Breaking gender barriers through sports scholarships

toni harris equipo.jpg

Three sportswomen reached a new high this year, opening educational opportunities.

Photo: CBS Sports.

Sports scholarships for women are not a novelty. Universities that offer scholarships to women for sports like gymnastics, basketball, athletics, and more, are standard. Still, there are sports where the proportion of female athletes to males is small or nonexistent.

Until recently, it was unthinkable for women to stand out in competitive sports and reach a level of excellence where they could receive financial support and secure scholarships. Here are the stories of three such women who have broken the gender barrier by shining in traditionally male sports such as football, eSports, and trap shooting.

The last line of defense

Toni Harries is 23 years old and no stranger to challenges. She was put into state care when she was only four years old. During her freshman year at Toledo University, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which she beat into remission. In 2019, she accepted a scholarship to play varsity football.

Harris was the first woman to land a scholarship to play as a free safety on the defensive line up. Other women have achieved this but in different positions such as kicker or receiver. Her first season with the Central Methodist University team started on August 31, 2019.

The idea of playing with teams entirely composed of men doesn't scare Harris. "I don't feel like it's out of the norm for me to be playing with men," she says. "I mean, Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5 foot, 6 inches, and I'm much bigger," said the defensive back about the NFL wide receiver. She added that in her experience, football is not about physical but mental strength. “If you're mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you, to get over that and go to the next play, then you belong on the field,” she explained.

Photo: Sports Illustrated.

Photo: Sports Illustrated.

A gamer and a scholar

Competitive video games have not been recognized worldwide as a sport until recently. The number of athletes in this discipline compared to others is very small; even more so, when it comes to women. This is what makes Julia Cwierz's achievement even more impressive.

Cwierz's whole career has been about opening paths even before her male colleagues. After starting on eSports at the age of 13, she discovered League of Legends, choosing the position of “jungler.” This strategic role dictates the team strategies and is useful in supporting teammates. In Cwierz's case, it allowed her to hone a specific and technical way of playing.

She got so good at the game that when Roehampton University, where she was studying, formed their first League of Legends eSports team, she was appointed the captain. Her team went on to compete in the National University eSports League (NUEL).

Her outstanding participation, as well as her excellent academic performance, finally caught Roehampton University's attention enough to grant Cwierz a scholarship to continue her law studies, the first one awarded to an eSports player in England.

Even while focusing on maintaining her academic performance, Cwierz noticed the low presence of women in eSports and took it as a personal mission to balance things out to bring more diversity to online matches.

"Something I feel strongly about is female representation in eSports. Currently, there are no women in the top League of Legends eSports teams, even though 45% of people who play games are women."

She also has conveyed her intention to create an all-female team to promote the participation of women in the League of Legends’ competitive circuit.

Photo: Julia Cwierz /Twitter.

Photo: Julia Cwierz /Twitter.

The best shot for a better future

The female clay-target-shooting division has been around for a while. Women competing in this sport is not a novelty, but what is unusual is that an athlete in the female division attained an equal or better score than the participants from the male division.

Grace Marlen, a competitor in the Scholastic Clay Target Program Nationals in Marengo, Ohio, achieved a perfect score of 200 points in the 16-yard American Trap to win the Ladies division. She also tied with the defending champion of the male division. This led to a tiebreaker shoot-off, where Marlen scored all 75 targets, the highest overall total in the American Trap Class, and she received a $7,600 Browning College Scholarship. She was the first female athlete to achieve that.

"I wasn't really keeping track. But I knew that if I dropped one, I would lose the competition and also the scholarship."

She emphasized the importance of being focused in a shooting competition because it is a discipline fundamentally different from sports like soccer or basketball. “In solo competitions, you don't have the support of a team to keep distractions and stress at bay; you have to do it on your own, especially with big crowds,” she explained.

"I was thinking it would be cool if I could be the first girl to win the overall championship. Then to win the scholarship as well! It took about 30-45 minutes after the competition, but when it sunk in that I had done it, I could hardly believe it."

The elite shooter commented about the weight of her achievement not registering with her right away. She was competing for the love of the sport more than the intention of breaking barriers. But she reflected on that afterward, “Winning that championship and the Browning College scholarship are a step that will benefit women who seek to practice the sport at the college level.”

Photo: Derik Holtmann.

Photo: Derik Holtmann.

Sports are among the most important platforms to obtain financial support if you want to study a career. This path opens opportunities to become a professional athlete or to get a degree in any area of student interests.

If more women take their places in educational institutions through athletic talent, educational offers become more diverse. Their achievements also help to break assumptions and misconceptions about what women can do and what they can earn. This way, education and sports work together to be what they are supposed to be ideally: social equalizers.