NEW YORK -- As a firefighter in Aurora, Illinois, Tony Carlini is accustomed to hoisting some heavy materials. But as he held his daughter Lauren’s new award on Tuesday night, he looked down and shook his head.
“Our coffee table has a few of her other awards on it, but it won’t hold this,” he said of the hefty bronze statue. “We’re going to get a big curio cabinet.”
Lauren Carlini, a University of Wisconsin volleyball setter and the first four-time All-American in her school’s history, had just won the 2017 AAU James E. Sullivan Award as the year’s outstanding U.S. amateur athlete who also demonstrates leadership, character and sportsmanship. Accepting the trophy at a reception at the New York Athletic Club, Carlini had a single word to describe her emotions: shock.
“I'm honored to be the first volleyball player to win this award," she said. “Volleyball is growing and gaining popularity, so I hope this kind of keeps it going … And I hope in three years that I get what every single one of these guys (the other finalists) have.”
This year’s six other finalists — Kayla Harrison (judo); Ashleigh Johnson (water polo); Kyle Snyder (wrestling); Ginny Thrasher (air rifle); and gymnasts Laurie Hernandez and Aly Raisman — are all Olympic gold medalists.
The AAU has presented the prestigious Sullivan Award annually since 1930 as a salute James E. Sullivan, its founder and past president, and also pioneer in amateur sports.
After ballots from fans, AAU officials, United States Olympic Committee members and college sports officials were tallied, Carlini came out on top.
“When I was told I was a finalist, I couldn’t believe it,” Carlini said. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ I looked at all of the other finalists and said, ‘OK, I don’t know if I deserve to be a part of this group.’ It’s an honor to get to know them and chat with them. They are such down-to-earth, normal kids.”
A standout in the classroom, Carlini is a four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection and earned academic All-America honors in 2016. After graduating next month, she plans to take the first step to achieving her next goal: helping Team USA win volleyball gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I’m moving to (Anaheim) California to train with the national team for four months,” she said. “And then since there is no professional volleyball league in the United States, starting in September I will be playing in Italy for eight months of the year. I’m already learning Italian.”
The 22-year-old athlete, who was a member of the U.S. team that won a bronze medal at the 2016 Pan American Cup, has dreamed of the Olympic Games since childhood.
“We have a little picture Lauren drew of herself when she was 9 or 10 years old, of her in a USA jersey,” mom Gale, a college volleyball player herself, said. “She has always had the goal of getting to the Olympics.”
“She always wants to be better for her team, that’s who she is,” dad Tony added. “She knows what she has to do to make the team better, to make that ultimate goal of winning, to push to set everybody else up.”
Beginning in 1944 with two-time Olympic champion swimmer Ann Curtis, 22 athletes have received Sullivan Awards for their achievements in women’s sports. This year, six of the seven finalists were women. Online fan votes counted for one-third of the final result.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had this strong and diverse a class final,” AAU President Roger J. Goudy said. “We started with 50-plus athletes and had to narrow it down. There was tremendous response from the public.”
“I think it’s so cool, because there are a lot of great female athletes who are very deserving,” said Snyder, who in Rio became the youngest Olympic champion U.S. wrestling history. “I’m excited to be here with them.”
Tuesday evening also saw the AAU’s first-ever Gussie Crawford Lifetime Achievement Award presented to Jesse Owens, winner of four track and field gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games, held during the dark days of Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship. The award, named after the first female president of the AAU, recognizes athletes whose efforts, both on and off their playing surface, paved the way for great change in amateur sports.
Today, many are astounded that Owens did not receive the 1936 Sullivan Award, which was presented to 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris. It took another 18 years for a black athlete to be honored: Mal Whitfield, a two-time Olympic 800-meter champion, won in 1954.
“You see the (2016) movie ‘Race,’ which is about Jesse Owens, and think: How could we not recognize an athlete who won under such duress?” Goudy said. “(Crawford) smashed the AAU’s glass ceiling, and that epitomizes what this award is about: fairness, and looking at a body of work without regard to race or religious creed.”
Owens’ granddaughter Gina Hemphill-Strachan accepted the award to a standing ovation.
“Thank you for this great and, frankly, long overdue reception,” Hemphill-Strachan said after applause died down. “We’ve come a long way; we have a long way to go. When you look back to 1936, it was certainly an era of more exclusion than inclusion. The most outstanding athlete was overlooked … that did not anger him, but actually, it saddened him until the day he died.
“It’s a testament to the changes of progress that I’m able to accept this award,” she continued. “It celebrates and recognizes the changes he made in this world. Eighty-one years later, his legacy is still relevant, still inspiring people across the globe to achieve their best, always.”