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"Nobody's Gonna Be Their Best Until They're Authentically Themselves." — Vanessa Nygaard, Head Coach of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury
She’s not new to the WNBA. She’s been a player, drafted in the league’s second year, and played perhaps her best ball in Portland and Miami. She’s also been a league coach, for the Washington Mystics. But she’s never before been a head coach of a WNBA franchise, let alone one as decorated as the Mercury, which has three championship rings and just missed its fourth last year. She’s also stepping into the coaching shoes of arguably one of the most successful coaches in league history, her friend and former teammate Sandy Brondello. So while there are some big shoes to fill and there’s pressure, to be sure, there’s also a huge upside to the job.
The Phoenix Mercury boasts a roster loaded with talent and chief among the All-Stars is a player who is widely considered perhaps the most dominant player in a generation, maybe ever, to play in the WNBA — Brittney Griner, or “B.G.” as she’s known around the league. For the uninitiated, Griner is so dominant that if we lived in a different world, LeBron would be considered the “B.G.” of the NBA.
Coach Vanessa Nygaard on the court
Photo courtesy of Phoenix Mercury
“When you need a bucket, she’s a bucket,” Nygaard says of Griner. “When things weren’t working well, we’d just throw it into her and she’d get you points.”
If you’re wondering why the name Brittney Griner rings a bell, it’s because you haven’t been living under a rock the last few months. She is the player who’s been locked up in a Russian gulag and, for the last several months, used by Vladimir Putin as a pawn in a dangerous, high-stakes game of international chess. The Russian President is using Griner to pressure the U.S. to get whatever the hell it is he’s trying to get — and let’s be honest, nobody, not even Putin probably, has any idea what that is anymore.
At this point you might be thinking geopolitical security coupled with European war negotiation strategy is outside of a WNBA head coach’s job description — and you’d be right — yet here we are. But hey, Nygaard went to Stanford, so we’re all good, right?
All kidding aside, to say that it hasn’t been a distraction would be like saying Vesuvius wasn’t a concern to the residents of Pompeii. (Google it, you’ll get it later.) Trying to keep reporters interested in how your players are posting up in the paint while all that’s going on hasn’t been easy. Nor has it been a breeze to completely re-invent an offense, or ask a group of All-Stars to suddenly fill roles that are different than what made them All-Stars in the first place. Yet she’s done this, navigating her team to the brink of a playoff berth while getting to know them and a new coaching staff.
Then there’s the human side, getting to know a new area and the fun things that go with it, like monsoons and haboobs. So it’s understandable that Coach hasn’t had time to figure out some of life’s necessities, like, where she should get her first haircut in Phoenix, which was precisely where she was coming from when our interview started.
“I had been getting my haircut in L.A.,” she said, during the first few moments of our Zoom call. When she saw the puzzled look on my face, she explained that her family was still living in Los Angeles when the season started and she would visit a lot. So, she would just get it cut there. Now that her family has fully moved to Phoenix, she had to finally find a new place.
It’s the little things.
Over the next 30 minutes, Coach Nygaard and I would have an illuminating discussion about a variety of topics. While she was born not far from where the Mercury play, it turns out we both went to high school about 30 minutes apart, in the northern part of San Diego county. I graduated two years ahead of her but our high school sports teams would have played each other, though not in Girls Basketball. That’s because until Coach Nygaard’s mother got involved, her high school didn’t have a girl’s basketball team.
During our wide-ranging interview we would talk about that and how Title IX may have changed the game 50 years ago, but what’s needed now for that change to be fully realized is enforcement, perhaps on the local level, to make sure every kid gets the same opportunities she had. Coach Nygaard shared how she followed her mother’s example years later, becoming an advocate herself for a team she coached at the High School level, making sure “separate but equal” wasn’t applied.
We would also talk about why representation matters. Coach Nygaard is an out and proud woman playing in the WNBA. That’s important to her. She’s aware not everyone is as lucky as she’s been.
“I never thought of myself as being a visible member of the LGBTQ community, or anything like that,” Nygaard, said. However, the coach believes that when people are in positions like hers, it’s important to accept the reality that they’re role models.
“We don’t all have families that are supporting and loving and accepting of us,” she said. For those people, especially for young kids, it’s important to see some positivity is possible at the end. “I’ve had success in my career. I have a loving family. It’s important to see that there is joy, there are good things to come… For me, that’s the only reason why I would say anything or why I would be front-facing in any way — to provide some hope for that kid who may be at home and feel like, ‘ugh, I can’t do this anymore.’”
But more than offering hope, being allowed to be who you are, to be your authentic self, is about being your best self, Nygaard said in our interview. “Nobody’s gonna be their best until they’re authentically themselves,” she said. As a player, Nygaard believes she wasn’t her best until she knew she was allowed to be who she really was.
This is a universal truth that isn’t just shared in the locker room. It reaches the upper-most echelon of the organization, perhaps one of the most progressive in the league, which, to be clear, is saying something.
Mercury President Vince Kozar feels it’s important for the organization as a whole to make sure the LGBTQ community recognizes the Mercury as both resource and partner. “As an organization, we pride ourselves on being as inclusive as possible – whether that’s centering women or historically marginalized communities. And the reality is we’re a product that provides visibility and representation for groups that need that, one of which is the LGBTQ+ community. We have athletes who are out, outspoken and living very authentically. We want to show up for them. We want to tell their stories because we know those stories impact folks everywhere.”
That visibility and authenticity is a big reason why Nygaard is thrilled to be a part of the Phoenix Mercury. Another reason she loves stalking the sidelines of the Footprint Center, the Mercury fans known as the X-Factor.
“Our fans are free to be themselves,” Nygaard says. When you come to a Mercury game, she says, “You’re not going to see just one kind of fan. You’ll see families there with young kids. You’ll see older gay couples. You’ll see just random basketball fans who just love basketball. You’ll see all kinds of people.” Ultimately, Nygaard says, “Everyone is there to just support the Mercury.”
But one thing Nygaard is especially proud of: “Our Pride night.” She swears “It’s the best in the history of sports.”
Kozar may agree, and he has some bragging rights to back it up. “We were the first local sports organization to have a presence at Phoenix Pride, the first to march in the Pride parade, the first to host a Pride Night at a game, and the first to sign local organization ONE Community’s Unity Pledge in support of non-discrimination in public accommodations and the workplace. And if that made even one person feel like they were seen or not alone or valued or that our games were a safe space, then every bit of it was worth it.”
Many of the Mercury players are themselves part of the community. In fact, Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, took center stage to advocate for her spouse’s release during the WNBA All-Star game in June, a reality that was not lost on Nygaard. During our interview, we talked about the fact that its willingness to put a queer person center-stage on its biggest night sets the WNBA apart from other professional sports organizations — but maybe not for long.
While other pro leagues can now boast out athletes who are active and playing, it is true that few have done more than the WNBA to embrace them. What is also true is that within the WNBA, few have franchises that have done more than the Mercury to make those players and coaches feel at home
Maybe that’s the real X-Factor.
Quidditch is A Real Sport
If you mixed hockey and soccer played on a pitch shaped like a large oval, put a dozen or so witches and wizards on flying broomsticks trying to smack quaffles into one of a trio of goals the size of Hula Hoops placed at each end of that pitch, sprinkle in a ton of chaos and a little harmless violence, you’d essentially have Quidditch, the sport described by J.K. Rowling in her beloved Harry Potter franchise.
The game was first moved off the pages of Rowling’s books and somehow onto terrestrial earth officially in 2005 at Middlebury College in Vermont by Alex Benepe and Xander Manshel, who we suspect are muggles.
“Harry Potter” Author’s Anti-Trans Rhetoric Too Much For Players
Magical or not, since then the game has spread to at least 40 countries and nearly 600 teams and even has a few international competitive associations dedicated to fostering its growth and development.
Recent developments have caused several of those organizations to begin seriously discussing dropping the beloved "Quidditch" moniker from its name. For starters, Warner Brothers, the production company for the Harry Potter movie franchise, still owns the trademark rights to the name. However, the primary motivation has been Rowling herself, who has made a series of tweets and follow-up comments that have been vehemently anti-Trans.
This became official yesterday in a bold and unequivocal statement as several organizations across the world announced they were formally moving away from the Quidditch name and into a new era.
Among those organizations were two in the United States, U.S. Quadball (USQ) and Major League Quadball (MLQ). The two organizations have lead this discussion internationally and even issued a joint statement condemning Rowling’s comments last year. “Our sport has developed a reputation as one of the most progressive sports in the world on gender equality and inclusivity, in part thanks to its gender maximum rule, which stipulates that a team may not have more than four players of the same gender on the field at a time.”
U.S. Quidditch Is Now "U.S. Quadball: Major League Quidditch Becomes "Major League Quadball" In August
In their joint statement yesterday announcing the name changes, USQ and MLQ said, “Both organizations feel it is imperative to live up to this reputation in all aspects of their operations and believe this move is a step in that direction.”
While USQ has already officially adopted the new name, MLQ has said it will officially adopt it with its MLQ Championships in Maryland next month.
Among the many places Quadball is played at is The Sin City Classic, the largest annual LGBTQ sporting event in the world, which takes place in Las Vegas. The next event will be from January 12 – 15, 2023. This tournament is sanctioned by U.S. Quadball.
Since its earthy, non-fictional inception, the sport has evolved to resemble dodgeball, lacrosse, and rugby more closely.
Quadball is played with a volleyball as the quaffle, dodgeballs as the bludgers, and a neutral player running around with a yellow velcro tail attached to the back of their waist as the golden snitch. Of course, all the players are jockeying for position and trying to score while straddling a broomstick. As mentioned earlier, each match is played with a “four maximum” rule, meaning no more than four persons of any one gender are allowed to compete at any one time. However, when the “Seekers” take the pitch, that number can increase to five.
While the organization is keeping alive much of the tradition of the sport as described in Rowling’s text — the snitch, the seekers, the bludgers, etc. — it’s unclear if it will still enjoy the same draw without an instantly recognizable link to the Potter franchise.
That doesn’t seem to concern organizers, who now see a different opportunity the name change presents.
“In less than 20 years, our sport has grown from a few dozen college students in rural Vermont to a global phenomenon with thousands of players, semi-pro leagues, and international championships,” said USQ Executive Director Mary Kimball. “Our organizations are committed to continuing to push Quadball forward.”
Echoing Kimball, MLQ Co-Commissioner Amanda Dallas pointed where that direction might be. “Bringing full creative control of the name of our sport to the vibrant community of players and fans that has grown and sustained it will allow our organizations to take the next step,” she said. “We are now able to pursue the kinds of opportunities that our community has dreamed about for years.”
It is worth noting that several stars from the Harry Potter franchise have made public statements disagreeing with Rowling’s comments. However, some have gone further. The franchise’s biggest stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, who played Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, respectively, have strongly condemned Rowling’s comments.
Chances are you have never heard of Janae Kroc who was born Matthew Raymond Kroczaleski, the transgender subject of the award-winning documentary Transformer. Janae is a former Marine who made a name for herself (as Matt) as a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder. In 2009, she set the male world record in the 220-pound weight class with 2,551 pounds. And while she’s not as powerful as she used to be (in the physical sense at least), she can still squash you like a bug. For instance, in 2017 while 18 months into her estrogen therapy, Janae lifted 210 pounds for 10 reps and deadlifted 605 pounds.
Janae Kroc and her weightlifting medal
Recently, she has accelerated her transition from male to female, an evolution a decade-plus in the making, which has come with its own set of challenges.
Speaking with Janae, she opened up about the discrimination she has faced since coming out, including how the bodybuilding community has both shunned and embraced her. She also discussed raising three well-adjusted, supportive sons (she and their mother divorced as a result of her coming out), the long, costly road to gender-reassignment surgery, and how some burdens weigh more than any barbell she’s ever touched.
Janae – as Matt, you were a world champion powerlifter, badass bodybuilder, and a spokesperson for dietary supplement brand MuscleTech. You revealed in Transformer, which screened at Miami’s OUTshine Film Festival, that you lost the latter gig after coming out as transgender. How did that happen?
Kroc: MuscleTech actually found out that I was transgender several months before I was outed publicly. They had been sent some old pictures from my Facebook page, which was private at the time, and called me to ask if it was true. I immediately confirmed that I was in fact transgender and had been very open about it for years. They told me they were having a board meeting concerning this and would let me know their decision in a few days.
When they contacted me again they were very clear that the reason they were letting me go was because of my being transgender. They immediately pulled all of my content from their websites and media advertising, canceled all of my scheduled appearances for the remainder of the year, and informed me they would not be renewing my contract. They stated that while they were very happy with the job I had done for them over the previous eight years and really liked me as a person they felt that it would be very bad PR for them and it would hurt sales, especially overseas in the more conservative cultures.
What’s your take on this, and is there any recourse for what amounts to blatant discrimination?
Kroc: While this was clearly discrimination and I would have been protected under Canadian law had I chosen to pursue legal action (MuscleTech is based in Toronto), the job I was hired to do for them was very different than most. They had hired me solely to represent their products and to be one of the faces of their company. That was my job for them and what they were paying me to do. Even though I was shocked, and I felt they made a very poor decision, the way I saw this was that if they didn’t want their company represented by a transgender person then that was their prerogative. I do feel that they missed a huge opportunity to do the right thing and that this will come back to haunt them in the future, but I chose not to pursue legal action against them.
Do you feel like Matt is a separate person from Janae?
Kroc: I see Matt as simply a part of who I am. All of the traits I possessed as Matt that allowed me to achieve the things I did are still within me. Matt was simply a limited version of who I am; he was just a portion of who I am today. I will say that there are certainly differences between Matt and Janae, and my reactions to certain situations are markedly different now than they would have been in the past, but I still don’t view him as a separate person. I still lived through all of those experiences and they helped shape me into the person I am today. I see my current self as the evolution of who I am, and I am still evolving all the time.
You came out to your three boys when they were young, and they’re each very well adjusted to your transition. That, for me, was probably the best part of Transformer – seeing how they interact with and accept you as you are. But have they always been so accepting? Were there any times when they pushed back, and how did you overcome that?
Kroc: Everyone is always shocked to hear this, but it is the absolute truth: They have always been 100% supportive and accepting of who I am. Since I told them at such a young age, they had not yet been conditioned by society to view being transgender as a bad thing, so to them, it was just another aspect of who I am. And since I never demonstrated any shame or gave them any reason to view it negatively, they have never had any reason to see it as something bad.
You revealed yourself as Janae to your mom for the first time in the documentary, and naturally, she was anxious about it. I read on your Instagram, though, that she actually decided on your female name. I’m guessing you asked her to do that. Did that help her along her path to acceptance?
Kroc: The truth is my mom didn’t actually pick my name per se, but she did have a hand in helping me to decide on Janae. Janae was the name my mom had picked for me had I been born female. She told me that when I was a child and it always stuck with me. I thought it was a pretty name and unique, so when the time came to decide on a new name, Janae was the obvious choice for me.
Janae Kroc and her WPO 1st Place medal
You touched briefly on your sexual orientation in the film, expressing that you’re still attracted to women but open to dating a man. Can you explain that?
Kroc: Like my gender identity, my sexual orientation is somewhat blurry. I have always been very attracted to women and still am. I have never really found men attractive, but as a woman, it does feel very natural to be in the feminine role with a man. I am open to dating whomever I feel a strong connection to, and it really has more to do with who they are as a person than their gender or genitals.
If I may be more personal, has your hormone regimen affected to which gender you’re more or less attracted?
Kroc: They did not have any effect on who I am attracted to, although my body and self-perception have changed; the idea of dating men has become a more realistic possibility. As a male, I had no interest in men whatsoever but as a woman, I am at least open to the idea.
In the film, you talked about how cost-prohibitive gender reassignment surgery is. Where are you at in the transition process?
Kroc: For the average adult trans woman to fully transition, it can often cost up to $100,000, and for trans men, even more. Personally, I have already spent $70,000 to $80,000, and I am still not finished. I am in the process of scheduling my bottom surgery right now and hope to get that done as soon as possible, but realistically it will probably be at least late this year or early next year before I am able to make that happen. Fortunately, more and more insurances in the United States are covering transgender surgeries and I really hope that trend continues.
As far as other procedures go, I am definitely going to look more into hair transplant surgery as not having to wear a wig would be huge for me. With my active lifestyle and love for the water, wigs just aren’t practical, and without one on it becomes very difficult for me to present as female with my very short and very thin hair. I am still very interested in breast augmentation surgery, but as long as I remain very muscular it is difficult to achieve a natural look so for now I am holding off on that.
Post-bodybuilding career, what are your goals now?
Kroc: As far as my training is concerned I still want to remain muscular and strong but lean and not quite as big as I was previously. I still waffle somewhat about whether or not to drop a significant amount of weight and transition into a more “athletic look” but for now that is on hold.
In regard to my overall life, I hope to continue speaking publicly about transgender and gender non-conforming people and the issues we face. I also hope to continue empowering women, especially those that are interested in pursuing strength sports and do my best to promote equality as an intersectional feminist. Professionally, I hope to achieve enough financial independence to allow me to pursue those goals full-time.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The 2022 ASANA Softball World Series will bring together nearly 70 of the most competitive adult softball teams in the country to Washington, D.C. August 16 – 20. The tournament, which welcomes LGBTQ cisgender women, transgender men, transgender women, and non-binary people and their allies, will bring together top teams from nearly 30 cities across the country. The event is being welcomed to the D.C. area by the Chesapeake & Potomac Softball League (CAPS), the DC area’s LGBTQ softball league, members of which are serving as the hosting committee for the tournament.
“We are very excited to be heading to the D.C. area this year for the 2022 ASANA Softball World Series,” said ASANA Commissioner Angela Smith. “The Host Committee has been fantastic to work with to make sure this event is one of our best ever. I know all of our teams are looking forward to experiencing all there is to do and see in the area and playing some incredible softball along the way.”
“Having the bid to host the ASANA World Series before the pandemic, the DC community was eagerly anticipating the event,” said Tony Mace, Co-Chair of the DC Host Committee. “Little did we know that the world would shut down for over a year, but our Host City committee never stopped working to bring the best player experience for ASANA athletes and families. After three years in the making, the Host City committee and I are looking forward to welcoming the first players who arrive.”
For the fourth consecutive year, a selection of the tournament games, including all championship games, will be live-streamed in partnership with the Cloud Sports Network (CSN) through the ASANA Facebook page and YouTube channel. But, for the first time ever, those games will also be available to stream for free on OutVoices.us through an exclusive partnership agreement.
“Typically the ASANA Softball World Series will get anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 unique viewers each year just from the ASANA social media channels,” said Roman Jimenez. “That’s an already large and highly targeted audience who want to watch LGBTQ cis women, trans men, trans women, and non-binary softball players compete at the highest level. To be able to increase that audience by a factor of 3 or 4 as a result of our partnership with OutVoices.us is an incredible opportunity for a much larger portion of our community to be exposed to competitive sports by and for our community and our allies.”
For those who haven’t seen their coverage before, Jimenez cautions against having low expectations. “We’re not just a lone cell camera jury-rigged to a backstop,” he said. “We have multiple cameras, on-field microphones, on-screen graphics, instant replay, and professional broadcasters describing the action as it’s unfolding. We are as close to the Queer version of ESPN as you can get.”
The Cloud Sports broadcast team includes as its analyst ASANA Hall of Famer Rosalyn Bugg, who in addition to having competed as both a coach and player at the ASANA Softball World Series, is also the Commissioner of the Women’s + division of the Greater Los Angeles Softball Association (GLASA) and runs that division’s tournament at the Sin City Classic, the largest annual LGBTQ sporting event in the world. In 2022, Bugg was also inducted into the GLASA Hall of Fame. Describing the action play-by-play will be Jimenez, a veteran broadcaster and softball player, and coach who has helmed various championship teams for over 25 years. In 2019 Jimenez was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his hometown LGBTQ softball league in San Diego, America’s Finest City Softball League (AFCSL). In addition, both Bugg and Jimenez are championship-certified USA Softball umpires.
“Both Roman and I know the game,” said Bugg, “and we work great together as a team.”
As part of the 2021 ASANA Softball World Series broadcast, Bugg introduced player shout-outs to family members and friends who were watching the broadcast. This created an incredibly engaging atmosphere on the ASANA social platforms.
“I love highlighting not only the action on the field but also the players responsible for it,” Bugg said. “This tournament is all about the players and telling their stories is a privilege we take very seriously.”
The ASANA Softball World Series will consist of four divisions. The B Division is the highest level of skill and often includes players with a history of playing the fast-pitch version of the sport in high school or college level. The C Division includes players who, while highly skilled, aren’t quite at the same level as the B Division-caliber of players, or whose skills may have slowed with age. The D and E Divisions are for both newer players and for those who may have aged out of the higher divisions. Since many players have been playing in ASANA-affiliated associations for 20+ years, many will have experienced every division of play before settling into where their skills are currently best suited.
In total, nearly 3,000 athletes will be headed to D.C. for this year’s event and as you might guess, in addition to hundreds of volunteers, it takes a lot of money to make an event like the 2022 ASANA Softball World Series even possible. For that, both ASANA and the CAPS Host Committee have been engaging with sponsors to help offset costs.
“We want to thank our sponsors on both the national and local levels. Without them we couldn’t provide the experience we do for our players, their families, and for our fans,” said Smith. “We look forward to being able to share these experiences with them and with our live-streaming audience on our social channels and right here on OutVoices.us.”
Coverage begins Thursday, August 25th with early tournament play, continuing during “Elimination Friday” on August 26th all the way through to “Championship Saturday” on August 27th, when all four divisional championships will be broadcast. Stay tuned to this page for updates on game time and team announcements and to watch the games live.
ASANA — Amateur Sports Alliance of North America — was created in 2007 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of amateur athletics for all persons regardless of gender, age, race, creed, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation with a special emphasis on the participation of women, trans men, trans women, non-binary and agendered people.
The organization currently has 25 member cities across the United States and hosts the annual ASANA Softball World Series which brings together over 70 teams for a 4-day championship tournament. The World Series has four divisions to provide varying competitive levels of play, with "B" being the most skilled and the "E" supporting the most recreational.
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