DANA POINT, Calif. – After delivering a stirring speech Wednesday during the espnW Women + Sports Summit, swimming legend Amy Van Dyken wheeled herself off the St. Regis Monarch Beach Hotel’s ballroom stage.
In an adjacent hallway, she graciously greeted fans. They were inspired by the six-time Olympic gold medalist recounting her journey, which includes learning to walk again after being paralyzed from the waist down in a 2014 ATV accident.
Van Dyken wanted to experience more of the sixth annual espnW Summit, which continues today and concludes Friday. But even as Van Dyken smiled, she admitted to being in “excruciating pain. It just started ticking up again, so I have to go get that taken care of.”
Still, attending her first espnW Summit was important.
“I’ve been wanting to be part of this Summit forever, even when I was able-bodied,” Van Dyken said. “This is such a huge deal for women, for women’s sports. . . We’ve got to empower each other, we’ve got to boost each other up. We’ve got to let each other know that sometimes [life] is going to be hard, sometimes it’s going to suck, sometimes it’s going to be amazing. But the important thing is, we all live through it.”
Van Dyken is one of several notable speakers at the Summit, whose theme this year is “Vision. Action. Impact.”
Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, also felt compelled to attend her first Summit. She addressed being a pioneer and her vision of the NBPA’s future as part of the Wednesday evening agenda.
“There are some badass women here,” said Roberts, the first woman to head a major professional sports union in North America, with a chuckle.
After attending an ESPN Car Wash in Bristol, Conn., Roberts met several women who asked her to consider attending the espnW Summit.
“I knew immediately I had to be here,” she said. “I want to be able to interface with more women in this space, and this seemed to me a great opportunity. This is where I ‘live’ now, and I want to meet more people who look like me.”
Vice President, espnW, Laura Gentile, welcomed the attendees with a presentation that addressed the brand’s history, present and future. She said that 49 percent of people who identify themselves as sports fans are women.
“It’s a big opportunity, and it’s a lot of women to serve as we’ve never served before,” Gentile said. “We’re going to continue to drive the sports conversation across the entirety of The Walt Disney Company.”
Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of sportswear giant Under Armour, candidly shared his views on the women’s sports market with session attendees and espnW reporter/seminar host Jane McManus.
“We famously tried to ‘shrink it and pink it,'” Plank said of one early failed attempt to launch a successful UnderArmour women’s product line that was based upon duplicating its menswear.
He said his company learned to diversify its management team to help it better understand consumers.
Under Armour’s goal is to be a company “that’s reflective of the audience we’re trying to sell to” and that hiring more women has been one way to reach that goal.
Before the formal sessions began at the St. Regis, several attendees broke a sweat playing softball in nearby Mission Viejo, Calif.
Host Saddleback College played a squad that teamed ESPN employees with six cast members from the 1992 baseball film “A League Of Their Own.” Penny Marshall, the director of the film, watched the game – the visitors won, 6-2 – and taped a segment with espnW’s Sarah Spain.
Actress Anne Ramsay, who played Helen Haley in “League,” had compelling reasons to reunite with her Rockford Peaches teammates.
“I’ll do anything Geena Davis [her “League” co-star] tells me to do. She works so hard for young women and girls. It’s extraordinary,” said Ramsay. Davis was not able to attend because of a film commitment.
Women’s sports “is very important to me, to Geena, and so, of course, I would say yes to doing this,” Ramsay said.
To follow the espnW: Women + Sports Summit online via livestream, visit: espnw.com.