Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI) co-founder Marlene Bjornsrud spoke to Palo Alto High School students on Jan. 21, urging listeners to utilize sports as a means of promoting a greater cause.

“No matter how old you are, no matter what sport you play, you’re doing something that is an absolute privilege, and you have the responsibility to pay it forward,” Bjornsrud said.

Though her career has largely been devoted to athletics — her resume includes the titles: college tennis coach, assistant director of athletics at Santa Clara University and general manager of Cyberrays, San Jose’s professional women’s soccer team — Bjornsrud was unable to fully participate in the sporting world as a high school orphan.

Born and raised in Colorado Springs during the height of the 1960s hippie movement, Bjornsrud grew up and struggled in an unfair world when women and men often played extremely distinct roles in the sporting world and when men were often more privileged than women.

“There were no sports opportunities for girls,” Bjornsrud said. “We had three choices when I was in high school: we could be cheerleaders, we could be part of the [dance team] or you could be in pep club.”

Bjornsrud, who took the pep club route, told Paly students she was on the sidelines supporting the boys’ teams at every basketball, football and ice hockey game.

“Never did I realize that I could have been playing those sports,” she said.

Given the opportunities available for female athletes today, Bjornsrud believes that women should not only look at sports as not only a means of self-improvement, but to also use this outlet as a catalyst to create positive change.

“It does no good to anyone to just take that opportunity and go ‘wow, I am so cool, I get to play these sports, I scored more points than anybody this year, I’m number one in the world,’” Bjornsrud said.

Bjornsrud is visiting different schools to serve as a voice to athletes, asking them to “choose to matter.”

“[I am] asking all athletes to make an intentional choice to matter in some way that suits them and fits them,” Bjornsrud said. “[I am] asking you to matter in some way that touches you deeply, to the point where you can’t do anything but try to make a difference.”

Her plea has been heard by athletes on a local and international level. Through BAWSI, female athletes assist with programs such as BAWSI Girls Rollers, which uses athletics to connect with girls in underprivileged elementary schools and disabled children, respectively.

BAWSI also equips and inspires athletes across the country to utilize their sport to have a positive impact on the world. With the help of the athletes that Bjornsrud and BAWSI have inspired, over 14,000 athletes have participated in the BAWSI Girls program and 1,000 disabled children in BAWSI Rollers.

Bjornsrud asks for two things from athletes: to pay their opportunities forward, and to stay in the game when they are done. Through her work with BAWSI empowering female athletes across the globe, Bjornsrud seems to have accomplished both.

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