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How Naomi Osaka, Megan Rapinoe and Sabrina Ionescu inspire the next generation

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka (TPN/Getty Images)

Women’s athletes are often considered trailblazers for a reason, redefining their teams, leagues, games and cultures as they shift the boundaries of sport.

For every wunderkind, there is an athlete who inspired their greatness or transformed their notion of what is possible. The ’99ers galvanized a generation of American women’s soccer players, Billie Jean King changed the face of women’s tennis and Lisa Leslie motivated aspiring ballers.

Just as those iconic teams and athletes set an example for those who came after them, competitors today are making an imprint on the next generation in women’s sports.

As part of Nike’s 50th anniversary, the company is celebrating the last 50 years of women in sport and looking ahead to the next 50. From making an investment in the WNBA to creating the Nike Athlete Think Tank, Nike has been committed to amplifying and supporting women’s sports. In honor of their historic anniversary, Nike is shining a light on athletes who are inspiring the next generation and shifting the landscape of women’s sports.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka, U.S. national soccer team icon Megan Rapinoe and basketball phenom Sabrina Ionescu have all pushed the limits of their sports while changing the culture that surrounds the women’s game.

Perhaps no professional athlete has done that more in recent history than Osaka. With her candor and resilience, she has not only instigated a conversation around mental health but also challenged what is expected of elite tennis players on the court.

Osaka burst onto the scene at just 20 years old in her own pass-the-baton moment, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets to win her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open. The final, which was filled with controversy as Williams and the chair umpire clashed, served as something of a changing of the guard.

Tears filled Osaka’s eyes during the trophy presentation as boos from the crowd rang out. With Osaka’s win, the fans were denied the opportunity to witness Williams tie Margaret Court’s Grand Slam singles title record. To make matters more complicated, Williams had been Osaka’s idol since she was a child.

From there, Osaka took the tennis world by storm, inspiring a group of young players herself. A year after catapulting to fame at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Osaka was featured in another matchup billed as an established star taking on an up-and-coming prodigy in 15-year-old Coco Gauff.

Osaka came out on top, halting Gauff’s first U.S. Open singles run in dominant fashion. Gauff, overwhelmed by the weight of the moment, appeared emotional as tears fell from her eyes after the match. Having been on the other side of this very scenario, Osaka comforted the teen.

“After the match, I think she proved she’s a true athlete. For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like their worst enemy, but after they treat you like you’re their best friend. And I think that’s what she did today,” Gauff said of Osaka in 2019.

Since those runs at the U.S. Open, Osaka has continued to redefine the sport, taking a step back from the court in 2021 to focus on her mental health while being vocal about the impact of post-match press conferences on her well-being. As Osaka returns to the tour on a more consistent basis, her peers have applauded her bravery and revered her as a leader.

Iga Świątek, who at 20 years old has ascended to the top of the WTA rankings, defeated Osaka in the Miami Open final in April and praised her afterward.

“When I watched you win the U.S. Open (in 2018), I wouldn’t have even thought I’d be playing versus you. You’re an inspiration. This sport is better with you,” Świątek said.

Osaka’s candor surrounding the expectations of fame and pressure to perform has resonated with athletes outside of tennis as well. Nelly Korda, a 23-year-old golf sensation, told Sportskeeda in 2021 that she looked up to Osaka when checking in on her own mental health.

“You also learn from, like, other people, I mean like Naomi Osaka,” Korda said. “You don’t even know what is gonna happen with the girl that just won the U.S. Open. She has all this fame, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know, a prime example is Osaka. Has she just shot up into stardom, and it’s super hard for her.”

Rising above the criticisms and challenges of her sports celebrity, Osaka has helped to destigmatize mental health by bringing attention to it in sports and beyond. An established talent on the court and cultural icon off of it, Osaka is the definition of a generational figure.

Twelve years Osaka’s senior, Megan Rapinoe has similarly altered the blueprint for athlete activism, fighting for gender and racial equality while earning the distinction as the best footballer in the world.

The California native and two-time World Cup winner has scored 62 goals in her 187 appearances with the USWNT. Leading the team in goals at the 2019 World Cup, Rapinoe has made her mark on the pitch and spearheaded the the players’ fight for equal pay off of it.

Playing for the NWSL’s Seattle franchise since 2013, Rapinoe has been a consistent leader for club and country. Bethany Balcer, one of OL Reign’s most explosive strikers, credits Rapinoe with helping her adapt to professional soccer.

“I think Megan Rapinoe has been one of those players. I definitely look to the forward line a lot,” Balcer told Goal. “And so just making sure I am understanding what the game plan is when I was to go into the games. Whether I am playing the nine or the winger, just learning from them, taking their advice.”

Rapinoe’s outspokenness and authenticity have placed her at the center of the intersection between sports and politics, a role she has embraced. Advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights and racial equality, while pushing the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, Rapinoe has won herself a legion of young fans and empowered players who’ve come after her.

“In so many ways, you’re the go-to person for current topics and politics issues,” teammate Sam Mewis told Rapinoe on the Just Women’s Sports Snacks Podcast. “I would look to you actually for a lot of things before I was comfortable to speak out myself because I feel like I trust your values, and I trust what you stand for.”

On a team that emphasizes the importance of leaving the squad better than you’ve found it, Rapinoe embodies the USWNT’s progressive ethos.

Teammate and fellow striker Lynn Williams remembers looking up to Rapinoe as a kid before ever sharing the pitch with her.

“Megan has always been an inspiration to me. As a kid, I would be amazed at her poise on the field and how she would always show up in big moments,” Williams told Just Women’s Sports.

“As I have gotten to know her on a personal level, I am in awe of her. She is authentically herself on and off the field. She doesn’t apologize for who she is, and more importantly her energy and positivity inspires me and many others to be authentically ourselves as well. With her, there is no ‘it’s me or it’s you’ mentality. With her, there’s a seat at the table for everyone.”

At just 24 years old, Sabrina Ionescu is one of the most undeniably talented guards in women’s basketball.

At Oregon, Ionescu garnered national fame after becoming the only NCAA Division I player ever to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in her career. Simply put, the California native changed college basketball through sheer talent.

Former Oregon teammate and current WNBA rival Ruthy Hebard explained to WSLAM in 2020 how the duo achieved so much success on offense.

“Playing with Sabrina, it was like, I don’t want to mess this up for her either. It’s really just about being strong and focusing on what I want to do and where I want to do it,” Hebard said.

Competing against Ionescu was equally as daunting, with current New York Liberty teammate Didi Richards recalling her head-to-head matchup with the star in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

“Back then, being a sophomore, first year in the Final Four, I was nervous going against the best player, some would say, men’s and women’s. I was real nervous,” said Richards, then a guard for Baylor. “I knew I had to guard her. It was exciting. I think that was one of the games that put me on the map for sure. She’s a great player. She hit some crazy shots on me.”

Ionescu’s Oregon teammates praised her work ethic and game preparation. Former Ducks star and current Liberty teammate Nyara Sabally is anxious to reunite with Ionescu in New York. The No. 5 pick in this year’s draft will miss her rookie season while recovering from knee surgery.

“I’m thrilled that I get to share the court with [Ionescu],” Sabally said after the draft. “Obviously, ‘Sab’ is such an amazing point guard, such an amazing person. I saw her in practice every day. I saw her working every day on the court. I’m just very excited to finally share the court with her, not just in practice.”

Since her college days, Ionescu has expertly leveraged her on-court success and widespread fame. Now in her third season with the Liberty, she has inked several blockbuster deals, including a partnership with Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures.

Ionescu’s foray into business resembles that of Osaka. After meeting on the set of an ad campaign, the two have become fast friends, with Ionescu telling Insider that she “ was always a huge fan of Naomi” before the shoot.

Osaka has been seen practicing in a Ionescu Liberty jersey, and Ionescu is eager to show her support for the tennis star.

“I watch her matches and cheer her on and we talk, whether it’s on social media or text here and there,” Ionescu added. “But I think [we’re] always supporting each other and just rooting for each other and hoping for the best and success.”

Ionescu’s game-changing collegiate career and impressive business portfolio have expanded the possibilities for athletes in women’s sports, on and off the court.

Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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