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'Thanks For Not Giving Up On Me'

By Paul D. Bowker | July 11, 2013, 7:15 p.m. (ET)

Brandi Chastain celebrates during the FIFA Women's World Cup at
The Rose Bowl on July 10, 1999 in Pasadena, Calif.

The vivid memory of a girl tugging at the shirt of World Cup and Olympic soccer champion Brandi Chastain still chokes up the voice of Marlene Bjornsrud.

The way Bjornsrud recalls the moment Chastain was working with a group of 80 girls at an elementary school in Santa Clara, Calif. Hoping to drum up excitement among the kids, Chastain coaxed a girl into the middle of the group to show off her best celebration move.

Initially, the girl shied away. But after Chastain showed a jumping and fist-pumping celebration of her own, the girl performed a gymnastics flip that left the rest of the girls and Chastain screaming with delight.

After the class had ended, the girl followed Chastain into the parking lot.

“She (Chastain) feels a little tug on her elbow,” Bjornsrud said. “And (she) looks down into this little girl’s face, the little girl who had come into the middle of the circle. Just giant, big brown eyes, and (she) looked at Brandi and said, ‘Thank you for not giving up on me.’”

It is one piece of thousands of unforgettable stories for Bjornsrud, CEO of the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI) and 2013 winner of the prestigious IOC Trophy for the Americas.

BAWSI’s programs include a number of after-school sports activities at underserved and poverty-stricken communities in the Bay Area of California.

For BAWSI founders Bjornsrud, Chastain and three-time Olympic soccer medalist Julie Foudy, that one moment epitomizes what they hoped the organization would accomplish.

“I get emotional thinking about it because I just feel like there are thousands of little girls that everybody has given up on,” Bjornsrud said. “I just thought, to me, that was so profoundly simple, a message that a whole community of little girls was saying, ’Don’t give up on us, don’t forget about us.’”

For eight years now, hundreds of BAWSI volunteer coaches and athletes have worked with 14,000 girls and 1,000 women in a series of after-school programs in the Bay Area. Each girl receives a T-shirt, a pedometer and a journal to keep track of her activities.

“BAWSI is an interactive program that not only assists young girls in being active after school but gives them real-life role models,” Chastain wrote in an email. “It showcases collegiate/high school female student-athletes who are using sports as a vehicle to health, wholeness and higher education. By placing these young women in the elementary school environment, we encourage the girls to value and respect themselves and grow their own potential.”

The program has grown. BAWSI Rollers was introduced as an adaptive-sports program. Beyond BAWSI was launched this spring to bring the program’s model onto a national stage.

Marlene Bjornsrud (right) receives the IOC Trophy for the Americas
from HRH Prince Feisal Al Hussein of Jordan on July 1, 2013 in
Lausanne, Switzerland.

Bjornsrud’s work with BAWSI earned her the IOC Trophy for the Americas, which was awarded in honor of outstanding contributions to the development of women’s participation in sport and sports administration. Bjornsrud was one of six women honored and one of 49 women nominated worldwide. Ahlam Salem Mubarak Al Mana of Qatar was presented with the IOC World Trophy. Other continental winners came from Fiji, Guinea, Lithuania and Thailand.

“I was just astounded by it,” said Bjornsrud, who received the award July 1 at a recognition dinner hosted by the IOC at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. All of the IOC Trophy winners met for lunch together in Lausanne.

“I walked into the (hotel) lobby and basically just burst into tears at meeting these women because we all had had the opportunity to read about each other and be connected a little bit,” Bjornsrud said. “That will be one of my most memorable moments, just seeing each of them in the flesh.”

Foudy and Anne Warner Cribbs, a gold medalist in swimming at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, wrote the nomination papers on behalf of Bjornsrud.

“She’s always been a visionary and a leader…,” said Cribbs, head of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee and a member of the BAWSI Advisory Council. “(BAWSI) really has been a terrific thing for our community. It‘s been great for Marlene. It’s been great for the college athletes that work with Marlene on BAWSI because I think it provides them an incredible perspective into the lives of little girls. I know they’re able to make a difference working with kids.”

BAWSI was founded during a meeting in Bjornsrud’s house in the aftermath of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), the first professional women’s soccer league in the United States. Foudy and Chastain were among the league’s stars, and Bjornsrud was the general manager of the San Jose-based team.

“We put together just a group of eight of us, sitting around my living room, looking at each other for about five hours,” Bjornsrud said. Cribbs, who was out of town, participated via telephone.

An idea for a women’s sports initiative turned into a nonprofit program that has served thousands of school-aged girls. Some remain in the program today as volunteer coaches and leaders. Financial sources have included grants, corporate and government money, and individual donations.

Many in the sports community jumped on board. Brenda Villa, a four-time Olympic water polo medalist (including a gold medal last summer in London) and a 2003 graduate of Stanford University, has helped. Tara VanDerveer, director of women’s basketball at Stanford and coach of the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold-medal winning women’s basketball team, has raised money to bus 400 BAWSI girls and their parents to participate in a basketball clinic and watch a Stanford game.

On the heels of an IOC award, the BAWSI model may soon move past the Bay Area.

“For me, BAWSI is something that shouldn’t just be in the Bay Area,” Cribbs said. “It should be, first of all, nationwide and, second of all, as an Olympian, I think it should be worldwide. I think it’s a great model and one that we can all really push hard to get it to work other places.”

Bjornsrud and Foudy introduced Beyond BAWSI in June at the Alliance of Women’s Coaches’ annual meeting in Boston. They plan to give a presentation and workshop in October in San Diego at the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators’ annual convention.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Paul D. Bowker is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.