Olympians And Paralympians Come Together To Share Wisdom At Virtual Girls Fest

by Alex Abrams

Naya Tapper poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.


At one time, long before she became the first American to win five wrestling world championships, Adeline Gray couldn’t find a singlet that fit her properly while competing.
She also had a hard time walking into a locker room and getting some privacy before her high school wrestling matches.
Gray, a 2016 Rio Olympian, took a break from training on Wednesday to offer some words of encouragement at the first-ever Girls Fest hosted by the Women’s Sports Foundation. The event was part of the 35th annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day, which celebrates women’s sports and inspires women and girls to play, be active and reach their potential.
Gray told more than 300 viewers watching Girls Fest live on YouTube that she spent several years as a member of her high school wrestling team. She said she tried out just like her male teammates, but not everything was the same for her.
For example, she needed a singlet specially made for her.
“I also had to ask for some basic necessities like our locker room wouldn’t be open, so I would show up for weigh-ins early in the morning and there would be no girls bathrooms open at all,” Gray said from Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“So I’d have to go and find a janitor or call someone or kick all the boys out of the bathroom in order to allow me to just go to the bathroom.”
Several Olympians and Paralympians gathered virtually as a group to take part in Girls Fest, a free 90-minute program that was viewed across the country. 
Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who was born with spina bifida, spoke about how she had to file a lawsuit against her school district to compete in track while in high school.
Nicole Heavirland, meanwhile, told the largely female audience what it would mean for her to compete in her first Olympics as a member of the U.S. women’s rugby sevens team.
Heavirland didn’t get a chance to play as a reserve at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, but she’s now in position to make her debut at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
“Growing up, I didn’t have cable. We didn’t watch TV, but when we did, it was the Olympics,” Heavirland said. “I grew up watching all these amazing athletes, and to be one of them would be a dream come true.”
Girls Fest was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t prevent playful banter between the Olympians, the Paralympians and the program’s three hosts. Phaidra Knight, a World Rugby Hall of Famer and president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, served as one of the hosts, along with journalist Pepper Persley and basketball analyst LaChina Robinson.
“I think what I’m most excited about is we’ve had this extra year (to train for the Paralympics) and everybody is looking for some hope,” said Sophia Herzog, a swimmer who earned a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
“I think Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics is going to be a great sign of hope and seeing what athletes were able to persevere throughout this year.” 
Herzog said the pool she typically trains in was closed for four months during the pandemic, so she fell behind in her training like a lot of other athletes. It also forced her to improvise.
Herzog stayed in shape by riding her bike during the summer, and she even played in the Arkansas River to just get the feel of being in water again.
When Herzog’s pool finally opened, she couldn’t go as much as she’d like because it’s at a public recreation center. If the coronavirus cases in her county spike, the pool closes. 
“I have probably four different plans in place if my pool does shut down, of different pools that I could go to right now,” Herzog said. “But I’ve just been staying healthy.”
Like Heavirland, Naya Tapper is a member of the U.S. rugby sevens team. She admitted she hopes to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, so she can accomplish “something so rare” that would be a “proud moment for not only myself but my family and friends.”
However, as Tapper shared during Girls Fest, she didn’t always want to be a rugby player. In fact, she wanted to play in the NFL against grown men.
“If you knew me growing up, I was a very aggressive child. I had a lot of energy, and I liked to play football with the boys, and my brother was also really big into football,” Tapper said.
“So looking up to him, I wanted to be the first girl in the NFL and that kind of stuck with me until about seventh grade.” 

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.