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Kelley O’Hara embraces role as torchbearer for the next generation

(Lewis Gettier/USA TODAY Sports)

Kelley O’Hara had a big decision to make when a stranger called her up in 2019 and asked her to be an athlete ambassador for an unknown sports media startup.

The person on the other end of the phone was Haley Rosen, founder and CEO of Just Women’s Sports, on a mission to give women’s sports more media coverage. As O’Hara picked Rosen’s brain about her goals and vision for the company, an idea for a podcast was floated — one that would give athletes an opportunity to share their stories in their own words.

“Oh, I love podcasts,” O’Hara told her at the time, merely making conversation. “I’ve always thought it would be fun to host one.”

“Do you want to host this one?” Rosen asked.

A few minutes turned into an hour-long conversation, and by the end, O’Hara figured she’d give it a go, despite wondering if she’d even be good at it. Never mind that she had no way of knowing where this venture would end up.

It was the fact that women’s sports received only 4 percent of sports media coverage that convinced O’Hara she had to take the opportunity.

“I like to say I’m an optimistic realist, but also am pretty, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work, but it’s something I want to be a part of because it sounds like something that is going to address a problem that I see and that affects me and a lot of other people,’” said O’Hara. “Therefore, I want to be part of it … You can’t be waiting around, looking for someone else to do it.”

Taking initiative during moments of unpredictability has also defined O’Hara’s career as a soccer player. In her first year with the Washington Spirit last season, the veteran defender built a reputation as a locker-room motivator and on-field leader, helping the young team overcome tremendous adversity to win the NWSL championship. Instilling a “never-say-die” mentality in the Spirit, O’Hara was critical to the team’s 12-game winning streak and come-from-behind victory in the title game, scoring the winning goal off of a header in extra time.

Nowadays, to hear O’Hara talk about her approach to her teams and her podcast feels like one in the same.

“There’s no point complaining. It’s just wasted energy,” O’Hara said. “For me it was like, I want to be part of the solution. I think this is an issue. I think this is something that if addressed and done properly, can take women’s sports to the next level.”

Learning from the best

O’Hara learned to embrace challenges head-on during her early days with the U.S. women’s national team. As a rookie in 2010, she looked up to the older players and the sacrifices they made on and off the field to push women’s soccer forward.

Through her podcast, rebranded this year as The Players’ Pod, O’Hara has had the chance to interview athletes at the top of their games and at the forefront of effecting change inside and outside of their sports.

Within hers, O’Hara has been a leading advocate in the U.S. women’s national team’s fight for equal pay. Nearly two decades after USWNT players sat out of a 1996 Olympic camp in protest of their bonus money, O’Hara was a part of the USWNT Players Association’s bargaining committee that reached a historic settlement in February with U.S. Soccer, which committed to equal pay rates for the men’s and women’s teams across tournaments.

The USWNT’s performances on the field — including four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals — have been just as impactful in growing women’s soccer in the U.S. O’Hara cited Brandi Chastain’s game-winning penalty kick in the final of the 1999 World Cup, followed by her ripping her jersey off in celebration, as influencing her own journey.

“One of the most iconic pictures in sports history, in my opinion. A picture that elicits so many emotions in me,” O’Hara said. “Now, having gone through the career that I have and talking with her, I’m like, she’s just incredible. I definitely looked up to her when I was a kid, for sure.”

A key contributor to two of the USWNT’s World Cup championships, an Olympic gold medal in 2012 and a bronze last year, O’Hara cares deeply about upholding the program’s winning mentality and ultra-competitive culture.

Passing the torch

The USWNT roster looks very different now than it did just last summer at the Tokyo Olympics. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has ushered in a new wave of talented, young players, who are vying for roster spots on next year’s World Cup roster and leaving many to wonder what that means for veterans such as Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Christen Press.

O’Hara was the only player on the USWNT’s April roster with more than 100 caps, giving her the responsibility of passing on the values she learned from her older teammates when she was a rookie.

“I’ve always looked at it as this sacred team,” O’Hara said. “I have a responsibility that I didn’t used to have to create the culture, contribute to the culture to make sure the team stays here, and not just stay here, but keep taking steps forward.”

Since moving to the Spirit in a trade from the Utah Royals in December 2020, and teaming up with USWNT newcomers Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, O’Hara has regular opportunities to impart those principles.

O'Hara and the 19-year-old Rodman have formed a close friendship. (Robert Mora/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Spirit head coach Kris Ward says they joke all the time that O’Hara and fellow defender Emily Sonnett latched onto Rodman and Sanchez at the end of the 2021 season, helping them prepare for call-ups to the national team. Rodman and Sanchez were both invited to the November camp in Australia, which took place the same week they won the NWSL championship, and they have been named to every USWNT roster since then.

O’Hara, 33, is aware her career will wind down eventually, and she has begun to encourage some of the younger veterans to step into more vocal roles. Mallory Pugh, 24, and Rose Lavelle, 26, are two players Andonovski cited as emerging leaders during the most recent USWNT camp.

“It is not hard to see how much Kelley influences this team and how much of an example she is for this team and a leader,” Andonovski said in April.

“I think there are a handful of players who are waking up now, who realize that they are veterans, who might not have thought about it before but they are now,” O’Hara said. “I think it’s very exciting. I’ve told those players, ‘Guys, this is now your responsibility. You’ve got to take ownership of where this team goes.’”

Primed for success

The Spirit learned a lot about what they were capable of last season, finding success even as external factors — Richie Burke’s firing, a public ownership dispute, an investigation into workplace culture and multiple forfeits due to COVID-19 — continued to emerge and threaten their progress.

Now in a more secure environment, with Ward as head coach and Michele Kang as the new majority owner, O’Hara feels she can more easily channel her energy into winning games. It helps that on the field the Spirit are “really friggin’ good,” as O’Hara describes them.

As Washington transitions from the Challenge Cup final into the regular season and tries to make a run at a repeat NWSL championship, O’Hara has allowed herself more freedom in the attack, pushing into the opponent’s box from her position on the backline more frequently.

“She’s feeling that, and that’s emanating throughout the entire team to make them really feel like they’re building into something special,” Ward said.

(Ruth Annan/@annanproductions/Just Women's Sports)

Meanwhile, The Players’ Pod, now in its fifth season, continues to grow and reach new listeners. Always looking for ways to use the platform to push women’s sports forward, O’Hara has tapped into a vision she had from the first season: interviewing people like general managers, investors and coaches, who offer a wider range of perspectives and experiences within women’s sports.

O’Hara’s responsibilities as a host, teammate and leader are keeping her busy, and fueling her drive even more.

“Honestly, I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at in terms of my professional career and the team I get to play for,” she said.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

PWHL Draft Spurs Controversy for League Champs Minnesota

pwhl draft first pick Sarah Fillier
PWHL New York kicked off the 2024 PWHL Draft by selecting Princeton's Sarah Fillier No. 1 overall. (PWHL)

The 2024 PWHL Draft took place on Tuesday, with Princeton and Canadian national team forward Sarah Fillier going first overall to PWHL New York. 

New York also added two defenders and a goaltender, as well as three forwards to make seven solid additions to next season's roster. 

But it was first-ever PWHL champions Minnesota that created the most buzz, with the draft happening just three days after they announced the abrupt departure of general manager Natalie Darwitz following a league review. 

With the 10th overall pick, PWHL Minnesota took Team USA forward Britta Curl. Fans immediately took to the internet to voice their concerns, citing Curl's social media activity. In the past, Curl had "liked" posts on X that targeted the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly transgender individuals. Her activity also showed support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Wisconsin man who fatally shot three unarmed people, two fatally, during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest.

When asked about the pick — and whether or not he had consulted with any members of the LGBTQIA+ community prior to making the pick — PWHL Minnesota coach Ken Klee opted to defend Curl.

"Did I speak to anyone from the community? I talk with players, with coaches. That’s tough to answer for me," Klee said. "I spoke with a lot of different people. I mean, at the end of the day, I was told she’s a great teammate, a great person. She’s obviously a great player."

The team also had PWHL Minnesota assistant coach Mira Jalosuo, who is married to a woman, announce the pick.

"We have people in that community and obviously Mira making that selection for us, I think that speaks volumes for us," Klee added. "We were just trying to pick the best players available. I wouldn’t want anything to take away from any of those players' experience. It’s unfortunate a little bit at the beginning, but again, it’s okay. People are entitled to their opinion."

Washington Mystics Snap 12-Game Losing Streak

Brittney Sykes #20 of the Washington Mystics shoots the ball during the game against the Atlanta Dream during the 2024 WNBA Commissioner's Cup game on June 11, 2024
Washington guard Brittney Sykes returned from injury Tuesday night to post a game-high 18 points. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Washington Mystics snapped a team-record 12-game losing streak on Tuesday, taking home their first win of the season over the Atlanta Dream. 

Brittney Sykes returned from injury and made an immediate impact with game-high 18 points, four assists, and three rebounds. As a team, Washington shot over 50% from behind the arc.

"The feel is it's been coming," coach Eric Thibault said after the game. "I said the other night that we're turning into a good basketball team and we just haven't had the wins to show for it yet. We've been playing better basketball now for a while.

"We're obviously shooting well, but I think the quality of the shots we're getting is really good."

Still, the team’s slow start isn't exactly in the rearview mirror. With star forward Elena Delle Donne sitting this season out, the Mystics were always predicted to face an uphill climb in what has been described as a rebuilding year. 

But with a franchise-worst 0-12 record to kick off the 2024 season, the Mystics are likely on track for a lottery pick. However, Washington can point to positive performances from star draft pick Aaliyah Edwards and league newcomer Julie Vanloo.

Elsewhere in the WNBA, the Las Vegas Aces continued their skid with a surprising 100-86 upset courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx. The reigning WNBA champions were shorthanded this week, falling to 5-5 on the season despite MVP-level play from A'ja Wilson, who scored 28 points in Tuesday's loss.

Minnesota shot over 55% as a team, with Alanna Smith leading the team with 18 points. The game marked the Aces' first three-game losing streak since 2019.

"This is a long, long, long season," Wilson said in her postgame remarks. "I'm not going to press the panic button. I'm still going to bet on us. I know exactly what's in that locker room."

Aces stalwart Chelsea Gray has been out with injury since last year's WNBA Finals run. And while she told reporters on Tuesday that she's set to return before the Olympic break, the team can’t get her back soon enough as they continue to struggle with depth. 

"I don't want them thinking too much; then you get paralysis [by] analysis," coach Becky Hammon said. "We're just not being solid in our base. Just be solid defensively. We're not a very good team right now, that's just reality. But we know we can get better. I still have a lot of belief in this ball club."

How being pregnant made me a better CEO

I am pregnant. I am actually very pregnant — 39 weeks as we speak. I’m also the founder and CEO of an early stage company, and for the first time in my life, I’m wondering if I bit off more than I can chew.

For the last four years, I have poured my whole self into Just Women’s Sports. It’s been a wild, unpredictable ride, one that’s been both incredibly fulfilling and incredibly hard.

When I started JWS, no one wanted to bet on women’s sports, media, or a 26 year old with only one year of actual work experience under her belt. People didn’t think women’s sports could work as sports, and even stakeholders in the space talked about these leagues like they were charities — something nice to have, but not anything that would ever make real money. And that was from the people who “believed” in women’s sports — you don’t want to know what the doubters had to say.

In the early days, it was all heart and hustle. There was no playbook. We had a vision, but that was about it — no real money, connections, or media experience. To keep the lights on and get JWS off the ground, all I did was work. I ran from fundraising meetings to posting on social, to listening to and editing our first podcast with Kelley O’Hara. I designed graphics. I sold to brands. I worked all the time. 

At one point, I even hospitalized myself from working too much. But even that wasn’t enough to tell me to chill out — I closed our first big deal sitting in a hospital bed, with a virtual background so they couldn’t tell where I was. For better and for worse, I was willing to sacrifice myself in order to win.

Slowly but surely, we started stacking wins and building some real momentum. But even as we grew and found our footing, I still had the same existential paranoia and grind-it-out mentality that had been there from the beginning. Every win, every new milestone, felt like a reason to push even harder.

But getting pregnant changed that.

I’m fortunate to say this has been a healthy pregnancy, but even then… it’s been tough. I’ve been nauseous the whole time. I can’t sleep. I never knew my back and hips could feel this bad. And in these final stages of my pregnancy, I’ve been more emotional than I’ve ever felt in my life — which is just not ideal when the bulk of your job is to stay level-headed, decisive, and be able to make un-emotional decisions.

For the first time in my professional career, I physically cannot just grind it out and push through. Being pregnant has forced me to do something not even a week in the hospital could do: recalibrate my work habits and take time off. 

The idea of stepping away for maternity leave is anxiety-inducing. I’ve poured my entire self into getting JWS to this point, women’s sports are taking off like never before, and now I’m supposed to just detach from it for an extended period of time? What will that mean for the company? Will I be able to balance being a CEO and a mom when I come back? Can we keep the momentum we worked so hard to achieve?

I have so many people asking me: are you ready? And I can say with unequivocal confidence: no, I am absolutely not. My only expectation is that I’m about to get smacked in the face with a brand new version of my life any day now. 

But this pregnancy and impending leave have had an unexpected side effect — being forced to take it “easy” and think about not being here has actually improved my leadership.

I’ve had to learn how to get out of the weeds. I’ve had to empower other leaders at the company and build systems where they can step up and take ownership. I’ve also gotten better at saying no and being ruthless about what matters.

Ultimately, I’ve had to learn how to let go a little bit and trust the people around me to a greater degree than I’ve ever felt comfortable doing.

And so far, the wheels haven’t fallen off. In fact, it’s been the opposite — people have stepped up in big ways across the board, traveling for me when I can’t go to events, driving initiatives that I usually would have been leading, and taking things off my plate to help ease the transition. We’re actually growing faster than we ever have before, and the team has collectively taken on a whole new level of ownership.

I’m definitely not the first pregnant CEO, but the fact is, there just aren’t many places where women can lead and grow a family. There isn’t a tried and true blueprint for how to balance being both a mother and a founder. And I won’t lie — that scares me. There’s no way to know what this future will look like. But to be able to build a company and culture where that is possible is, I think, really special.

As we all step into this next chapter, my overwhelming feeling is gratitude. For my family and for a healthy pregnancy, but also for everyone I get to work with everyday building this company and changing women’s sports. For my leadership team, who were the first people I told about my pregnancy after my immediate family. For the whole JWS team that has been unbelievably empathetic, thoughtful, and simply human during this time. And for our investors, advisors, and partners, who never made me feel like I was neglecting the company by starting my family.

We’re all nervous, to some degree. Inevitably, something will happen while I’m away that will be intense. There will be decisions that I would have made differently. Something will slip through the cracks.

But I’m also hopeful — this pregnancy forced us to empower the team to steer the ship and make decisions autonomously, and we’re already seeing the payoff.

There wasn’t a playbook when we started and there isn’t one now. But as has been the story of JWS since day one: we believe in our vision, and we’re taking the leap.

USA Women’s Basketball Releases Olympic Roster, Explains Clark’s Omission

USA Women's Basketball's Diana Taurasi #12, Brittney Griner #15 and Sabrina Ionescu #6 at April's National Team Training Camp
All the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

USA Women's Basketball announced its official Olympic roster on Tuesday, with officials noting that Caitlin Clark’s lack of national team experience played a key role in her omission.

Selection committee chair Jen Rizzotti said that the committee evaluated players according to a set of on-court criteria they were given.

"When you base your decision on criteria, there were other players that were harder to cut because they checked a lot more boxes," she told reporters on Tuesday. "Then sometimes it comes down to position, style of play for [coach Cheryl Reeve] and then sometimes a vote."

Three first-time Olympians made the squad: Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu, and Kahleah Copper. Additionally, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum will make the switch to the national 5-on-5 team after winning gold in the inaugural 3×3 competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Age, Rizzotti said, was "never brought up" in player selection discussions. It’s the first time in Olympic history that a USA Women’s Basketball 5-on-5 team will travel to the Games without a single player under 26 years old.

Rizzotti commented that all the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience, something that Clark does not have.

"She's certainly going to continue to get better and better," USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley added. "Really hope that she's a big part of our future going forward."

Rizzotti said it would have been "irresponsible" to base roster decisions on anything outside of a basketball context. Marketing and popularity were not on the selection committee’s list of criteria. 

"It would be irresponsible for us to talk about her in a way other than how she would impact the play of the team," Rizzotti said. "Because it wasn't the purview of our committee to decide how many people would watch or how many people would root for the US. It was our purview to create the best team we could for Cheryl."

Clark expressed that she'll be using what some consider a snub as fuel for a run at the 2028 Olympic team. 

"I think it just gives you something to work for," Clark told media after practice Sunday. "It's a dream. Hopefully one day I can be there. I think it's just a little more motivation. You remember that. Hopefully when four years comes back around, I can be there."

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" on Expert Adjacent

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