On the eve of the Women’s March in Washington, a group of female athletes gathered together at a tiny Mexican bar minutes from the Capitol building.
“I’m in a position,” said Joanna Lohman, a midfielder for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, “where I truly believe I have a responsibility to use sport in a way that can help to change the world.”
Not too long ago, seeing athletes take part in political protests would have felt like an anomaly—athletes have long been conditioned not to upset corporate partners or risk an inevitable public backlash. But increasingly over the last year, athletes have found social causes in which to publicly root themselves, whether it’s been the Women’s U.S. National Soccer team suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, WNBA players wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts on the court despite facing fines, or Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers taking a knee during the National Anthem.
At the bar, Lohman’s hair was the center of attention. Shaped into a mohawk, etched on the side was a design meant to honor the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, stenciled in colors of the LGBTQ flag.
The women set to march were organized by Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that seeks to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports, but the fight against discrimination and for equality is wider than any one cause.
“For me, this march is about hope and faith and finding something better,” Lohman said. “When the Chicago Cubs visited the White House to celebrate their World Series Championship last week, Obama mentioned the impact that sport has on a country and how it can change someone’s heart.”
The power of sport was a sentiment that former President Obama reiterated throughout his time in the White House. Many here in Washington made the argument that Obama helped embolden athletes to use their platforms, and helped them realize they can and should have a voice in social and political change.
“I’ve been given an opportunity that many women around the world never get,” Lohman said, “so for me to make a positive impact and difference is so important to me. And to combine that with all the other athletes who support equal and civil rights, it’s going to be an extremely powerful day because we’re all going to unite in this message, and show the administration and the world that despite the recent setbacks, we’re willing and able to put this on our shoulders and take the movement forward.”
Soolmaz Abooali, an Iranian-American refugee and 11 time U.S. National champion in traditional karate, has long used sport as a way to shift the political ground. She is currently finishing her PhD in conflict resolution at George Mason University, with a focus on how non-governmental organizations use sport to reduce violence, so participating in this march fit perfectly into her work.
“I grew up with stories of my mother protesting on the streets of Tehran, defying cultural norms,” Abooali told me. “She was pretty badass herself, so for me to continue that tradition of being a woman in the streets fighting for human rights, and women’s rights, is very special for me. The other reason is to serve as a voice for those who don’t have access to sport, particularly for my fellow Muslim female athletes in other countries.”
Abooali partnered with Athlete Ally through the nonprofit Shirzanan, an advocacy group for Muslim women in sport.“We both are fighting discrimination, “Abooali said, “and it may be different forms of it, but our mission is very similar, using sport, using athletes to fight discrimination.”
Linai Vaz DeNegri, a former Olympic synchronized swimmer, found herself wanting to use her background for good after Trump was elected President.
“I decided to march [on] November 8,” she said. “I had already planned to come to D.C. for the historic inauguration of Hillary. But I was very much devastated by what happened, concerning what Donald Trump represented in regards to human and women’s rights. I realized things are no okay as I thought, and it marked the time for me to be more engaged and involved, no longer on the sidelines.”
Hailing from Brazil, Vaz DeNegri became an American citizen in September 2016, nearly 25 years after her sport brought her to the U.S.
“This year has been a lot of changes for me, realizing that I was on the sidelines thinking that everything was just going its course and that I was here in my chosen country, where things were done in the right way, not perfect, but in the right way. All of a sudden, I saw the country going in the wrong direction, and that was a horrible a realization for me, which got me into action mode very quickly.”
As the night came to end, the women left their unfinished margaritas and uneaten tortilla chips on the table, heading to their hotels and homes to rest up for the march.
When I met up with them the next morning, a few blocks from the start of the march, nearly 20 athletes (of all genders and orientations) were there holding a banner declaring, “Equality is a Team Sport.”
Mary Harvey, a retired goalkeeper who played on the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team that won the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and was a member of 1996 Olympic Gold Team, found the solidarity of the large crowd uplifting.
“For me it’s healing after what happened, and to see so many people out here is encouraging. And I think what we’re seeing right now is populism. Our country is a country of immigrants. It’s a country of tolerance. It’s a country of diversity, of compassion, and understanding, and love. To me, that’s what all these people here are saying that they care about.”
Harvey has long been an advocate for the advancement of both women’s sports and environmental causes, serving on the board for the Green Sports Alliance. Like other athletes, she saw the march as a chance to use her position and influence in a positive way,
“For me as an athlete,” Harvey told me, “it’s about leaving the world better than when you found it. You’re given your 15 minutes, and while you have those 15 minutes, you need to ask yourself how can you make it better for the group that comes after you?
“When I was part of the U.S. Women’s team, it was a wonderful group of changemakers back then. It’s also about saying displaying what you believe in and why it’s important to say and do something.”
The hardest part of the march might have been trying to keep the group together in a sea of 500,000 people.
“I’m feeling encouraged,” Abooali said. “I’m feeling hopeful that there’s a sense of unity still in this country. And to be standing right in the middle of that is so empowering. The feeling since 7 a.m. this morning when everyone was convening to meet, has just been so collaborative and positive. This is definitely a moment for the history books.”
Lohman said she hopes other athletes continue to take notes and learn how to use their voices and platforms effectively. “Be educated on the issues you’re speaking about and be very passionate about it. Be informed about the what current issues are and look towards groups that are already doing what you want to be part of. A group voice will always be stronger than an individual voice.”
Anya Alvarez is a former professional golfer on the LPGA Tour, based in Washington D.C. She now writes on gender and politics in sports.