It all adds up to more women in sports.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that banned sex-based discrimination in educational programs, including sports. University athletic programs responded to the landmark education law with a phenomenal increase in women’s participation in intercollegiate athletics. The National Collegiate Athletic Association reported that 47% of student-athletes in Division I sports are now female.

UC Santa Barbara does even better, with women filling more than 50% of its athletic rosters. Building an equitable athletics program also requires that women have significant roles within its infrastructure. From the training room to academic mentorship and activism, female leaders in sports are as strong as ever.

THE INTELLECTUAL TRAINER

“We’ve had a lot of great women athletic trainers,” says UC Santa Barbara’s head trainer Leroy Heu. Several have moved up in the profession, including Nina Hsieh, who took care of the Gaucho women’s basketball team in 2004-08 and 10 years later served as head athletic trainer with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Emma Connelly continues the training tradition. Along with Claire Stovall, a newer addition to the training staff, Connelly has tended to athletes on eight UCSB teams, working tirelessly and consistently, during unique times and through injuries beyond the physical. “We were the backbone of managing the COVID process,” Heu says, “and mental health has played a greater role.”

Connelly has earned the absolute trust of athletes like Ila Lane, an elite women’s basketball player, and Gracie Lockwood, a swimmer with cerebral palsy.

“She’s beyond an athletic trainer,” says Lane, with whom Connelly has worked for four years. “She cares about your well-being, not just physically but mentally, and she cares about your life outside of sports. We share thoughts, meditate, learn to cope with stress. Emma emphasizes you have to be mentally prepared. If you’re not in a good place mentally, it affects your performance.”

Lockwood says Connelly enables her to compete in swimming, “the only sport I could do without pain.” The UCSB sophomore hopes to go to the Paralympic Games in 2024. “Emma is an intellectual trainer,” she says. “She has creative agency. She comes up with ideas to make things work. I text her daily. What should I work on? Or sometimes, do you want coffee?”

 

Emma Connelly

Connelly’s aspirations to be a soccer star in Orange County were eclipsed when she developed a serious spinal condition. “I asked myself, ‘How can I be part of sports?’” she says. “I decided I could help athletes get through hard times as a trainer.”

After receiving her master’s degree in athletic training at the University of Hawai’i, Connelly stayed on working at the school. “I was the only female on the baseball staff,” she says. “There were no women’s restrooms in the home locker area. I used a restroom for the coaches and was the only one to lock the door. I got yelled at a lot.”

Heu, a native of Hawai‘i, met Connelly at a meeting of the Far West Athletic Trainers Association and recruited her to UCSB. “She’s a great hire,” he says.

Connelly says she is inspired by women like Kelly Barsky, who has been running UCSB sports as interim athletic director for the past year.

“Barsky is a badass woman,” Connelly says. “How is she able to do all she does? I’m here because of strong women who taught me to be strong.”

THE ACADEMIC ROCKSTAR

Jessica Goerke filled a special need when, in 2017, she became UCSB’s first director of academic services, working out of the athletic director’s office. She was encouraged to apply for the position by new men’s basketball coach Joe Pasternack, who knew of her work as an academic counselor for athletes at the University of Illinois.

“One of the most significant upgrades we needed was academic support,” Pasternack says. “A couple (men’s players) were ineligible the year before I started. Jessica was the first staff member I pursued — before an assistant coach. She’s been an incredible help to basketball and the entire athletic department. Our team GPA the last five years is over 3.0. That’s unprecedented in men’s college basketball.”

Goerke said she was moved by Barsky, then the senior women’s administrator in athletics. “Kelly completely sold me on the institution,” she says. “I saw what UCSB could become. I wanted to be part of that.”

Goerke has since been promoted to deputy athletic director and interim senior women’s administrator, and at the beginning of this school year she was appointed to the NCAA Division I Committee on Academics. “UCSB is on the map,” Goerke declared after the national organization called her name.

“It’s a huge distinction,” Barsky says. “Jessica is a rock star. From the time I first met her, she has displayed her commitment to service and her ability to work with anybody.”

Women’s basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson agrees, calling Goerke “a great resource for athletes and coaches.”

 

Jessica Goerke

Goerke’s own college experience was confined to the classroom. “I was not a student-athlete,” she says. “I’m not coordinated. Give me any athletic object and I’ll fumble it.” But when the Illinois native was working toward a master’s at Akron, she had an opportunity to work in academic support for athletes. “Once I got a taste of athletics, I just loved it,” she says. “I liked the camaraderie.”

She developed her chops as an adviser to the Georgia Tech football program in 2012-13 and spent the next four years as academic counselor for men’s basketball and women’s track and field at Illinois. Then UCSB came calling.

“We sell the quality of people in our department,” Henrickson says. “It’s not just shiny buildings. It’s the people in those buildings.”

As she looks at her life beyond basketball, Lane, for one, has been affected by those people. “I’m studying to be a therapist,” the two-time All-Big West forward says. “The women in the department have a big impact on where we see ourselves in the future. Jessica and Emma set great examples of how I want to be, to break boundaries and be a person looked up to.”

THE ACTIVIST ATHLETE

Evann Smith stands tall between the pipes as senior goalkeeper on the Gaucho women’s soccer team. The 6-footer from Valencia can be counted on to keep UCSB within striking distance of any opponent. She had three “clean sheets” — shutouts — in a stretch of four Big West games this fall, preventing a pair of losses in 0-0 deadlocks. Many times, she flings her body heedlessly to parry a shot.

“She is a leader,” teammate Elise Ziem says. “She is so brave.”

“I like making fearless plays,” acknowledges Smith, whose gumption is also noteworthy in her active student life.

When she was a sophomore, inspired by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Smith helped start a GoFundMe account that raised nearly $80,000 for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Big West Conference named her as vice chair of a newly formed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee. If she sees injustice, she speaks out.

It was troubling but not surprising to Smith, she says, that a recent report by former deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates uncovered widespread instances of sexual misconduct, harassment and bullying in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“Women’s soccer is a male-dominated sport when it comes to the power dynamic,” Smith says. “The reason abuse doesn’t come out is there’s fear. The majority of coaches are male. They’re taking advantage of the system. In women’s sports it’s: ‘You should be grateful for what you have. I can treat you any way I want.’ There’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.”

 

Evann Smith

Smith affirms there are no such issues with UCSB’s coaching staff. She says she is grateful that her mother, a health administrator, steered her to Santa Barbara instead of continuing to try to impress more high-powered programs and fret about her performance.

“My mother wanted me to go to a good school and not be stressed out about recruiting,” she says. “I got an offer my first visit. My worth is not tied up in the sport. My worth is tied up in what school I’m going to. I’m Evann Smith, the DEI counselor, a friend, econ-accounting major — not just Evann Smith, the goalkeeper.”

That’s not to discount her athletic career. “Soccer is a great sport,” she says. “Seeing the level of play change for the better is inspirational. It can be applied to every aspect of life.”

UCSB’s acting athletic director offers high praise for Smith. “She epitomizes the student-athlete journey,” Barsky says. “She engages, jumps in, connects with others. She uses her voice to speak out and build relationships. She’s a connector. I’ve learned from her.”

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