bold-colored floor-length dresses with strappy heels, accessorizing with a range of glittering bracelets and drop earrings. Some got their Megan vibe on by eschewing a gown for a black sequined blouse, tuxedo jacket, and silk shorts, (she looked killer btw) while others wore formal pantsuits or form-fitting maternity wear to proudly show off their baby bumps. I didn’t see any flamingo-shaped fascinators, but they wouldn’t have been at all out of place if an athlete decided to don one.

Despite the downpour outside, the event started on a decidedly celebratory note. This gala recognizes the successes of the WSF and helps attendees better understand the organization’s unique impact.  While guests enjoyed a cocktail reception, the media had a chance to interview athletes walking the red carpet. These amazing ambassadors included Paralympians, moms, moms-to-be, LGBTQ advocates, gold medalists, and team owners. They came with medals around their necks, babies on their laps, service dogs by their sides, and no shortage of passion for their sport.

What’s immediately evident is the bond shared by these women, and how the older athletes help mentor the younger ones. Whether this was the first time on a red carpet or the fifty-first, the hosts helped prepare the honorees for the limelight. We learned from the athletes that the day started early with a stretch/yoga class that helped get the kinks out for those who had traveled a distance to NYC. After lunch and rehearsal, a squad of hair and make-up pros helped style the athletes and get them red-carpet ready. It really does take a team.

It’s fitting that the event took place at Cipriani Wall Street, which stands as a triumph of Greek revival architecture. This New York landmark served as the home of the New York Merchants Exchange, the New York Stock Exchange, the United States Customs House, and the headquarters of the National City Bank. Framed by monolithic columns, the ballroom features a 70-foot ceiling with a Wedgwood dome. Wine and conversation flowed freely as the seated dinner began with a tri-color beet salad followed by pin-wheeled short ribs, and a decadent orange mousse in a chocolate shell.  I would have liked to see more millennials in attendance, but I’m sure there are other opportunities to bring them into the fold.

The sit-down portion of the evening kicked off with the signature Grand March of Athletes featuring all the honorees. ESPN commentator and two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, Julie Foudy, and NBC Sports analyst and World Rugby Hall of Famer, Phaidra Knight, playfully co-presented the parade, which paid tribute to the achievements of more than 50 World Champions.

NBC Sports’ Olympic correspondent Mary Carillo then took over to MC the evening’s awards with FIFA 2019 Player of the Year Megan Rapinoe and middleweight boxing champion Claressa Shields being honored as Sportswomen of the Year in the team and individual categories.

One of the many highlights of the evening was seeing Rapinoe, the women’s national soccer team’s co-captain, surrounded by a group of girls from a local soccer club. Rapinoe thanked her WNT teammates and lauded the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award winner Marta Vieira da Silva, calling her “the greatest f*cking player of all time” and an “absolute hero in our sport.”

Six-time FIFA Player of the Year, Marta, who has the most World Cup goals ever, male or female, is also a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for women and girls in sport and a UN Sustainable Goal Development Advocate. Sheila C. Johnson was awarded the Billie Jean King Leadership Award. As Vice Chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, she is the only African-American woman with principal shareholder stakes in three professional sports teams: the Washington Wizards, Capitals, and Mystics. Finally, the Champion for Equality Award went to John Burke, President of Trek Bicycle, who works hard to meet female cyclists’ unique needs.

Building strong, meaningful relationships starts with shared experiences and the Women’s Sports Foundation brings these to the forefront each year. The room was a virtual who’s who of women sports with over 800 guests including those who work behind-the-scenes in media, marketing, and entertainment. One of my favorite features of the WSF dinner is having a guest athlete seated at each table. Surfer Mary Osborne graced ours, and we quickly bonded over our California roots and mutual friends. Providing attendees with the unique opportunity to mingle with athletes is a nice, personal touch.

This year, WSF also unveiled its new branding, reflecting the organization’s legacy of affecting change and their continued dedication to championing access, equality and equity in girls’ and women’s sports. The Foundation’s research has shown time and again that playing sports has tremendous life-long benefits including physical health and wellness, mastery of skills and capability leading to confidence and self-assuredness, as well as learning the value of dedication, teamwork, and goal-setting which are strong hallmarks of leadership.

More than simply a philanthropic celebration, the WSF Annual Salute is an opportunity to honor yet another groundbreaking year for female athletes and the girls they inspire. These incredible women epitomize the Pretty Tough ethos we have espoused for years and it’s great to support them in all their endeavors. Kudos on another amazing celebration for this foundation and their wonderful honorees.

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