The Just Women’s Sports podcast has featured plenty of stars since its July 2020 debut, with host Kelley O’Hara of the USWNT talking to some of the world’s biggest athletes about the secrets behind their success.
Season four of the Just Women’s Sports podcast launches this week, making now a good time to catch up on the highlights from the first 32 episodes. While every episode has its share of behind-the-scenes moments and unexpected revelations, below is a guide to some of the most compelling moments on the Just Women’s Sports podcast so far:
Nneka Ogwumike stopped by the Just Women’s Sports podcast back in December 2020, giving listeners a behind-the-scenes look into how the WNBA bubble came to fruition. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t easy.
As the WNBA Players Association President, Ogwumike was a part of every conversation. Only months after signing a historic CBA, Ogwumike had to help re-configure a season on the fly.
“It was a hot mess,” she tells O’Hara, “and I mean that in the most respectful way.”
As the country was still adapting to its new normal amidst Covid, “No one knew what they were doing,” Ogwumike remembers. The WNBA star says trying to forecast the trajectory of the pandemic while also planning for a safe season was one of the most challenging things she has ever been a part of.
“Professionally speaking, that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Ogwumike concedes. “We were able to piece it together however we could.”
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The players had two objectives going into the bubble: the first was to be compensated fairly, and the second was to harness their platform for social advocacy work in the wake of both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders.
“Going in, a non-negotiable for us was amplifying our voices,” Ogwumike says. “We knew we wanted to dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor.”
Ogwumike said conversations with Michelle Obama, Tamika Palmer, Stacey Abrams and Rev. Warnock allowed the players to focus on their mission while still playing basketball. The season ended up being one of the most successful of the quarantine era among all sports, with the WNBA being heralded for its display of unity and purpose.
“Us being able to do all that on the fly while playing games was remarkable, and I am really proud of everybody.”
Motherhood in sport is starting to be more widely discussed, acknowledged, and understood, thanks in large part to the likes of Allyson Felix.
Felix made waves in 2018 when she took her fight for maternity coverage with then sponsor, Nike, public. The move shifted how motherhood and pregnancy are adapted and accounted for in sports.
The track star stopped by the JWS podcast in October 2020 to talk about her preeclampsia diagnosis and giving birth to daughter Camryn one month early via emergency C-section.
“I knew statistics about Black women giving birth and having far greater complications,” said Felix, “I just never saw myself in that position.”
“My mind wasn’t prepared for everything that I went through”
Her daughter, Camryn was in the NICU for the first month of her life; Felix remembers being by her side 24/7 during that period. According to Felix, getting back on the track left her mind, and all that mattered was her daughter’s survival.
During her pregnancy, Felix was also re-negotiating her contract with Nike. Her then-sponsor was proposing a significant, 70% pay cut. But what ultimately inspired Felix to speak out was Nike’s refusal to provide her with maternity coverage. If she couldn’t have it written into her contract as one of the world’s most decorated track athletes, who could?
“The piece that I wasn’t willing to budge on was around maternal protection in contracts,” said Felix. “It wasn’t enough for them just for them to put it in for me — this needed to happen for everyone.”
Felix eventually left Nike for the company’s failure to include protections for mothers and moved to Athleta, where she says she now has a seat at the table. Supporting her role as a mother, advocate and athlete, Felix calls her partnership with Athleta an “authentic fit.”
Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson captured national attention during the 2008 Summer Olympics as two of the most promising gymnasts the U.S. had seen in years. Both teens were at the top of their game, but there could only be one all-around champion. Liukin came out on top, capturing individual gold in the sport’s most coveted event, spurring a media storm that pitted the two teammates against each other.
“We went 1, 2 and that was the first the U.S. had ever done that,” Liukin explained to O’Hara. To make matters worse, after capturing gold and silver, Liukin and Johnson still had to compete against each other in individual events and were bunking together in the Olympic village.
“We were fine being roommates — we were actually really good friends just that happened to have the same exact goal.” That all changed after Liukin took all-around gold in Beijing.
“We tried really hard — I would say we tried our best, we supported each other through the rest of the competition.”
However, after the athletes came back to America, the media circus that followed whipped up a rivalry between the two gymnasts that included sponsors, fan speculation, and management woes.
“It felt like the world just started pitting us against each other in every single aspect — it was 10 times worse than leading up to the Olympics.”
The two didn’t speak for eight years after the Games, with the stalemate finally ending in serendipitous fashion. Liukin remembers being in New York speaking with a New York Times reporter when he asked if she would be invited to Johnson’s upcoming wedding to Andrew East. Liukin stalled. Then, in a strange twist of fate, Liukin got a message on her phone as the interviewer briefly left the room — it was from Johnson. The two set a time to reunite, and the rest is history.
“I still remember this moment so clearly,” said Liukin, “she walked in and we both started crying.”
Liukin ended up attending Johnson’s wedding and is now a godmother to her former teammate’s child.
Mallory Pugh’s December 2020 episode of the JWS podcast is particularly timely as the star striker formally re-enters the USWNT conversation for the team’s fall friendlies. After being left off the Tokyo Olympic roster, the 23-year-old was invited to join the U.S. camp for the squad’s international series against Paraguay.
Pugh’s meteoric rise to soccer stardom was cemented at the 2016 Olympics, when she became the youngest player in U.S. history to score at the Olympics at 18 years old. Since then, the phenom has struggled to live up to the child prodigy label bestowed on her in her early career.
The most significant hurdle came in 2020, when Pugh was left off Vlatko Andonovski’s Olympic qualifying lineup, the first time the striker had ever been excluded from a USWNT roster.
“It was pretty rough, but I am a strong, strong believer of everything happens for a reason,” Pugh told O’Hara of the ordeal. Pugh went on to say that she felt she needed the setback, calling it “the thing that’s going to light a fire.”
“I just had this deep sense like I knew I was going to be okay,” she said, adding, “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh this is the end.’ In fact, I was like, ‘No. This is the beginning.’”
Pugh’s positive outlook seems to have paid off, entering back into the USWNT fold for the Midwest fall series and ahead of the 2023 World Cup cycle.
Check out these episodes and more on the Just Women’s Sports podcast, and be sure to subscribe today!