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Stanford-bound Irene Riggs races into cross-country record books

Irene Riggs will compete for Stanford next fall after a storybook end to her high school cross country career. (Photo by Robert Williams)

Irene Riggs may have been born into a family of swimmers, but from a young age, she loved to run. She didn’t have a walking speed, her father Vic says.

Sometimes, it was to her detriment. “I would often fall,” Irene admits.

One of those tumbles Vic vividly remembers occurred at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. An enthusiastic Irene stumbled when trying to race to a platform a couple of inches off the ground and chipped her two front teeth.

But each time Irene fell, she got back up, showcasing a grit and determination that years later have propelled her to national prominence.

Back then, running was an activity for Irene, a way to expel energy. Irene’s parents were elite swimming coaches and her oldest sister, Abigail, was a star in the pool, later competing for Vic at West Virginia University. When Irene’s future coach, Mike Ryan, first met Irene in the fourth grade, cross-country star was not something he envisioned for her.

But Irene soon found outlets to channel that desire, most notably through the organization Girls on the Run. Middle-school races followed, and by the time she finished her freshman year, Irene’s desire to constantly be in motion had developed into a passion for distance racing.

Today, Irene is the best in the country. The Morgantown High (West Virginia) senior and Stanford commit clocked the second-fastest 5K time in girls’ cross country history two weeks ago and followed it up this past weekend with a first-place finish at Nike Cross Nationals.

Just like she did as a youngster, getting back up after each fall, Irene overcame setbacks along the way, including a freak foot injury that kept her sidelined for weeks this fall.

“Her competitive drive is what separates her compared to other talented runners that I’ve coached,” Ryan says. “She’s always had that drive to not shy away from running against the best and racing against the best.”

‘The intangible I can’t coach’

It’s a roughly seven-hour drive from Cary, N.C. to Morgantown, W.V., and in November 2019, Irene cried the entire ride home. A high school freshman at the time, Irene had just missed out on qualifying for the Cross Country Nationals. She would instead stay home while her teammates Lea Hatcher and Athena Young, both now with Division I programs, traveled to Oregon for the national meet.

“I would be OK and then I would think about it again,” Irene says. “I would start crying again.”

Irene had a stellar freshman season, running a sub-18-minute 5K at the regional meet in North Carolina. She wanted more, though. Going into her sophomore year, the sting of missing out on nationals kept Irene motivated. Even when the coronavirus pandemic took away opportunities for Irene to compete in national meets, she dedicated herself to getting better.

“That’s the intangible I can’t coach, that personal self-desire,” Ryan said. “She wanted to do more, she wanted to go faster, she wanted to go longer.”
Irene swam competitively through middle school, and she credits that experience with building up her endurance. By the time the high school swimming season rolled around her ninth-grade year, she needed a break.

Her time as a competitive swimmer was done.

‘All of this is kind of surreal’

Vic Riggs is an expert in the pool. He swam at Cal-Berkeley and has coached various club and college swimming teams, including guiding the men’s and women’s swimming programs at West Virginia since 2007. When it comes to cross country, though, he’s a relative novice.

But Vic could see his daughter’s emerging potential as her times began to drop. It all clicked for him last year at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships in San Diego when Irene nabbed 14th place, good enough for an All-American nod.

“I realized her competitiveness was going to take her to the next level,” Vic said.

Through her running, Irene has carved out a niche for herself. There are several talented swimmers in the family, including her twin, Caroline, who will swim at Yale next year. Irene enjoys excelling in a different sport.

“We do so much together, and it’s nice to have this little thing,” Irene said.

Vic has also relished the chance to simply be a dad, not a coach, and learn along the way.

“It was really cool to watch that development over the four years,” Vic said. “Every once and a while I would ask, ‘Are you having fun?’ She would always say yes. That was always our main thing.

“All of this is kind of surreal and unexpected. We never really expected this level of running.”

The journey, though, hasn’t been without bumps in the road.

Turning a setback into power

For someone who relishes motion, inactivity gnawed at Irene. When her foot got run over by a car this September, Irene’s daily route changed. While no bones were broken, the foot was badly bruised. She was in a boot for about a month and reduced to cross-training in the pool to maintain her aerobic fitness.

“I did have to take some down time, my foot had gone through such trauma,” Irene said. “When it’s in the middle of your season, you just feel like each day you are losing fitness.”

When Irene’s foot healed, she then had to regain the rhythm of her stride. Through it all, her goals of competing for national titles didn’t change.

“The focus was always on the end of the season championship race,” Ryan said.

Irene first broke a state championship course record by more than 45 seconds, clocking a 16:32, well under her goal of sub-17 minutes. With Irene leading the way, Morgantown captured a fourth consecutive state title.

A month of training followed, leading up to the Nike Southeast Regionals in late November. While Irene tries not to fixate on running certain times heading into races, she had hopes of clocking a time in the 16:20 range. Even she wasn’t prepared for the number she saw as she approached the finish line.

Not only did she break Katelyn Tuohy’s course record of 16:22.8, but she also clocked the second-fastest 5K time in girls’ cross-country history, finishing in 16:02.01.

“Literally a year ago, I ran that exact same course,” Irene says. “If anything, it was muddier this year and I ran 17:17 last year. I dropped one minute and 15 seconds this year. That was a little shocking.”

Four years earlier, Irene sobbed in the car ride home from regionals, distraught over missing out on nationals.

“I put that mental picture of her running up the hill her freshman year versus what I saw her senior year,” Vic says. “She was moving.”

But Irene wasn’t finished. A switch had flipped in her head before the season, when she told herself she could win a national championship. That’s exactly what she did on the first Saturday of December with a time of 16:40.9, nearly 14 seconds ahead of the next closest runner.

“To come back and accomplish my initial goal, it was really special for me,” Irene says.

Next up is the track season — she focuses on the 1,600 and 3,200-meters — and then Stanford. It will be hard for Irene to be so far away from Caroline and the rest of her family, but she’s found a second home with the Cardinal.

“They said you’ll always be sad to leave, even though you’re excited to see your family,” Irene says. “You just love it so much.”

Irene is ready for that next chapter, to see what she can accomplish in cross country and track and field. There will be new goals and setbacks, but there will be one constant: running.

As a young child, Irene ran everywhere. Years later, she’s still on the move.

“I think that shows,” Vic says, “her true love for what she does.”

Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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