The world’s top female athletes, leaders in sports media and industry figures gathered this week for three empowering and inspirational days packed with impactful conversations that went way beyond their love of sports.
From pro athletes overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts to the peril of having lipstick on your teeth when interviewing President Obama, no topic was too taboo or ridiculous at the 10th annual espnW: Women + Sports Summit.
Hosted by “SportsCenter” co-anchor Sage Steele, with a team of ESPN on-air talent taking the stage including Julie Foudy, Cari Champion, Sarah Spain, Katie Nolan, Jessica Mendoza and Maria Taylor, the event celebrated its decade milestone at the Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach, California.
On Tuesday night, “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts shared countless stories from her illustrious career stemming back to the early ’90s when she was a sportscaster for ESPN with Champion for her signature “Be Honest” series.
Known for sharing her personal battles with viewers as much as the news stories she’s covering, Roberts said that really started in 2005 shortly after she took a “leap of faith” to leave ESPN for a job at “GMA.”
“Then Hurricane Katrina blew in and my parents were in the storm zone,” Alabama-born Roberts said. “I lost contact with my family and just when we heard how bad the storm was, I was asked to go there on assignment but I told my producer that I couldn’t go on the air until I found if out that my family was safe.” Roberts had a police officer take to her parent’s house, where her mom “encouraged me to go do my job and tell people what was happening there, so I got back just in time for the live shot,” she recalled.
The TV veteran then famously broke down in tears on-air after delivering the report. “I couldn’t contain my emotions at that time … knowing that people were tuning in not knowing about their loved ones. I thought I was going to be fired but it was the opposite and people called in saying much it impacted them,” she said. “It taught me about the power of vulnerability and being honest — people will respect that. I think vulnerability does show strength … there is no weakness in that.”
That strength in sharing our weaknesses was a theme throughout the summit, especially on Monday’s “World Class Athlete Panel” with international sports stars Becky Lynch, Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir, Liz Cambage and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
“When first I started playing basketball, I couldn’t put one foot in front of another, I was so uncoordinated,” WNBA single-game scoring record-holder Cambage said. Along with getting over having two left feet, the Australian national team player said she has been “struggling with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. I got into a vicious cycle of drinking and smoking.” Hitting rockbottom in 2016 and landing on a 24-hour suicide watch was “my big wake up that I really needed to change where I was in life,” Cambage said. “Everyone has a different story and we all need to support each other.”
Irish-born wrestler Becky Lynch, who is the only woman to hold the WWE Raw and SmackDown Women’s Championships concurrently, admitted that she failed Phys Ed. when she was 13. “I thought they passed everyone just by showing up! I stood there afterwards with my field hockey stick in my hand and had a hard talk with myself,” Lynch said. That teenage reflection prompted her to join a wrestling school, which led to contracts in Canada and Japan. “Then my visa ran out and I had to move home to Ireland and live with my ma,” Lynch admitted.
Subsequent jobs included working as a personal trainer in Orlando, Florida and as a flight attendant (“which believe it or not, is not really like being a wrestler”), acting class and stunt work, before she finally got the confidence back to go for a WWE tryout. “Then everything came into place and all that passion came back,” Lynch said.
From the fight for equal pay to diversity and inclusion, here are some of the top thought-provoking and conversation-sparking quotes from the 2019 espnW Summit.
Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC’s “Good Morning America”
[On getting the exclusive interview with President Obama announcing he was changing his stance on marriage equality after she was diagnosed with cancer] “The day before [the interview], I was at the doctor’s office. Only my then-assistant and my close family knew I was there … and was told I had 1-2 years to live [if the treatment didn’t work]. Following the interview, my producer, who was standing off to the side, held up a card after made the statement. You know what that card said? ‘Lipstick on teeth!’ I thought it was going to say something about making headlines around the world!’
“I later asked him why he chose me to make such a historical announcement and he said it was because he knew I was going to let him finish his sentences, without jumping in and making it about me. I was thinking then that I didn’t know if I was going to live to benefit from these changes.[On in the launch of Rock’n Robin Productions]: “I want to do programming that creates a reaction and then calls to action. I want to lift people up, find programming and stories that tell people they can anything they want.”
WWE Superstar Becky Lynch
[On her “manniversary” and why she chose the moniker, The Man]: “This year has been crazy for me and I just celebrate my manniversary.’ I decided I was going to take over that. Even when I first got to NXT, I was told to move more like a girl. Well, I am a girl and I am moving … I had a little talk with myself at 15. I think we all have that voice, but often times we can ignore that. But when we listen to our intuition and gut, the possibilities are endless. If I can do this, anyone can do anything … I want everybody to want to be better than me.”
Grammy award winner Ella Mai
[On being serenaded by Stevie Wonder]: “He actually called me. I was in the middle of a photoshoot and thought it was too good to be true. I recognized his voice right away… I was like, ‘what is going on?’… I was so caught off guard.”
“I used to want to be Alicia Keys so bad, I think you can probably tell.”
Kendall Coyne, pro player for the Minnesota Whitecaps and member of the U.S. women’s national ice hockey team
“There hasn’t been one thing about this sport that has made it professional [for women] — the product; the treatment of the players; the pay. Full disclosure: last year I played in the league and made $7,000 and was questioned why I didn’t move to Minnesota to be a part of the team … I was the highest paid player on the team.”
ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro
“In terms of live events, it’s women who are driving the growth, so we are continuing to invest in content that will help us grow. On the storytelling side, we try to make decisions based on data and we’re finding that women want storytelling — the game around the game. An example of this was reflected in our recent coverage of the NFL Draft where ESPN partnered with ABC. ESPN covered the x’s and o’s, while on the ABC side, it was Robin Roberts who covered the story behind the players.
“If you’re just focused on diversity and inclusion, then you’re not doing it right. You need belonging.”
WNBA payer Liz Cambage
[On opening up about her battle with depression and mental issues]: “You need people who can get out of bed and feel like they’re operating in a safe environment … Your darkest moments are what’s going to show you the light and show you the way you wanna go. It’s gonna teach you everything about yourself. Everyone has a different story. We just gotta support each other.”
“Sunday Night Baseball” analyst Jessica Mendoza
[On her transition into the booth] “It was just a geographical change, that’s what’s interesting. I was doing the same thing (on the sidelines), but because I was on the field, it was more accepted. We see women on the field, we see them interviewing players, we see them coming out of the dugout. But if you put them in the booth – like, hold up, wait a second – you haven’t been there before. This is different. The same words were coming out of my mouth.”