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With six games left to play, the Chicago Sky are making a final push for the WNBA playoffs, and they've got a pretty powerful fan cheering for them. Late last month, Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon joined the Sky as part of their honorary "Title IX Team," just a few weeks after declaring Title IX Day on June 23 in Illinois.
After spending some time with the Sky players in the locker room, Simon said she's already trying to recruit a few for public office.
"I'm going to send each of them a letter with connections on how they can get in touch with either the Democratic or Republican programs in Illinois to promote women running for office," Simon said. "I'm gonna see if we can get a few future governmental leaders out of the Chicago Sky!"
Simon knows how powerful athletics can be in shaping bold, effective leaders. The 51-year-old lawyer, teacher and mother of two won the high jump at the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national meet in 1982. She earned All-American honors after taking third in the high jump at the first NCAA Division III championship meet in 1983.
Simon still holds indoor and outdoor high jump records at her alma mater, Wittenberg University, and sheepishly admits to checking the school's website every once in a while to see if her marks still stand.
Simon was among the first women to benefit from the passage of Title IX. She was a member of the track team in high school and won a Maryland state title in the high jump before heading off to Wittenberg, a Division III liberal arts college in Ohio. Upon arriving at the school, she learned that they didn't have a women's indoor track team.
"When I got to college I'd kind of gotten used to a little bit of parity [in sports]," Simon said. "So when they didn't have a women's indoor track team, I presented myself to the men's coach and said, 'Here I am. I'd like to practice with you guys.' He kind of hemmed and hawed and after awhile said, 'Well, if you're serious about practicing, there's no problem, you can practice with us.'"
She ran sprints with the guys, did one-legged hops up the stadium stairs with the guys, and even traveled with the guys to compete against schools that had women's indoor teams. For Simon, being the only woman on a team full of guys just wasn't a big deal.
"I suppose I was a young idealist, and not knowing the intricacies of Title IX I just assumed it meant flat-out equality," she explained. "I just really felt I had every right to be on that track team."
Simon's parents -- including her father, Paul Simon, a former U.S. Senator who was also the lieutenant governor of Illinois at one time -- taught her to push herself.
"Neither of my parents were very athletic," Simon said, "but they were very encouraging of me to do anything I wanted to do. That I should know no limits, particularly limits that were imposed based on some sort of prejudicial basis like 'girls can't do that.'"
By Simon's sophomore year, there was a women's indoor track team.
Simon said her ability to push herself as an athlete has carried over into her career. Her athletic achievements paid off immediately following college, as she received an NCAA postgraduate scholarship. She went on to graduate from Georgetown law school and worked as an attorney before getting involved in politics.
As the chair of the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association, Simon was a super delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte earlier this month. She focuses a lot of her energy on education reform and women's issues. She hopes to see another generation get a boost like the one she got from the passing of Title IX.
"In 40 years we can see how much good Title IX has done," Simon explained. "But there's still a lot of young women who are capable and would benefit greatly from athletic participation, but don't have the access to sport that they would if they had more recourses. I think that's our next challenge, to make sure there are no gender barriers, but make sure there are no other barriers, either."
Despite her busy schedule, Simon is still reaping the benefits of sport, going on cycling vacations with her husband of 25 years, Perry, and competing in triathlons. She and Perry also volunteer as track meet officials at Southern Illinois University, measuring the long and triple jumps and occasionally the high jump.
"I try to keep a close eye on how high the women are jumping," Simon said with a laugh. "I'm pleased to report that I haven't seen anyone jump higher than I did."
It's just that competitive spirit that helped Simon to succeed as an athlete in college, and now as lieutenant governor. She hopes to pass that on to a new generation of female leaders. Maybe even a player or two from the Sky.