Sunday, December 20, 2015

Serena Williams: "I Rise." 2015 Sportsperson of the Year

I am a total sucker for a good award. You know, the ones that honor a person for the some version of the "whole person." I believe in every age and in every community certain individuals rise to the top because of who they are andnot but—what they are. When an award gets it right, it's able to do just that. So it should go without saying that Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year is one of my favorites. 
For several years I made the case, like many contributors to SI, that this prestigious award ought to honor the number one tennis player in the world, Serena Williams. I love putting this particular award into historical context and guessing who "should" win it each year, and why. With the success that Williams met on the court long before 2015, I thought for sure she was a worthy candidate. I have written many times about her accomplishments on this blog; her 21 Grand Slam titles, three of which she earned this year are nothing to scoff at. She finished the year 53-3 at 34 years of age, and yet I don't think she deserved the 2015 award. My next blog posting will comment on that.

Rather than take away from an award that was rechristened the Sportsperson of the Year in her honor, I would like to acknowledge what she did—in typical Serena fashion via—what I learned and observed through her  acceptance speech. You can watch it here.

SOTY with her mother and sister.
Williams acknowledged that she was excited to receive Sportsperson of the Year, as this distinction has not been given to a woman in over 30 years. But her claim and the headlines that followed are misleading. While it is true that no singular woman has been named SOTY since Mary Decker—Double World Champion in Track and Field in 1983—many others have shared the award with a male athlete. 

As recently as 2011, Pat Summitt the All-time winningest coach in the NCAA, was recognized with Mike Krzyzewski, (who has the most wins in NCAA men's Division 1 history). Prior to that, the '99 US Women's National Soccer Team claimed the award as a group for their performance as World Cup Champions. Olympians Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics) won more than a gold in 1984 as she was co-named SOTY with Edwin Moses and Bonnie Blair (speed-skating) with Johann Olva Koss (of Norway) in 1994. Serena said for “For all the ladies out there, yes we can do it,” she said. “My hope by winning this award [is that I] can inspire many, many, many more women … to stand right here on this podium and accept another ‘Sportsperson of the Year,’ so yes ladies it can be done.” 

I don't disagree, but I also believe but some context for her feat should have found its way into her speech.
What was particularly inspiring to me is that Serena said "I still have goals and still have dreams of winning, and this award actually makes me want to work harder." Excellence requires on-going refinement and revision. It isn't static. Desire begets desire. Serena's hard work and determination got her to the podium where she beautifully stood, and she wants to do it again. (Although, it's interesting—the only athlete who has won SOTY more than once is Tiger Woods..)

And yet, Williams attributes her success to the very fact that things were not handed to her. "I had to work hard. I had to dedicate myself and I had to be determined." She reminds us of a fact we all know, but continually need to hear. We are better, perhaps our best selves when WE go after it....when we see what we are made of. Yes, we need support and encouragement, but no one becomes SOTY because something is given to an individual. The fire of determination burns hot. The champions have been tested in it and are refined in the process. 

She said, "It requires discipline, hard work and determination. And most importantly self determination. She have to believe in yourself. You have to believe in you."

She mentions what she has overcome—health issues and personal loss. She names the judgment that she battled because of her size, gender and the color of her skin. She makes us smile and she makes us laugh; she did say she was a part time comedian. I wanted to know who else might be in the audience at her side—Drake? and I love that she thanked Sports Illustrated for "giving me a chance to rise."

I will conclude with the poem she shared, by the late Maya Angelou. It speaks to who she is, what she has endured and what's in store for sports fan everywhere. Congratulations Serena Jameka Williams on an honor that is overdue, the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise

At the podium

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