It’s hard not to notice professional athletes, with their penchant for high-profile lifestyles and ability to make more money in one year than most of us will acquire in a lifetime.
There’s no doubt they work hard to get where they are. But for every successful pro athlete, there are thousands of young people with big dreams of their own and, all too often, a humble starting point.
For the past 22 years, the San Antonio Sports Foundation has supported local young athletes. It’s the machine behind the many national youth and collegiate sporting events that draw players and fans to the Alamo City.
Only a fraction of young players move on to play sports professionally as adults, so the foundation’s focus is not on priming kids to go pro; rather, the focus is on giving kids an opportunity to set and achieve goals in sports that translate to success in life. It also gives kids a chance to explore classic Olympic sports that are outside the scope of most physical education curricula in the schools.
While encouraging young people to play sports is the big picture, there are other issues at hand in San Antonio: Local childhood obesity statistics have created a sense of urgency to help children establish healthy lifestyle choices.
Another challenge is the growing demand for competition-class athletic facilities. San Antonio ranks lowest in the state in this category, putting other Texas cities at a distinct advantage when it comes to getting the lucrative commitments from amateur leagues and federations from around the world.
Last, but not least, is making sports opportunities accessible to girls. There is still considerable gender inequity in sports as an industry, and family and cultural barriers remain in many instances. In the foundation’s Alamodome headquarters, however, it is hard to imagine women taking a backseat role: More by circumstance than design, nearly all of the leadership and staff are women.
Here, you’ll meet two women who play key roles in achieving the foundation’s objectives of maximizing the economic opportunities found in sporting events, developing youth fitness programs and driving the development of quality athletic facilities.
When she was growing up, Susan Blackwood envisioned herself teaching gym class to elementary school kids. In the 1960s, organized sports for girls were nonexistent, and about the only job a woman could hope to have in sports was that of the quintessential P.E. teacher, so that’s what Blackwood aimed for.
As she finished college and entered the work force in the early 1970s, the equal rights movement gave Blackwood a fork in the road with Title Nine, the landmark legislation that mandated equal athletic opportunities and funding for girls in public schools, colleges and universities.
“That changed everything,” says Blackwood. “Overnight, there were lots of career opportunities in athletics for women. I was in the right place at the right time.”
She quickly set about a series of “firsts” on that new path. In her native Nebraska, she was the first woman to run girls’ athletic programs in the state. Later, she was the first woman on the staff — and the assistant commissioner — of the Southwest Conference. She’s been in her present job, leading the sports foundation, since 1996. Today, Blackwood’s leadership focus is on a bigger picture, but she doesn’t forget where she’s been.
“I want to create the mindset that San Antonio could be the sports center of this hemisphere,” she says. “We’ve proven that it’s a favorite destination for collegiate events like the NCAA Final Four. We want to keep the college teams coming to San Antonio. We also have a growing reputation with international sports federations. It’s a wonderful way to expose people to San Antonio.”
Blackwood also has a goal on a more grassroots level; one that’s critical to San Antonio’s self-image: “I believe San Antonio can be the best city to raise a fit kid,” she says. “We have the climate and the health and medical infrastructure to support this. We need to keep finding ways to reach local children and families and provide them with opportunities — and facilities — so that they can be active.”
She’s enthusiastic about the foundation’s recent initiatives aimed at kids in local schools. Dreams for Youth is an ongoing effort to expose kids to Olympic sports — volleyball, tennis, diving, fencing, badminton and team handball. “These sports typically don’t get much attention or instruction in schools,” she explains. The program targets kids in the inner city who may have never heard of some of these sports and provides ongoing instruction. For those who show promise, the foundation underwrites the increased coaching and travel required of advancing competitors.
Last year’s Valero Go!Kids Challenge™ motivated more than 165,000 elementary-aged children to participate in the fitness challenge that was focused on getting kids to walk incremental distances, culminating in a city-wide “victory lap” event at the Alamodome.
This fall, the foundation is taking on a new challenge: Go Girl Go is a national program sponsored by the Women’s Sports Foundation. The program is designed to encourage girls to become more physically active and to help girls find ways to get the most out of an active lifestyle.
An important part of Blackwood’s job is in fostering the relationships that are crucial to making it all happen. The foundation’s nonprofit status means it relies on a combination of public and private funding. She devotes considerable time to coordinating with city and county government and leaders within the athletic community, as well as developing key relationships with allied organizations and representatives of private interests, an increasingly important source of funding for many of the foundation’s key initiatives.
“This city has its foundation in its collaborative spirit. I’d like to see more groups working together to make our respective programs successful on a comprehensive level,” she says. She sees an abundance of opportunity in public/private partnerships; arrangements between public agencies and individuals or businesses that facilitate sharing the unique resources and assets of each entity.
“I love thinking that I make a difference in San Antonio,” Blackwood says. “I get to keep working with kids, so I guess I’ve come full circle in a way. In my lifetime, girls and women will always be underserved in sports and fitness, so I’ll always feel like I have to keep working to make things better. Research has shown that being active in sports reduces teen pregnancy, high-school dropout rates, drug use and so many of the other influences that affect how girls see themselves. Programs like Go Girl Go help develop self-esteem and attract girls to positive dialogue and active, healthy lifestyles. We need to keep doing more.”
Mary Ullmann Japhet
Associate Executive Director,
“I always loved the Olympics when I was a kid,” says Mary Ullmann Japhet. Ironically, it’s what brought her to the job she’s in today.
In the 1980s, she was a reporter and anchor for a local television station. She moved to Los Angeles, where she spent several years as an entertainment reporter. In a twist of fate, her present met her past when she bumped into former San Antonio city councilman Robert Marbut at an event for the U.S. Olympic Festival, which L.A. hosted in 1991.
The festival’s committee had announced that San Antonio would host the 1993 festival. Marbut remembered her from her San Antonio days, and he mentioned that San Antonio needed a special events director for the festival. Three weeks later, she was back in San Antonio, sealing the deal. “I never would have expected it, but I wasn’t going to say no. I love the Olympics, and I love San Antonio. It was time to come back,” she says.
It was a short-term job but a great opportunity for San Antonio and for Japhet, who spent the next several years after the festival honing her advertising and video production skills for a variety of agencies and local clients. The San Antonio Sports Foundation was born from the Olympic festival, and Japhet joined the foundation in 2001 to focus on developing and managing the many external relationships required to promote and stage their programs and events. She is the foundation’s spokesperson, which gets her back in front of TV cameras, and she’s responsible for creating the messages that go out in the form of newsletters, press releases and marketing materials.
Japhet’s job intersects with Blackwood’s on many occasions, and they work to make the same programs a success. They speak a unified language when it comes to the challenges the foundation faces, and the rewards, which Japhet takes to heart.
The reporter in Japhet looks for “the story” in the faces of the kids and young athletes who come through the foundation’s programs, and she knows how to translate the elements of the story to make compelling appeals for what the foundation does to change the lives of young people.
“At our core is that we believe in the transformational power of sport. To see how it changes individuals affects me the most,” she says. “Every day, I see examples of people who are stronger and healthier because of what we do, so for us, it’s not a lofty saying. We live it every day.”
When Japhet was working on Go!Kids, she got a phone call late one afternoon from a woman whose son came home from school with the flyer about the program: “He was so excited about the program. The mother explained that her son was overweight and so self-conscious that he avoided being active — he was afraid of being teased by the other kids — but Go!Kids was different. It was not competitive, and he was able to get out and exercise, away from school and the scrutiny of the other kids. The woman got out there with her son, and they lost weight together. She was calling to thank me and thank the foundation for staging Go!Kids, and to let me know that it made a difference for her and her son. That call made my day!”
Japhet also understands how to translate areas of opportunity into a dialogue that argues for change. “San Antonio is behind other Texas cities in quality soccer and baseball facilities,” she says. “We have 53 competition-level soccer fields. That may seem like a lot, until you realize that Austin has more than 300 fields. Houston and Dallas each have more than 400. When it comes to attracting the huge national youth soccer events, San Antonio isn’t even in the running. We’re missing out. One of our goals is to change that.”
Japhet is eager to see action behind words, and she’s optimistic that change is coming. “We’re in the midst of a cultural shift here, and I see the stars starting to align,” she says. “City and community leaders are starting to see that we can talk all day about problems like the “fat city’ label, but unless we give people the infrastructure and the appropriate facilities, nothing will change. Fat city is a mantle we wear, and it drives a big part of what we do here,” Japhet says. “We’ve added to our mission that we will increase fitness opportunities for kids. The foundation is on the ground with that at the grassroots level, doing it every day, for all of our kids, not just the ones who can afford it.”
Japhet sees this advocacy as a key factor in strengthening the relationships that result in funding and support. “We can back it up with success stories,” she says, pulling another story to illustrate her point:
“There’s a girl who got into our Dreams for Youth program a few years ago and learned fencing. She showed a lot of promise, so we made sure she got the coaching to keep going with it. She started competing, and we made sure she had the resources to travel to these competitions. She just returned from a world cup tournament in Budapest, Hungary. She’s ranked ninth in the nation for junior women.
“She’s a girl from the inner city; there’s no way her family could afford all the coaching, the equipment and the travel to the competitions. We do that for her through Dreams for Youth. The girl’s mother volunteers and helps with fund-raising efforts, contributing what she can.”
Japhet has seen the cycle come full circle and recently witnessed the payoff: “That girl’s graduating in the top two of her high school class,” she says. “Here in our offices, she just signed a letter of intent to Temple University, which offered her a full ride scholarship. Will she make it as far as the Olympics as a fencer? Maybe. But she’s getting to Temple University, and that’s going to set her up for the rest of her life, whatever she happens to become.”
Author: Susan Sheffloe Speer
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams