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Gwen Svekis Says Athletes Unlimited Has Given Softball a Future

Softball catcher Gwen Svekis / JWS
Softball catcher Gwen Svekis / JWS

Gwen Svekis is a professional softball catcher who recently competed in the inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited softball. A graduate of the University of Oregon, Svekis led the Ducks to three College World Series appearances and was named the NFCA Catcher of the Year. Below, she spoke with Just Women’s Sports about her first season with Athletes Unlimited and what it means for the future of softball. 

Looking back at your first season with AU, what are your overall thoughts on how it went?

We thought it was going to be super dramatic and high stress. What we found was we created a culture off the field within the 56 athletes that fostered the exact opposite. It was no drama. It was a super empowering environment off the field, which I think made it extremely enjoyable on the field with the rotating teams. It was pretty easy to gel immediately because it really, really felt like one gigantic 56 person team rather than just a bunch of random groups of people thrown together. That was a huge takeaway. I think the other thing is just, it’s so exciting to see the future of our sport. Now there’s a group of us that talk almost every day. And it’s hard for us to watch baseball or college softball games or travel ball games without thinking through the Athletes Unlimited point system, which is really cool. We were watching a baseball game after the season ended, and we were like, “Oh my God, that was a 70 point hit.” It’s been really cool just to sort of feel like we truly did revolutionize our sport and we’re just so excited for the future and what it has to hold.

What surprised you about the scoring system?

I was surprised at how well it went for our first year. I was expecting a few more hiccups, a few more outliers within the ranks. I think what we found is it truly did work itself out. Is it perfect? No, I think we definitely will make some tweaks to it at some point, but I think overall for the first year, it was surprising how successful it was. I know on social media, there’s a lot of chit-chat about things that need to be changed. But I think from within our system, we don’t feel like it needs to be that much different.

Did you find yourself thinking about the point system as you were playing or was it an afterthought? 

For me, it was mostly an afterthought and that was for a few reasons. I didn’t want to think about it during the season. I went into the season thinking I can’t get caught thinking about the point system or I will plummet. It’s the same way in normal softball. If you get caught thinking about your stats, you’re not going to do well. So I tried not to think about it. I would check at the beginning of every week and be like, “Wow, I dropped X amount of spots this week. I need to really get it together.” In that way, I thought about it, but I would not be mid-game and be like, “Oh my God, I need 10 points here to jump X, Y, and Z.”

You placed in the top 5 leaderboard at the end of it all. What did that mean to end up there? 

I thought it was super rewarding, especially because I had won a lot of games being on Cat Osterman’s teams the whole time. But it was nice to feel like at the end I did well enough to get myself where I was rather than just being Cat’s catcher the whole time. It was nice to have a breakout final week and to feel like I earned that spot for my defensive play.

You mentioned Cat — she obviously proved she is still the GOAT despite her age. And you and her obviously had amazing chemistry. Throughout the six weeks, she picked you first in the draft a number of times. Can you speak to what it was like to play with her and why you think you worked so well together?

For starters, the eight year old in me was just so ecstatic about it. I think it was just so cool because I was tasked with trying to get Cat in the league at first. I called her giving her the first sales pitch. And when she signed up, I was like, “Okay, I want to play with someone as elite as she is.” I wanted to pick her brain, and so when we got together the first week, I was like, “Hey, I want to catch your bullpen.” I think that set the tone for our relationship.

Then straight out of the gates, we were super successful together. Some of that’s just Cat being Cat, but I also think she was immediately comfortable with me behind the plate. And then after that, we quickly got to the point where I probably didn’t even have to call pitches, and we still would have thrown a successful game together, which is every battery’s dream.

AU has already announced a 2021 season. Will you return next year?

If I get offered another contract, yes, I will be playing next year. It’s cool. I’m on the player executive committee. We recruited all the players for this year and we’re starting the recruitment for next year. It’s really cool being in the conversations and re-going through it. Now there’s obviously a lot of hype backing us. Before, we were trying to convince people to take the leap of faith without really knowing what we were doing. And now there’s a lot of hype and there’s a lot of excitement.

It’s awesome that college players now have something to look forward to.

That’s been something that’s been really exciting for us because, like I said at the beginning,  it’s just so exciting to know there’s a future for our sport. The NPF [National Pro Fastpitch], we’ve survived 17 years, but I use the word “survived.” We haven’t thrived. It’s just players that aren’t ready to hang it up or that love the game and want to pay it forward to the next generation. Now, I truly feel like there’s another opportunity on the horizon that could really, really be a professional environment for these young players.

I talked to a college team yesterday and I’m looking around at the freshmen thinking, “God, I hope what we’re doing right now makes it so that you guys can play professionally one day and actually truly make it an option to play rather than playing just because you don’t know what’s next.”

I heard that you are continuing to work with AU on the business side as a player coordinator during the February volleyball season. What will that look like?

I’ve been involved with Athletes Unlimited since last October. That’s when I signed on as a player, became a part of the player executive committee, and then I was consulting for them for the whole year. Right when I finished my master’s degree, I reached out and said, “Hey, listen. This is what I want to do. I want to dive into this full-time.” I went through an interview process and got hired on as the manager of player care and coordination across all sports under Athletes Unlimited. I’ve been building the volleyball league, and am now involved in our lacrosse league, handling player relations.

What are your other softball plans for the rest of the year until next season?

I work remotely, so I’m moving to Colorado with my former college roommate. I’m excited to have that quality of life, be in that environment, be able to go hiking and be outdoors. And then I’ll just be training, and then I will be in Nashville for the volleyball season. I’ll go move for that, be there for the duration of that, and then just start training again. Hopefully there’s an NPF season to supplement Athletes Unlimited. I haven’t really thought very long and hard about that and what that looks like for me, but I’ll definitely be training because I definitely plan to play in Athletes Unlimited next year.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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