The Canes laced up their bright pink sneakers and tucked in their black-and-pink jerseys. The crowd buzzed.
The Miami women’s basketball team was just minutes away from facing rival Florida State, but this particular Sunday afternoon was more than just a game.
UM was taking part in its fourth Celebration of Women’s Athletics event, honoring student-athletes from each of Miami’s nine women’s programs and alumnae who helped pave the way for their success.
And during the celebratory luncheon before the game, Miami athletics announced the launching of the Building Women Champions campaign, “an initiative that will enhance scholarship support, leadership development and career coaching for Hurricane female student-athletes.”
Through the program, the Women’s Athletics Leadership Council will solicit donations, provide mentors for and grant scholarships to student-athletes.
For many in attendance Feb. 11 at the Watsco Center, the initiative represented immense progress – not only at the university but in the world as well.
“We may be one of the first in the country to make that kind of commitment,” former University of Miami President Donna Shalala said. “So the celebration today, and the announcement of the new campaign, is important not only for young women but also for young men … It’s important for all of us that there are women leaders in this country.”
The University of Miami has a historic legacy of supporting women in athletics. In 1973, UM offered the first ever Division I women’s athletic scholarship in the country to a tennis player.
Miami has come a long way, but the journey isn’t over yet.
“Today was really a celebration of their accomplishments – what they’ve done and where they’re going,” Director of Athletics Blake James said. “We want to have them earn their degree, play the sport they love and have that opportunity to go on and do whatever it is they want to do in life.”
Men’s sporting events typically have higher attendance than women’s, despite the same level of competition.
Hilarie Bass, the newly appointed president of the American Bar Association and vice chair of the UM Board of Trustees, said the event wasn’t just about celebrating athletics but also about promoting the incredible athletes at UM.
“It is just a real great opportunity to get the community behind women’s athletics because a lot of times people don’t realize how many great women athletes we have,” Bass said. “Anybody who comes to an event like this is in awe of these women because they realize their schedules are just as tough as the men’s basketball players or the men’s baseball players.”
The Building Women Champions campaign aims to prepare student-athletes for life beyond UM and provide skills for continued success in the future.
More than 94 percent of female executives have played sports, and half of them played at the college level, according to an email from Shalala and Bass.
“You get enormous discipline and focus from sports, and those are two important characteristics for leaders,” Shalala said.
UM women’s basketball coach Katie Meier has used her platform to support the growth of Miami’s players.
Deputy Director of Athletics Jennifer Strawley said Meier is more than just a basketball coach, she is also a passionate leader who shows that sports can be used as a mechanism to educate.
“Athletics, and the opportunities we provide through athletics, teaches the lessons and skills for women to go on and be successful,” Strawley said. “Empowerment, resilience – all these wonderful traits just help build leaders.”
And for Shalala, her goals for Miami don’t stop there.
“We have only one step for women’s athletics: we want to win national championships,” she said. “We are not interested in just being competitive. Our future is unlimited.”