March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. ESPN SportsCenter anchor Dianna Russini joined us to shed light on how growing up surrounded by sports in the Bronx and New Jersey and her determination to play collegiate soccer instilled vales that still drive her forward today.
USA TODAY: When did you first know that you wanted sports to be a critical part of your life?
DIANNA RUSSINI: I’m originally from the Bronx, and my older brother was very shy growing up. I don’t want to say he didn’t have a lot of friends, but he didn’t have a lot of friends. His friend became his little sister, but he treated me like a boy his age. We played every sport, including tackle football. He was basically my coach from the start. He taught me to be aggressive, and I’ll never forget, the schedules got crazy and I was a cheerleader the same season as my soccer season. I must have been about seven, and it bothered my brother so much that I wanted to be a cheerleader. He insisted that I had to pick, and my brother made me pick, we went in the front yard, he threw my pompoms, gave me a soccer ball, and said I was going to be the best soccer player. I had this competitiveness in me that I think I get from my mother, and from then on I attacked every sport. I played four sports in high school: soccer, basketball, softball and track. I played softball for three years, and I was very close with my grandfather, and he had colon cancer which was awful. We were buds, he never missed a game and he was getting really, really sick. He always thought I was going to be a distance runner at the Olympics because running came easy to me, with all the records at my elementary school from kindergarten to high school. It was always important to him that I run track for one year, and my senior year we sat around the table because it was my last chance to run track for my grandpa. I went out for the track team, he had me go run with the girls and I finished a minute ahead of everyone, and eventually I was all county and all-state. My grandpa was the reason why I thought of being a track runner.
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USAT: Why is participation in sports so important for girls today?
DR: It shapes and forms who you are going to become as a woman. I tap into every mistake, everything I succeeded in during my personal life now that I experienced as an athlete for what I do in my industry. In the workforce they call it critiquing, which is really just review. I don’t hear negative criticism from executives, I hear ways to make me better. There’s a fine line between criticism and ways to improve. I know the people who give me feedback want me to be the best sports anchor at ESPN, and that shows me what I need to work harder on. It’s the biggest advantage I have as a journalist. Sports has shaped me to become strong and open to critique.
USAT: What was your favorite sport growing up, and why?
DR: Soccer was always my favorite, because I loved the team element. My brother was a big baseball player and so was my father growing up, so I always thought baseball is what boys played. Soccer came really naturally to me, so I was better than most at 5 or 6, and people caught up to me, but I loved it so much. It wasn’t my best sport in high school; track was. I could have had a full scholarship to almost any DI program, but the coach at George Mason offered me the chance to come and try out, and I made the team and he found a place for me on the roster, to provide the New Jersey grit. He had all these Southern belles who played with such finesse and he needed someone who would throw their body in front of attacks to slow down the opponent. I think of that as my greatest accomplishment, walking on to a team and becoming a four-year starter. My coach was hard on me. In the spring time, offseason, he would be recruiting and in meetings, but he would take time almost every single day to go through drills with me on the field. I just wasn’t as naturally good as the other girls.
It’s not a chip on my shoulder. I like challenge and figuring out what I bring organically. As soon as I find the path to what I want, I run full speed ahead.
USAT: What is the biggest life lesson you have taken from your own competition?
DR: You’re going to lose. You’re going to lose at life, too. You’re also going to win, and you cannot become a victim of that moment. That has been the hardest lesson to learn. In my 20s, I suffered from living in the moments of the lows and highs. No one wanted to be around me in the low or high moments. I wasn’t a pleasant person to be around. But now I try to stay in between, which has been a valuable lesson I’ve learned through sports. Things change so often in life, and it’s certainly not fair.
USAT: Besides the knowledge of the subject you gained, have sports made you a better broadcast journalist?
DR: The advantage of being an athlete and now covering athletes is that you speak their language. When I talk to a player after a game, especially if they lost, I may not know exactly what that feels like in the playoffs or tournament, but I know what it feels like to lose and to win. The connection I have with athletes, they pick up on it in seconds. They know you’re a jock because of how you ask the questions, even the tone with which I ask the questions. They can understand because I give them that moment and space they need. Sports has helped me connect with athletes, but also understand storylines as well. Even sports I haven;t played, I can pick up on what’s important because of my involvement in sports. I also pick up on things that play into a successful team. I watch the bench, the coaches, all the interaction. All of those things play into being a part of a successful team. As a former athlete, there’s no way to better connect with an athlete than knowing what it takes. On top of that, the competitiveness in the job I do is very similar to sports. It’s very similar to everything I experienced as a kid. There are a lot of talented women’s sports journalists, everyone wants to be first and be on SportsCenter. If you have the difference in knowing how to achieve a goal, that works to your advantage.
I don’t know how people are successful that haven’t played sports. I give credit to them if they don’t have that background.
USAT: What advice would you give to girls who may want to take part in a particular sport but may not have access to it in their home town or local school?
DR: When I first moved to New Jersey, I played with boys for the first two years because there weren’t any girls programs yet. My age group, 83 birth year, from there or maybe 85 up grew up with just girls only, but I had a time period where I was playing with just boys. I would encourage girls who don’t have programs available to still try to be part of it. Even if that means just attending practices and games. The more interest they show, the more it will force change and force schools to have to bring them on. I never wanted to play football, but I’m seeing it more and more now, with more and more girls playing football. I think we’ll start to see all girls team. The more girls are allowed to do these things, what are you going to do to a girl who wants to play football? You can’t say no?
USAT: What else do you think is important for girls today to know about sports?
DR: Here’s the best hidden secret that my parents figured out early. Keeping me busy put me on a schedule which kept me out of trouble, kept me away from boys and forced me to have a small window to do my school work so I couldn’t procrastinate. IF I knew I had practice from 3-5 and then club practice from 7-9, I’d only have 6-6:45 to do my school work after dinner. That made me a very good student because I had to learn how to balance. I used to coach youth soccer, and one of the biggest problems I would run into were moms who were reluctant to push their daughters because they weren’t good athletes, and they were worried it wouldn’t just affect their daughters athletically but socially, because the successful athletes tend to bond together. I dealt with that a lot when I was coaching and I had to fight against it because I wanted to make sure they had to bond together as a larger group, so I would partner the midfielder who was really talented with the left back who was struggling a bit more. For moms, they need to put their fears aside and let their girls go out there and develop themselves. Another thing I always tell juniors and seniors in high school, whether they play a sport or not, do not be ashamed to pick a college that has a great basketball or football program. I went to a school that didn’t have a football program, but I’m really jealous of my girlfriends who went to big power programs, and they’re proud of that and that’s helped them in their career.
For little girls, even teenage girls, the best thing to do both mentally and emotionally and going through so many changes, is going out and participating because it will give you the skill set to be successful in life. My mom will tell you it was the most exhausting 18 years of life driving me around everywhere and changing in the backseat. My parents never made me do anything. They were very disciplined, but all they really taught me was that you never quit. I was not allowed to quit.
I think the other important thing that sports provides is that the mentors in my life are my former coaches. I wouldn’t be where I am in life without the people my family surrounded me with. Those coaches who shaped me are still part of my life. I feel like I’ve been able to attack this business and career with all the oomph I’ve given it because if I fail, I have this amazing safety net of people who will be able to catch me. Just knowing they’re there, all these people have done so much more to keep on working hard because I have all these great people to help me out.
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