Taking Sports Beyond the Field of Play: Shannon Sylvester

April 25, 2006

When Middlebury College women's ice hockey forward Shannon Sylvester first learned that she and two other college athletes had been selected to travel with Associate Director of Athletics Gail Smith to a conference in Atlanta, Ga., she felt honored and excited - and then she got down to work.

Along with basketball player and senior Erica Goodman and cross-country runner and fellow junior Alison Brown, Shannon would be heading to Atlanta within weeks to attend the 2005 International Summit on "Effecting Social Change Through Women's Leadership in Sport." But before stepping onto a plane, she and her fellow athletes had to garner the support of the college and their professors, as well as provide written justification for how this experience pertained directly to their respective areas of study.

"I told the coaches of our women's teams that I was headed to this conference in Atlanta," says Smith, "and that I was looking for young women who, beyond being exemplary athletes, had an awareness of and interest in gender and social issues in sports."

For Shannon, a psychology major with an interest in gender study and the sociology of sport, drawing connections between the conference and her work came naturally. "I've always seen sports as a way to develop self-esteem and confidence, especially for young girls and women," she says. "The opportunity to go to the conference in Atlanta was amazing."

As part of the United Nations' International Year in Sport and Physical Education, the 2005 Summit, held at Kennesaw State University, was a two-day conference recognizing the unique contribution of female leadership and participation in sports as a means for bringing about social change. The event featured a forum for international discussion to raise awareness of the socio-economic power of sport and the potential contribution of women through increased administrative roles and player participation. Conference participants included former and current professional athletes, social leaders, college and university officials, and students - all exploring ways to use sport and physical recreation more effectively to achieve positive social change throughout the world.

"It was eye-opening to hear speakers from developing and third world countries talk about the importance of sports. Something as simple as a ball for children who have little else can open a path to opportunity," said Shannon. "I realized that I had taken sports for granted in my own life. And later as Adolf Ogi spoke, I began to see how being a leader - and woman - in sports could begin to help make a difference in the world."

Adolf Ogi, special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on sport for the development of peace, spoke about the universal nature of sport and its inherent values of fitness, fair play, teamwork and the pursuit of excellence. He urged the conference participants to recognize the positive ways in which sports and physical education programs can help combat societal challenges such as HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty and gender inequality.

After returning to campus, Shannon, Erica and Alison shared their perceptions of the experience in a presentation to the college community. As they went about their daily lives, each had a new awareness of her potential responsibility as a woman, an athlete and a leader.

Shannon poses with Kenyon marathoner Tegla Loroupe.

Later in the spring, Smith was contacted again by the office of Adolf Ogi and invited to attend a special event at the U.N. in New York on April 3, in which Ogi would share the final report on the worldwide successes of the International Year in Sport. Representatives from more than a dozen countries would attend, as well as several high profile athletes and political officials. Shannon jumped at the opportunity to accompany Smith, though Erica was unable to join them because of her senior thesis duties and Alison was studying abroad for the semester.

"This event was much more ceremonial than the conference," recalled Shannon. "It was more of a reflection on the past year and the things that so many different countries had accomplished through sports programs and leadership."

"It was incredibly meaningful to be a part of the process at such a high level," says Smith. "Young women like Shannon have the opportunity to be sports ambassadors, in a sense, to understand the power of sport as a means to break down gender inequalities and open up a dialogue for bringing about future change. In most of the underdeveloped countries represented at this U.N. event, women are typically the last people to get any kind of access to sport, but now that is changing."

"I remember hearing Tegla Loroupe speak," said Shannon of the New York marathon winner and previous record holder for Kenya. "She is a marathon runner from Kenya and, for her, the sport was her escape from poverty. Because of her talent, she became a respected and important representative of her country. More women deserve that opportunity."

Another athlete who impressed Shannon was Katrina Webb, a runner from Australia who spoke about the benefits of sport towards peace and development, with special reference to people with a disability. "She learned at a young age that she had cerebral palsy, but that only inspired her further as an athlete," said Shannon. "Sports helped her overcome her physical challenges and maintain her self-esteem." Webb also noted that it was her primary school teacher who helped her develop a love for sports that set her on a path of accomplishment.

"Making sports, with its physical and emotional challenges, available to children worldwide can go a long way in helping develop a future of better health situations and greater tolerance and understanding for one another - these are the sorts of social changes we can help bring about," said Smith. "And that's why I felt it was such a great opportunity for these three young Middlebury College athletes to be exposed to this concept on a global level."

As a female in the sciences as well as an accomplished athlete, Shannon recognizes her potential as a powerful role model for younger girls. "As I look ahead at what I might do after college, I'm realizing the importance of making time to volunteer as a coach in youth sports, to share a little bit of what I was so lucky to have growing up," said Shannon, who has played both soccer and hockey since she was six, and recalls sports as the foundation for her own personal growth and confidence. "The combination of my academic studies and sports experiences has given me a perspective that it's my responsibility to share."

-- Blair Kloman--