It’s been less than a year since 15-year-old Lexi Polinder lost her best friend to suicide. She still thinks of Sophie Wieland often, especially when she goes through a box of her favorite things, but Polinder knew she wanted to do even more to honor her friend — and work to possibly prevent similar tragedies.

“When I lost my best friend to suicide this summer, after that I didn’t really know what to do,” Polinder said. But soon she found herself advocating for suicide prevention and mental health awareness, volunteering with a new charity started by Sophie’s hockey coach, called Sophie’s Squad, which raises awareness around the importance of mental health issues with young athletes.

The St. Paul, Minn., teen said she was drawn to advocacy, and began working with the I’m Glad You Stayed Project, an Iowa-based nonprofit focused on teen mental health education. She also started a club focused on those issues at her high school.

“I’m really open with my story and how I’ve had really high levels of anxiety my whole life,” Polinder said. “I think that’s one of the key things: It’s OK, it’s normal. … [Mental health] is stigmatized, but it’s something that doesn’t need to be.”

In her free time, Polinder started making beaded bracelets that in Morse Code depict a semicolon, which has become a symbol of suicide prevention and mental health support. She said she’s raised more than $1,000 for Sophie’s Squad by selling the $2 bracelets, and plans to keep doing so until demand runs out.

The bracelets serve as a reminder to keep going or keep pursuing, that this isn’t the end.

“Kind of like how an author uses it in a sentence,” Polinder said. “And then it’s in Morse Code, so only you know what it means.”

For her important work, which comes at a time when teens are facing unprecedented mental health challenges and multiple suicide cases have shaken the women’s college sports world this year, Polinder was honored this month as the 2022 SheBelieves Hero, a U.S. Soccer award given to a teen who is a leader in their community and working to make a positive difference in the world.

“​​Polinder is a strong advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention,” U.S. Soccer wrote in a statement. “SheBelieves is a movement created to inspire and encourage girls and women of all ages to accomplish their goals and dreams, athletic or otherwise.”

As a lifelong soccer player and fan of the U.S. women’s national team, Polinder said she was thrilled — and shocked — to be named this year’s SheBelieves Hero, a prize that includes travel and two tickets for a VIP experience at a USWNT game this summer.

“I grew up watching the women’s national team … I’ve always dreamed of getting to win this award from a young age,” Polinder said. “It’s crazy. I did not expect to get the email back saying you made it!”

Polinder, a lifelong fan of the USWNT, hopes to meet fellow goalkeeper Jane Campbell. (Courtesy of Lexi Polinder)

Polinder, who plays goalkeeper on a club soccer team, said she’s hoping she might get to meet one of her favorite players, goalie Jane Campbell, on the VIP trip. She’d also love to reconnect with defender Abby Dahlkemper, a player she said she met years ago in her home state and whose autograph she has kept.

Though concussions will prevent Polinder from pursuing soccer in college, she said she’s happy she can still enjoy the sport — which she used to play with Sophie — and continue to help other athletes remember to focus on their physical and mental health.

“The biggest thing is don’t burn yourself out,” Polinder said. “Make some time for yourself and understand it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to have a bad day. Not everything’s going to end all at once.”

Polinder said she plans to expand her advocacy and hopes to pursue a career in the mental health field.

“It’s very important to shine a light on some of these issues,” Polinder said. “My favorite saying is HOPE: hold on, pain ends. It’s a really easy one to keep in your head. You give yourself the night, so you’re not in immediate crisis anymore. … When you’re out of complete crisis (mode), you can go get help.”

The SheBelieves Hero Selection Committee is comprised of former Women’s World Cup and Olympic players Stephanie Cox, Leslie Osborne and Siri Mullinix, who narrowed down the SheBelieves applications to this year’s five finalists, including Polinder. The public was then asked to vote on the finalists, which helped determine the winner.

Grace Toohey is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously reported for the Orlando Sentinel and The Advocate (Baton Rouge), and has written pieces for The Marshall Project and other news outlets. Follow her on Twitter @Grace_2e.

While Ayanna Patterson has not yet successfully dunked in a sanctioned basketball game, the high school senior has proved she has the talent. A few jaw-dropping videos from warm-ups and personal workouts have captured her slams, drawing thousands of views on Twitter.

The 6-foot-3 Homestead (Fort Wayne, Ind.) forward is quick to laugh off her one in-game dunk attempt — spoiler: she missed — but she’s still grappling with her quick rise to internet stardom after one of those dunking videos went viral on social media. Fewer than 30 dunks have been recorded in WNBA history, and it’s even rarer at the women’s college and high school levels.

“​​I got a lot of following for that — with following, there’s a lot of positive and negative,” Patterson said in a recent interview with Just Women Sports.

The aftermath has been a balancing act. It’s been fun, Patterson said, to hear praise from younger girls and basketball players — one even asked Patterson to be the special guest at her ninth birthday party — but there have also been comments and messages from social media trolls, picking apart her play and her appearance.

“I am able to be like, ‘OK, this is a hate comment, just brush it off,’” Patterson said. “Whatever you’re looking at, you just have to know yourself at the end of the day.”

But with her reach expected to grow as she joins UConn this fall, the 5-star recruit and No. 4-ranked player in the Class of 2022 knows the unsolicited judgment and ugly comments could only intensify.

“As a dad, obviously, you don’t like it; it hurts. People can say mean things,” her father, Andre Patterson said, noting that people have left negative social media comments about her hair, her height and her strength. “She lifts weights and she likes doing that. What’s wrong with that? She’s just in shape, she’s passionate about her sport and she wants to be the best at it.”

A role model

Patterson, a McDonald’s All-American, said she has never been big into social media, but more recently she’s made sure not to check her accounts every day nor direct messages from people she doesn’t know.

“I get the, ‘Oh, she’s not even a girl,’ ‘This isn’t even fair,’” she said. “You always have the freedom to say what you want to say, but sometimes words hurt.

“I always knew that I was going to play basketball. I have the hair — it’s not straight down like every other girl — I’m tall, I’m 6-3. … You always have to remain confident.”

She said she’s grown to love her height and her natural curls, wearing her hair in a mini Afro or puff ball since middle school, but she also knows that there’s still pressure for a lot of girls to straighten their hair or conform to more Eurocentric beauty standards.

“Growing up, I straightened my hair all the time and I honestly hated it just because of how active I was. It was just hard to maintain,” Patterson said. “But being able to keep true to myself and true to my culture by not straightening my hair and keeping my natural curls, and also show girls you don’t have to have straight hair every game. It’s OK to wear your natural curls and embrace them.”

She said since she started rocking her natural hair, a few younger players in Fort Wayne and in her AAU program have followed suit. But she also knows that women’s basketball and most elite sports still have a long way to go, noting that light-skinned players or girls with certain hair styles, usually straight, have secured a disproportionate number of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals.

“Hopefully it changes very fast … and they base it on your playing ability,” Patterson said.

Andre Patterson knows his daughter understands the downfalls of women’s sports, especially at such a high level, but he is proud of how she’s handled the pressure.

“I like the fact she’s comfortable with her Afro and she’s comfortable with herself in her skin,” he said. “They stereotype these young ladies so much, the game is really suffering. But it’s not just her. It’s many girls of color, or many girls. You can be a woman and be a great athlete. Part of what’s wrong with the game is the sexism. I try to explain to ’Yanna, don’t fall into that [thinking].”

Ayanna and her brother Andre Patterson Jr. (Courtesy of Andre Patterson Sr.)

‘A great person’

Despite the negative comments, Patterson turned herself into one of the nation’s most coveted prospects, earning a scholarship offer from legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

“Coming from Indiana, choosing Connecticut felt similar to home,” Patterson said. “You go to an Indiana men’s game and it’s packed stands. It’s the same thing when you go to Connecticut [women’s games]. I felt like I wanted to have that same atmosphere, that same fan base that the men got, and UConn is that equivalent.”

Patterson has lofty goals for her time with the Huskies, including winning four national championships, becoming national player of the year and of course, dunking in a game. But she also admits she’s a bit nervous about keeping up with school work during the season (she hopes to study graphic design), and being away from her family.

Her dad is hardly worried.

“I’ve never had to get on ’Yanna,” Andre Patterson said. “I’ve never had to ask about homework. She’s always been committed and dedicated, more so about school than anything.”

While she’s been a standout player for years — receiving her first Division 1 scholarship offer in eighth grade — her dad has said he’s probably most proud of her admittance into the national honor society, which requires a qualifying GPA as well as community service and demonstrated leadership.

Patterson also wants to be recognized as more than a star basketball player. This summer, she is hoping to plan a 3v3 tournament in Fort Wayne to benefit a local Autism organization, a cause that’s close to her heart because one of her nephews has Autism. In moments like these, when she is working to better her community, the trolls on social media couldn’t be further from her mind.

“I never want to be remembered as just this great basketball player,” Patterson said. “I want to be remembered throughout my community as a great person, great individual. A person who was always willing to give back, always gave 100 percent to what I’m doing, whether it’s basketball, or not.”

Grace Toohey is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She previously reported for the Orlando Sentinel and The Advocate (Baton Rouge), and has written pieces for The Marshall Project and other news outlets. Follow her on Twitter @Grace_2e.