WASHINGTON, July 13 - When it comes to women who inspire, you would be hard pressed to find a more impressive group of accomplished women than the ones who gathered today in the grand ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. More than 300 prominent women and men in politics, business, entertainment and sports were on hand for the WNBA’s second annual All-Star Salute: Inspiring Women Luncheon presented by Meridian.
As part of the luncheon, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was honored with the 2007 WNBA Inspiration Award as an individual who inspires others through her commitment and dedication to work, family and community.
WNBA President Donna Orender opened the festivities by recognizing many of the honored guests in the room, all strong and inspiring women, from Mystics owner Sheila Johnson and Sparks owner Cathy Goodman to leading executives at Fortune 500 corporations and all of the WNBA All-Stars. She also acknowledged the All-Stars as the reason for the success of the WNBA, the longest-running and most successful women's professional sports league in the history of the country.
"They breathe dedication, they walk perseverance and they live and embrace being role models," Orender said. "They are inspiration."
The next to speak was Dr. Johnson, to whom Orender acknowledged her gratitude for choosing to spend her time and share her passions with the WNBA. As hostess for the weekend, Johnson welcomed everyone to Washington and spoke about what inspiration means to her.
"Inspiration is a little bit like love," she began. "It is hard to define, it's harder to predict and it always, always rises up from deep within a person's soul. I have found many inspirations in my life. The women of the WNBA inspire me, and the only thing that inspires me more than how they play on the court is how they conduct themselves off the court. They are human beings first and professional athletes second. "
In addition to her duties as team owner, Johnson also dedicates her time as an ambassador for CARE, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. She has traveled the world from Africa to South America to fight for the rights and empowerment of women and help them to make the right choices and determine the course and direction of their lives.
WNBA players also have the ability to lead, inspire and create change. One of the stars at the very heart of that is Fever forward Tamika Catchings, whose foundation and work in the community is a source of inspiration to everyone she meets.
"I aspire to be great and to someday become a legend, a role model and an inspiration to those who come after me," Catchings said. "Basketball is truly my first love and the WNBA is an absolute dream come true. This room is filled with inspiring women not just in sports, but in all walks of life."
The All-Star and MVP contender had the honor of presenting the award. Dr. Rice, who became became Secretary of State in 2005, spoke for more than 15 minutes about the virtues of sport and the role it can play in bringing about positive change around the world.
"I am thrilled to receive the WNBA Inspiration Award and be in the company of women of such amazing achievement," she began. "As an aspiring athlete growing up, and probably the second-biggest sports fan in our administration behind the President, I was very excited to meet Tamika, who is such a great athlete and wonderful representative of women's basketball. I think the last time I saw her was when her Tennessee team beat my Stanford team in the Final Four."
Rice went on to say that sports had been a major part of her life since she was a child as her father was a high school football coach and athletic director. In addition to pursuing a talent in music, she also wanted to become a figure skater, though she readily admits that she was probably in the wrong sport. She regrets not having the chance to really play basketball, too.
"If you don't believe Title IX has made a difference, just talk to some of us who were born before Title IX," Rice said. "We have made gains over the years, but there is still so much more to do not just in the United States, but all over the world. The WNBA exposes women to images that they have never dreamed possible."
As Secretary of State, Rice also understands the role that these women play when they play overseas.
"You are ambassadors for the American people," she said, addressing the All-Stars in the crowd. "Not ambassadors for any set of ideas or a political party, but for the values that we all hold dear. While you may not even realize it, you make important contributions to the world's understanding of our nation. In fact, in many countries, our athletes may be the only Americans that young people overseas will ever encounter."
Sports as diplomacy is not a new concept to the WNBA, whose players have been taking part in global initiatives for health, poverty and social equality.
"I want to personally invite, encourage, persuade and recruit all of the players to participate in sports envoy programs in the future," she added. "As Secretary of State, I have traveled extensively and seen for myself that sports and athletes have the ability to bring people together across the divisions of religion and race and region. Through sports, we are sending messages across the globe of international understanding, cultural tolerance and mutual respect."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accepts the 2007 WNBA Inspiration Award.
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