In the wake of the 2000 Olympic summer games Nike aired an ad featuring Olympic runner Suzy Hamilton. Like all patrons of athletics, Nike enjoys the lucrative window opened by the Olympic games that vaults athletes other than football, basketball and baseball players into the American mainstream. Suddenly the otherwise obscure women’s beach volleyball team is the new face of Nike and Apollo Anton Ono, with his charming soul patch, sells Visa cards. Suzy Hamilton was no exception as she raced in short shorts and a sports bra playing the tantalizing damsel in distress with a man in a hockey mask at her heels. The tagline was, “Why sport? You’ll live longer,” and it only took a few airings for viewers to react.
Leslie Wright ’84, the founder of Stride, was one of them.
Wright was a member of both the cross-country team and ski team at the College, the latter of which she served as captain for the nationally-ranked squad. Nike wasn’t going to get by this one, since the ad triggered a memory for her.
“I myself was kidnapped and held at gunpoint,” said Wright. “How could Nike have ever put this ad out?”
After many letters to Nike without much success, NBC eventually pulled the ad off the air. But that wasn’t enough to quell Wright.
“I thought that I was so angry that I might start a foundation,” said Wright, remembering.
At first, though, Wright thought that rather than start a foundation, she would donate money to an already existing foundation.
“I thought, okay, I’m just going to raise a bunch of money and give a bunch of grants [to programs],” said Wright. She quickly learned that the programs didn’t exist.
That is when she decided to create a foundation and, 13 years later the Stride Wright foundation now thrives. There are three programs in tandem with the College’s women’s basketball and ski teams. For Wright it’s easy. The positive correlation between girls’ health, confidence and academics is undeniable.
The Middlebury Union middle school participants in the basketball program concluded their season with a pizza party with the Middlebury team last week.
“The girls get to pick up on the energy of the college players,” said Wright. “They get to see that doing sports is cool. At that age kids are so influenced.”
The Middlebury women ran practices for the girls throughout winter term.
“The college students come and watch their games and it’s funny because the girls get so excited they start to forget what they’re doing,” said Wright. “Then they pull it together.”
Central to Stride Wright’s mission to empower women is breaking down social and economic barriers.
Even in the post Title-IX era, women’s sports trail far behind men’s in popularity and media coverage.
“Boys are programmed to play sports,” said Wright. “The women’s hockey team at Middlebury is having a great season and no one goes to see the games. The men’s hockey team isn’t doing as well and everyone goes.”
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the drop out rate for girls by age 14 is twice that of boys.
When it comes to the age-old question of nature versus nurture driving this statistic, Wright is unequivocal.
“A competitive girl is just as competitive as a competitive boy,” she said. “But I think girls approach sports differently. They have a more social point of view. They are more supportive in a competitive framework.”
Economic barriers are at the forefront of Stride Wright’s program in Winooski where 98 percent of middle school students receive subsidized lunch.
The basketball program at Winooski Middle School was struggling and losing participants to cheerleading. After Stride Wright came in, the numbers on the girls’ team rebounded.
The ski mentoring program with the College offers six weeks of lessons to girls who would otherwise not have the financial privilege.
“I love seeing a girl for whom sports click. When she goes skiing with her school, she isn’t stuck on the beginner hill, but breaks the barrier and skis with everyone else,” said Wright of the most rewarding aspects of her program.
The next step for Stride Wright lies in the mountain biking program. Wright teamed up with Midd alum sisters Sabra and Lia and Mountain Moxi professional mountain biking team to fund and mentor the girls. Last summer’s pilot successfully coached two girls and the number has now tripled.
With no overhead and entirely volunteer based mentorship, Stride Wright runs on about $6,000 a year. The support primarily comes from a Two Brother’s hosted event with a silent auction and raffle. Since it’s advent, Stride Wright has seen over 100 girls through the program — not to mention the college mentors who reap the indirect benefit of having a bleacher full of face-painted seventh graders cheering for them at their game.