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For Women Athletes, The Road To Rio And Beyond Starts With Representation

When Coach Summitt passed away this year, I thought about how she was more than an elite female coach -- she was a role model whose influence went far beyond my development on the court.
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I still know the layout of Thackeray's Bookstore in my childhood home of Toledo, Ohio. The sports section was a little less than halfway back on the right-hand side. I always checked to see if new sports heroes were waiting to inspire me. In the early 90s, it was rare to find stories of sports heroines -- except perhaps the occasional breakout Olympian.

That didn't stop my tenacious search. When I wasn't at practice, I was reading about male sports icons. In the back seat of the van on road trips to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, or at the top of the shag carpet stairs at Grandma's house, I was scrunched up, devouring books about John Wooden, Dean Smith and Michael Jordan.

What I know now is that I was scouring Thackeray's for more than just books. I was looking for representation. I wanted to connect with people who looked like me, who had lived as women in the male-dominated sports world and triumphed. Finally, in 1998, I found her.

On the 2nd shelf from the bottom, I discovered Pat Summitt. Before I knew anything about leadership, I knew I liked basketball and the Lady Vols.

Coach Summitt's Reach for the Summit is a neatly designed text with chapter titles she calls the "definite dozen" for success. I consider them the "definite dozen" for leadership.

1. Respect yourself and others
2. Take full responsibility
3. Develop and demonstrate loyalty
4. Learn to be a great communicator
5. Discipline yourself so no one else has to
6. Make hard work your passion
7. Don't just work hard, work smart
8. Put the team before yourself
9. Make winning an attitude
10. Be a competitor
11. Change is a must
12. Handle success like you handle failure.

These leadership principles are pertinent to more than just basketball. They speak to life.

For instance, No. 4. Learn How to be a Good Communicator. It means being vulnerable, putting yourself out there and sharing your own thoughts as well as listening to others, especially those with a different perspective. Coach Summitt intentionally surrounded herself with individuals whose ideas conflicted with hers. Communication isn't a one-way street and it certainly isn't only relevant to sports.

And No. 12. Handle Success Like You Handle Failure. It's not always about winning or losing, but about moving forward thoughtfully and intentionally. You have to handle both the "wins" and the "losses" with grace.

When Coach Summitt passed away this year, I thought about how she was more than an elite female coach -- she was a role model whose influence went far beyond my development on the court. Her book planted the seeds of female leadership that took root when I got to Simmons College where I co-captained the softball and basketball teams and found a community that nurtured my growth as an athlete, student and leader.

Watching the Summer Olympics in Rio is like showing up at your local bookstore in search of your next inspiring read. We know we'll see favorites like the U.S. Women's Soccer Team returning to fight for gold, and we know we'll meet new heroines like Simone Biles whose stories and talents inspire and amaze. But seeing women's athletics in the spotlight only at the Olympics isn't enough. We need diverse and consistent representation.

Inclusion of women in sports, media, politics and in leadership roles throughout society needs to be so common that it's taken for granted. Seeing people who look like you is the first step. Building community with those people is next, and having equal access to resources makes those communities sustainable. They don't call it home field advantage for nothing! Simmons College -- where I currently direct the Doctor of Physical Therapy program -- knows this. It is giving its female student athletes a place to call home at the new Daly Field, opening this September. At Daly Field, they will build relationships and encounter struggles that will change their lives. Someday they will look back and realize, "I learned these skills as an athlete."

In Coach Summitt's definite dozen, she calls for good sportsmanship and for athletes to be good human beings. I'm a fan of the baker's dozen, so in a humble homage to history's best coach, I'd like to add one more to her list: No. 13. Represent.

Leadership in sports informs who we are as adults. It's our duty to use the skills we've gained to model leadership behavior to the girls and young women in our lives.

Would I be the woman I am today if I hadn't found Pat Summitt on that shelf at Thackeray's? How many young women will demand equal pay, empowered by the U.S. Women's soccer team? Whose story of sacrifice to shine at Rio will resonate with a new generation of girls this summer? And how many more could we inspire if we gave equal airtime to women's athletics?

Reflect on the opportunities you've had, the people who have opened (and shut) doors for you, and the people who endure life with us along the way. Then pay it forward to our young girls just starting to find their way.

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