For Women’s History Month, El Estoque Sports set out to highlight the stories of women in sports in our community. From the misogyny entrenched in professional women’s sports teams to the unique experiences female athletes face in male-dominated sports, women have endured challenges, shattered stereotypes and inspired their communities throughout the athletic world.
Cover: Photo by Janice Chiu | Used with permission
Dancing, diving and rowing
Profiling three MVHS female athletes
Dancing: Junior Kina Siu
As the doors to the NBC’s “World of Dance” stage opened, junior and dancer Kina Siu heard the cheers from the audience echo throughout the studio. Beneath her was an entirely glass, circular stage, with equipment underneath to project special effects. Siu looked up at the crowd and was blinded by the studio’s lighting until she was able to recognize the faces of Jennifer Lopez, Derek Hough and Ne-Yo sitting on the chairs in front of her, staring directly at her and her team. “Is this real? It doesn’t feel like real life. I can’t believe they are right in front of me,” she thought to herself.
As she was only 11 years old at the time of her performance, Siu expresses the disbelief and shock she had felt as she performed on one of NBC’s sets — she had never danced in front of an audience to this degree.
“I was at a loss for words,” Siu said. “I was just super nervous because I wanted to do really well and make all the hard work worth it. Before we actually began the dance, I was just like, ‘Calm down, if you keep freaking out, it’s not gonna go well.’ But once the music started and I started dancing, everything just worked out.”
Siu shares that she witnessed the behind-the-scenes action of creating a national dance television show and learned how to deal with the pressure of performing in front of professional cameras and a grand live audience, emphasizing that this professional experience provided her with “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
However, Siu ended up returning to this same stage just two years later at age 14 for the third season of “World of Dance.” In that two-year time period, Siu reflected on aspects of her overall experience that she could have done differently, such as answering interviewer’s questions more confidently. She recalls “feeling very unsure of [her] answers and at a loss of words” due to being surrounded by 20 staff members watching her in silence as she responded to the questions.
Siu was only two years old when she started recreational dance classes and five years old when she joined a competitive dance team. Her mom first noticed Siu’s interest in dance when Siu would dance along to the show “Dancing with the Stars.” Wanting Siu to explore her budding fascination with dance, her mom placed her in some dance classes. At first, Siu only participated in dance for fun, but her dance career started to get more serious as time progressed.
Siu later switched from her old studio to her current one, NorCal Dance Arts, at age 10, which she describes as a nerve-wracking transition since she had to meet new people and adapt to a different environment. However, once she was introduced to her teammates and teacher, she started to feel comfortable.
“They were so welcoming, and my teacher really opened up my perspective on dance and how much more there is in the dance world and what I can do with it,” Siu said. “My team has been a great community and like a second family I can lean on. They really taught me a lot about teamwork — I’m always inspired by them.”
After experiencing a variety of highs and lows in her dancing career, Siu plans to continue pursuing her passion for dance, as she feels that she can express her creativity through the sport.
“When I got older, I really saw [dance] as a career and something that I love doing and I can’t imagine my life without it,” Siu said. “I’ve always had dance as something I could go to as sort of an outlet, where I’m just focusing on bettering myself and working on my technique and skills. It’s something that I could just hone in on and not worry about other worries I have. I really love that aspect about dance where you can never be perfect at it — you just [have to] keep working on it.”
Diving: Senior Allison Leung
The smell of roasted marshmallows filled the air as the movie “Get Out” played softly in the background. Senior Allison Leung and her MVHS diving teammates circled around their coach’s bonfire after finishing homemade spaghetti and marinara, garlic bread, chicken and a chocolate bundt cake. As the night progressed, the team played games together, making sure to snap photos as often as possible so that they could remember this happy moment.
Along with these occasional reunions at her coach’s house, which happened about twice per season, Leung shares that her team would meet every Friday at Jake’s Pizza Restaurant, or even sometimes at a teammate’s house before the pandemic began. Leung notes that one of the greatest choices of her sports career was joining the MVHS Diving team.
As a kid, her mom had noticed Leung’s passion in both gymnastics and swimming, so she recommended that Leung “combine the two” and start diving. Leung began diving in 2011 with Santa Clara Diving’s club team — after joining the club, she advanced through the levels relatively quickly due to her strong gymnastics background.
“Ever since I was young, I started diving with some pretty old divers,” Leung said. “Most of the girls were already seniors when I was in fifth grade. All the older girls had more experience, so they basically became my mentors in the sport and still to this day, give me advice about life in general, and also diving.”
Leung also felt comforted by her teammates when she won first place in the 2014 Junior Olympic National Competition, making her the 12th best diver in the U.S. in the 11 and under girls group. This event occurred during her first couple years of competitive diving, and she feels that it was “definitely one of [her] high points” playing her sport.
“The year before [Nationals], I had gotten second to last place out of 30 people — then after a year of grinding, I felt pretty confident [and I decided I] was good enough to move on,” Leung said. “[When] going to that Nationals, I had no expectations. I knew I was going against the best divers, but I had my teammates’ support. All the older girls, they were basically like my older sisters. They’ve definitely defined my personality the most, even to this day.”
However, even with this support, Leung had to adjust to various aspects of the national competition, such as the new location of the pool at the University of Tennessee, the large audience and the giant scoreboard — all of which Leung was very unfamiliar with. However, in spite of these obstacles, Leung won first place, which she found “extremely surprising.”
“My mom [and teammates were] so surprised, just because compared to the season before, you expect improvement, but not that much improvement,” Leung said. “It was the most reassuring experience, and it drove me further to want to continue [diving].”
To further her diving career in college, Leung committed to Chapman University in December of 2020. After looking at many colleges, she decided that Chapman was the right school for her as it was a NCAA Division III school, which she felt would be a good match for her priorities.
“I wanted to find a balance between making sure I prioritize my health, and also being able to do the sport that I’ve done for so long,” Leung said. “The campus is really nice — [it’s] 10 minutes from the beach, 10 minutes from Disneyland. The coach is also a really well-known diver — he’s really experienced. I also met the team and the whole experience just made me fall in love with the school.”
Rowing: Sophomore Charlene Lee
Alongside three of her teammates, sophomore Charlene Lee felt a cool breeze on her back while droplets of water splashed on her face as she rowed vigorously, furiously pushing the paddle through the waters of Lake Natoma in Sacramento. Upon reaching the finish line, Lee turned around and faced forward, noticing that she came in second place in the freshmen quad (four people in a boat) race at the 2019 Southwest Regionals: Frosh 4x+.
Lee first began rowing in eighth grade because she was inspired by her older sister’s passion for diving. However, since the sport requires the competitors to face backwards while rowing, Lee explains the initial difficulty of adjusting to steering and rowing the boat while not being able to see what was in front of her.
“At first, [rowing backwards was] kind of weird,” Lee said. “It took me about half a year to adjust, but once you get the hang of it, you don’t even need to look back — eventually, you can just tell where you’re going. And when you’re [racing], you get to see all the other boats, and it motivates you to push yourself more.”
Lee shares that her club team, the Redwood Skullers, is located in Redwood City, which she enjoys because it’s “eye-opening to talk [to] and meet new people’’ outside of Cupertino. Additionally, since Lee is the bow seat — the person in charge of steering the boat — she faces the backs of her three teammates. She notes that seeing all of them working for the same goal and actively trying to make themselves faster drives her to do the same.
However, due to the pandemic, the normal quad races no longer take place and she doesn’t have the support of her teammates while out on the water. In December of 2020, Lee raced by herself for the first time, competing in singles
“When you’re really tired, and you just want to quit, the only motivation that you have is yourself when you’re rowing in a single,” Lee said. “Pushing myself and crossing the finish line alone is a big accomplishment for me. When I crossed the finish line, my legs [hurt] and I was breathing really hard and everything felt like it was worth it.”
Through Lee’s years of rowing, she has found that her sport not only provided her an outlet to get exercise but also has introduced her to a variety of other life skills.
“Rowing has taught me how to be patient and how to test my mental and physical limits,” Lee said. “Because it’s a repetitive sport, where you’re doing the same stroke over and over again, you have to dig deep and find the motivation to keep going.”
Breaking through the game
Student athletes share about inspirational female athletes and misogyny in sports
Senior and former tennis player Naimisha Adira comes from a family of tennis fans — when she was younger, her father encouraged her to watch Serena Williams, the renowned American professional tennis player and former world No. 1 in women’s single tennis. After seeing a documentary about Williams, Adira’s admiration for her grew, and she is now one of Adira’s favorite athletes.
“My dad always used to say, ‘Hey, you should be looking up to Williams. She had to fight through all these adversities. She’s a prime model of what an athlete should be,’” Adira said. “[In the documentary], you just [saw how] she had to go through so much — she wasn’t brought up in the wealthiest neighborhoods, her dad was her coach … seeing her [come out of] and fight through all of the sexism and the discrimination that she faced at such a young age was truly inspiring.”
In addition to Williams, Adira admires other professional female athletes, including Japanese tennis champion of the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, Naomi Osaka. Since Adira is on the Varsity Girls soccer team, she also looks up to soccer players Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, who play for the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, the most successful international women’s soccer team.
Like Adira, junior and Varsity Girls soccer player Jasmita Yechuri’s appreciation for the U.S. Women’s Soccer team — particularly Alex Morgan — began in seventh grade, when she was playing soccer for her eighth year. Yechuri highlights that in addition to improving her own skills as a soccer player, she also admires how Morgan balances her life as a mother and a professional athlete.
“Morgan recently had a baby … and I noticed how even when she was pregnant, she was still shooting around, playing soccer,” Yechuri said. “And right now, [after taking some leave], she also got back to playing soccer. It’s really inspiring to see that [she’s] continuing [professional soccer] even after having a family.”
For Yechuri, watching game highlights and examining how the players execute certain moves has helped her improve her own game performance. Similarly, sophomore and Varsity Girls Basketball player Varshini Peddinti, who is an avid fan of gymnast Simone Biles and Brigham Young University basketball player Shaylee Gonzalez, explains that these female athletes specifically have made her feel secure in her own athletic career.
“[Gonzalez] radiates so much confidence, both in the sport and as well [as] as an individual,” Peddinti said. “Every time [she] maybe miss[es] a lay-up, [she’ll] just come back on the court and continue playing. It makes me feel inspired because anytime I see [her] do well, it makes me feel motivated to do well too ... If she can do it, I can do it as well.”
According to the three student athletes, despite the skills of these professional female athletes, many face unfair treatment in comparison to their male counterparts. For example, in 2019, the U.S. Women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Soccer Federation had denied them the same payment and working conditions as the U.S. Men’s soccer team. The pay inequality was later dismissed due to a ruling “that the suit could only continue if it focused on working condition inequities,” so the settlement (reached a year later) aimed to equalize working conditions for both the men’s and women’s soccer teams.
In addition to inequalities exacerbated by their corporations, Adira and Peddinti also share that these female athletes are often made fun of by spectators for merely playing their sport. Peddinti shares that while there might be countless reasons for these comments, a common one is that people often assume that women’s sports are less entertaining than men’s and thus don’t give female players the same respect. Adira attributes this as another example of the mental stamina of female athletes.
“[These female athletes] are both physically and mentally strong,” Adira said. “They’re highly criticized for not being as good as men’s sports or not being as capable and they’re fighting every single day to prove that they do belong in the sport and deserve that same recognition.”
Additionally, Adira thinks that people unfairly treat female athletes because they are used as an outlet to spread their misogynistic beliefs, noting how Williams has won more awards than her male counterparts but still has to fight to be respected by audience members. She shares an example of this sexism that she’s noticed within athletics: the different respect and attention female athletes receive depending on what they’re wearing.
“We need to shift the culture so that there’s more respect,” Adira said. “You can see a lot of blatant sexism in American football, where women are wearing these skimpy outfits, whereas guys are wearing these full cover[age] [uniforms], so it’s like you’re objectifying these women rather than watching them for their sport. You should be giving the same respect to women, even in their [other] uniforms.”
Adira adds that another reason for the presence of these stereotypes of athletic women is the upbringing of girls, citing the mentality some parents have of enforcing traditional gender roles on young girls as opposed to exposing them to the potentially more “aggressive” athletic world. Peddinti agrees, sharing her own experiences with hearing these gendered stereotypes as an athlete.
“There’s those regular remarks like, ‘Oh, she plays like a girl,’ or, ‘She’s not as good,’ just because I’m a girl,” Peddinti said. “I would say I haven’t had as much backlash [as other female athletes] but I’ve definitely seen in games, boys in the crowd that [say], ‘Overrated!’ to one of the best players on the team. And it’s like, ‘Are you sure? Can you even shoot a hoop?’ I think that people should be more appreciative because sports is sports and there shouldn’t be any gender indifference in regards to just playing how you want to play.”
In order to change this culture, Yechuri, Adira and Peddinti all encourage more people to watch women’s sports. Peddinti shares that the importance of respecting professional female athletes goes beyond just bridging the inequality between men and women — it’s also about empowering other young girls to take part in the athletic world.
“It’s important to just be aware and appreciate women’s sports in the first place because sports [is] such an amazing thing and there shouldn’t be any barriers or limits to stop someone from playing sports,” Peddinti said. “Just being a woman shouldn’t stop you from doing what you love or doing what you want to do … If you see a female athlete working hard and doing their best, go ahead and give them the encouragement and continue watching them, so then they can be empowered and they can work well.”
Undereating and overtraining
Analyzing body image perception present among female athletes
TW: This article discusses sensitive topics such as eating disorders.
“Why does my face look so chubby?”
As she scrolled through the photos she had taken with her friends at Junior Prom, MVHS alumnus Leslie Ligier, ‘19, couldn’t help but ask herself this question. While Ligier was looking forward to having fun at prom, the photos of her from the event compelled her to change her appearance.
“Before Junior Prom, I didn’t honestly care what I looked like,” Ligier said. “I didn’t really focus on that and [it] never really came to mind at all. I didn’t diet before, and I didn’t even wear makeup ... It was what came after Junior Prom that really messed me up.”
As a Varsity Tennis player since freshman year, Ligier shares how tennis was a big priority for her throughout her first two years of high school as she trained six days a week, attended various clinics and traveled for regional competitions. However, Ligier began to see herself “let go” by her junior year — her passion for the sport faded as school got harder and she began eating whatever she wanted, rarely exercising unless it was mandatory for tennis.
Similarly, junior and Varsity Field Hockey player Vaishnavi Suresh also faced a lack of motivation to continue the sport she grew up playing. As a competitive swimmer since she was four years old, Suresh found it difficult to keep up with her sport’s rigorous environment in middle school as she was dealing with an eating disorder.
“My eating disorder was getting in the way of my ability to swim — I’d be swimming laps and then I’d feel dizzy in the pool,” Suresh said. “I’d have to get out, and I wasn’t even swimming nearly as fast as I probably could have. That feeling of not being able to hit a certain time made me feel worse about myself. Because [being on a] swim team was pretty toxic, it wasn’t that easy to get over. And that fueled more of my eating issues because a lot of it has to do with your view of yourself and your self-esteem.”
Suresh states how she was using food as a weapon against herself rather than a source of replenishment after hours of rigorous training. She began using restrictive calorie counting apps and following fad diets in order to drop weight fast. As days passed, she continued to restrict eating more and began purging regularly.
“I knew I had an eating disorder and nobody else did,” Suresh said. “I knew that it would hurt me and I just didn’t care. I was at the point where I was self-loathing so bad — I didn’t care if my health was impacted. I just want to feel good about myself which was weird because it didn’t make me feel good about myself, it just made me feel worse.”
Similarly to Suresh, Ligier also began restricting her diet and increasing her fitness regimens during her first year of college. Alongside following an intermittent fasting diet, Ligier ate less than 1,000 calories every day.
Ligier describes herself developing disordered eating habits, whereas Suresh was diagnosed with an eating disorder. Sports psychiatrist Danielle Kamis explains the key differences between the two.
“Many people can have disordered eating,” Kamis said. “This means that they are thinking about foods ... that they are restricting, purging or binging [food]. But [in certain cases], it might not be actually affecting their weight itself even though they’re not eating appropriately. Versus an eating disorder like anorexia — there are actual changes in their weight or they meet the criteria for what’s average by body mass index.”
Along with constricting her diet, Ligier overtrained four to five times a week — she would not leave her school’s gym until she had burned 1,000 calories on the treadmill. As a tennis player for Washington University in St. Louis and dancer on the university’s Bhangra team, Ligier believes that athletics never pushed her to live up to certain stereotypes when it came to body image. Rather, restructuring her fitness regimen and diet was a personal choice for her in order to lose weight.
Ligier explains that under-eating and overexercising were both draining and exhausting to her body and mind.
“At night, I would be so hungry that I would eat anything, anything at all,” Ligier said. “I would eat ... stale and expired foods. Anything I could find and get my hands on at the time, I would just eat it. During the day, I would also have a lot of my mental capacity on what I was going to eat next, rather than focusing on what I was doing at the moment. If you over exercise and you just don’t have the fuel to do that, then you’re probably going to binge and I wasn’t strong enough to continue that fasting. And I don’t think anyone really is.”
While Ligier never sought medical advice during this time of her life, she notes how the support she received from her family and friends pushed her to overcome unhealthy training and eating habits.
Similarly, Suresh found the support of her family to be especially helpful when she was admitted into an inpatient facility for her eating disorder in May of 2018. Suresh describes how this moment of her life was a turning point in regards to her eating disorder — she was motivated to take her health more seriously. Suresh shares that while it was a “very difficult time” for not only herself but everyone in her family, she ultimately learned that her fitness and eating habits were not making her feel better.
While she spent a total of 10 days at the treatment facility, Suresh was focused on staying in bed while eating a healthy amount of food during her time there. She reflects that her time in the inpatient facility taught her important lessons about how to take care of herself.
“At the time, I thought that doing all these toxic things would make me feel better,” Suresh said. “[But] I [learned] that when [you change] how you feel about yourself and actively work towards making yourself feel better, there’s so much that you can do that you never realized you could do. I didn’t think that it would be to the point where now I’m a student-athlete and I’m doing fine — I didn’t think that that would be possible.”
Suresh firmly believes in doing thorough research when it comes to healing from disordered eating habits, and Ligier can attest to this advice. As Ligier realized the impact undereating and overtraining had on her mental and physical health, she began researching ways she can healthily workout during the week — she especially highlights fitness blogger Natacha Océane to be inspiring.
Ligier also used time during the COVID-19 lockdown to slowly build a new fitness and eating regimen. While Ligier describes healing from disordered eating to be a work in progress, she currently has goals to deadlift 200 pounds and is working on getting a disordered eating awareness club at school up and running.
As someone who has been subject to disordered eating habits, Ligier emphasizes the importance of understanding fueling with food and being easy on one’s self, even during relapse moments.
“Focus on how you feel personally,” Ligier said. “Do I feel happy today? Do I feel lively? Do I feel like I could run miles and have a lot of energy? [Ask yourself these questions], then you’re on the right track ... Realize that food is also very social. Going out, hanging out with your friends and eating with your friends is not a bad thing. Eating is a good thing — it’s fuel for your body, so don’t think of it as fearful.”
Suresh is also still on the path to healing as she is currently undergoing therapy weekly for her obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) — she notes how much her OCD ended up influencing eating habits during her eating disorder. In addition to therapy, Suresh explains how team sports like field hockey allowed her to find a supportive community during her healing process in high school. She advises individuals with disordered eating habits to take that first step of asking for help.
“I think that the first step to finding recovery is to admit that you have a problem,” Suresh said. “And I know that’s super cliché, but it’s really hard for people with eating disorders because you don’t want to admit that you’ve been starving yourself and you don’t want to admit that you’ve been using food to attack yourself. So just admit that ... and knowing that you need help, that’s OK.”
Female athletes describe their experience playing male-dominated sports
That’s the first word that comes to mind when senior and Varsity football player Melannie Ooi thinks about females who play male-dominated sports.
“You walk onto the field [while] holding your gear and [people] look at you and they’re like ‘Hey Melannie!’” Ooi said. “But then they do a double take and they see you with your helmet and pads. You just get this amazing feeling of empowerment.”
According to Ooi, this feeling is one of the most rewarding aspects for females who break the status quo and join a heavily male-dominated sports team. She remarks that all too often, females are faced with the stereotype that they are too weak and emotional to play certain sports — especially sports that often consist of one coed team, such as football, wrestling or cricket.
Sophomore and cricket player Chetnaa Prasad feels similarly to Ooi since being selected for the USA Cricket Women’s National Training Group in January of 2021 . Prior to this achievement, Prasad said that she felt a certain degree of imposter syndrome due to the unfair treatment she received at times for being the only girl on her previous cricket team.
“I’ll meet a new coach and they’ll ask me if I can even do some super basic skill,” Prasad said. “I’m on the same level as everyone else so it really puts me down because there’s no reason why I wouldn’t be able to do it. It kind of makes me feel like I don’t deserve to be there but it’s pretty normal to me now so it doesn’t bother me as much.”
Furthermore, Prasad shares that coaches sometimes give her special treatment and don’t require her to do as much as the males on the team. For example, the male athletes would be told to run three laps while Prasad would be told to run one. However, Prasad always makes an effort to train the same amount as her male counterparts to prove that she deserves to be there and is as skilled as everyone else on the team.
Having played hockey as a child, Head Athletic Director at Cupertino High School Katelyn Watts relates to female athletes like Ooi and Prasad who play male-dominated sports. She notes that biological advantages are always a reality on coed teams and believes that while males have more favorable traits for athletics than females, both parties deserve equal playtime and should be trained the same way.
Watts emphasizes that high school is the time to try new things and loves seeing more females step out of their comfort zone.
“When you’re the only female around [on a sports team], it’s a unique role to be in,” Watts said. “You get to be the role model for others. It’s something that I never thought I would [be for] others but it’s a great opportunity to show others that [they] can do this, [they] can be involved and that it’s all possible.”
Ooi agrees, sharing that her reason to join the football team was to prove that females have as much of a right to play football as males. She describes going to her very first football practice as scary but much to her surprise, there was no judgement from her teammates and coaches. The best part, Ooi says, is that the team and the coaches acknowledged that she was a female but asked no questions and gave her no special treatment.
Like Ooi, senior and Varsity wrestler Grace Lei explains she was terrified on her first day of practice because she saw no other girls in the room. Considering the fact that wrestling matches are divided by gender, Lei was worried that she would have an uneventful season due to the lack of female opponents. However, she was soon able to find the advantages of being one of few females on the team.
“Because it was my first time ever doing wrestling, a bunch of people had to help me learn the skills and how everything works,” Lei said. “I was able to pick up things pretty fast, which was good for [everyone], especially the coach because he was excited to have a girl on the team. [I realized] that being the only girl meant that [I] technically had less people to compete with and that [I] stood out to people, which could be a good thing.”
When comparing coed teams to all girls teams, Prasad clearly distinguishes the dichotomy having experience with both. She reasons that issues like changing in bathrooms or dealing with menstruation are much easier when everyone on the team can relate, while coed teams provide other advantages.
“[Playing on a coed team] really broadens your horizon and gives you so many different perspectives,” Prasad said. “If you were to play on an all girls team, there’s definitely more support because [your teammates] know exactly what you’re [going] through. On an all guy team, though, you get their perspective and they push you to do more. [My cricket teammates] don’t think of me as ‘oh you’re a girl, you can do less [than me],’ they encourage me to do more and constantly improve.”
According to Watts, getting more girls to be confident enough to join male-dominated sports teams is crucial in order to break the stereotypes that currently surround certain sports. She believes that nothing should be considered a “girl sport” or a “guy sport.”
Ooi affirms that all the females who are currently in that position are “killing it” and serve as “an inspiration” to all other females. Prasad echoes this sentiment as well and urges females to not doubt their athletic abilities.
“Work hard,” Prasad said. “If you can prove that you’re as good as anyone else, nobody can say anything to you. If you have as much skill, as much fitness or as much passion for the game as anyone else, and you can prove that you’re better than them. Never limit yourself.”
Profiling three MVHS female coaches
Girls Basketball: Sara Borelli
A common thread throughout English teacher and Girls Basketball coach Sara Borelli’s athletic and coaching career has been resilience — standing up for her ideas despite opposition. She says this theme has been present throughout her 19 years and counting of coaching; for instance, it was echoed in a basketball game that she helped coach with her sister years ago.
“We were losing, but then we were like, ‘OK, now it’s about strategy,’ so we started … putting on a press and fouling and getting the ball back and scoring,” Borelli said. “I can’t remember [if] we ended up winning or losing, but afterwards the other coach was so upset that two female coaches outcoached him and then he went and complained and my sister got in trouble.”
Borelli says that like many other female coaches, she has faced sexism from referees, coaches and spectators alike in almost every sport she has participated in or coached. No matter the occasion, however, Borelli’s advice to other coaches is to always remain confident and stand up for one’s beliefs. Her favorite part of coaching is also passing down these values to her own players and watching them develop.
“Building that community together and seeing the girls finding confidence in themselves and their own game, and just changing their attitude [toward] themselves — I think that’s the most inspirational for me,” Borelli said.
But Borelli believes that this is also the hardest part of her job, hindered by the self-doubt that she says is so rampant among MVHS athletes — especially female athletes. To help her players find confidence and grow, Borelli constantly strives to set a strong example.
“Hopefully, they see me as a strong woman in their lives — I don’t back down when it comes to [referees] and I say what I feel,” Borelli said. “And they’ve seen the injustice [when referees] treat me differently than the other coaches. I think that empowers them too, in regards to not allowing that to happen in their own lives. But it has to work both ways; they have to be willing, but they are malleable in the sense that they’re growing and they’re learning to become who they are as people.”
Borelli cites one of her favorite memories as a game in which her team faced one of the then-best teams in the league. She recalls the immense pride she felt in watching her team bounce back from seemingly hopeless match: the team was down 20 points, but through tireless efforts and strategy, they shortened the loss to just one point. Although her team ultimately lost, Borelli felt only pride for her resilient players who persisted even under intense pressure. This parallels one of Borelli’s core takeaways from her coaching career: “taking the wins with the losses.”
Other memories Borelli recalls fondly include the instances of emotional bonding that she shares with her players, from team sleepovers to pranking an assistant coach by covering his car with Post-It notes. She and her team have also cooked lunches for the homeless and participated in breast cancer fundraising.
“Just having that camaraderie and team spirit [has been] the most memorable for me,” Borelli said. “When the girls are coming to you because they’re upset about the loss — I think those moments are the most memorable for me because they’re turning to me for that support emotionally.”
Borelli retains these bonds with her players beyond the court — she says she cares deeply about each of them and their development as both players and individuals.
“I’m the same as both a coach and a teacher; I have high standards but I will always help you get to that standard,” Borelli said. “I don’t know [if] that’s always bought into as far as with students because I’m known as the ‘hard’ teacher and the ‘hard’ coach, but I think the kids do get to know me and know how much I care about them as people and care about their growth as individuals.”
Dance: Katie Sullivan
Assistant Dance Coach Katie Sullivan has danced competitively since high school, when she participated in various national competitions. Since then, she has embraced the fitness aspect of dance as a core part of her life, later becoming a certified personal trainer and volunteering frequently as a dance coach. Sullivan enjoys the unique dynamic of dance teams and appreciates how each dancer is a microcosm of that team, working hard for themselves while simultaneously contributing to the group effort.
“There’s nothing better than competing as a dance team where you all have worked so hard and trained to get to this point where you’re competing on stage,” Sullivan said. “And if [we] get a good score or win, it’s just amazing to celebrate with each other because we all know exactly how hard each of us have pushed ourselves, and to be able to cultivate that in myself — it’s been awesome.”
Now, as an assistant coach, Sullivan shares this experience with her own dancers. Her favorite part of the job is watching her team’s solos, but she also relishes the team bonding and inside jokes that come with her excitement for each of her dancers.
“In every [solo], my heart is just in — I’m so there for it,” Sullivan said. “I’m pretty goofy and so when they were doing the dances [last year], I would sing over it or do the musical instruments, like beatbox for them. And so the whole team was like, ‘Katie, we need your mixtape of all of last season’s songs’ because I knew all the songs in my heart — I’d try anything to hype them up.”
Sullivan enjoys building relationships with her dancers, but a continuous struggle she has faced as a coach is striking a balance between criticism and not lowering her dancers’ self-esteem.
“[Finding] that line between ‘I’m here for you, I understand you’re going through a hard day’ and the traditional ‘Leave it outside of the dance studio,’ because that’s what a lot of teachers would say, [has been difficult],” Sullivan said. “But I don’t want to be like that; I want to look at the whole student, not just the dancer portion.”
In addition to coaching the dance team, Sullivan is also a middle school teacher in Los Gatos and a current masters’ student at Santa Clara University. She says that making the most of every moment helps her manage what is often a chaotic schedule.
“I’ve always been the type of person to take on a lot, but I just really have to try to be present in what I’m doing because I think I would lose my mind if every time I was doing something, I was thinking about what’s happening next,” Sullivan said. “So when I’m [with the] dance team, I’m focused on dance — that is my priority. Then, when I’m at school, that is my priority. I can’t overthink it … Just being present in each moment has really helped me stay sane doing all these different things at once.”
Sullivan tries to instill similar values in her dancers, encouraging them to be professional, punctual, driven and to give their best during practices.
“Every moment should be your best because it’s fleeting,” Sullivan said. “You don’t want to leave practice being like ‘Wow, I should’ve done better.’ You don’t want to leave a test or something at school or a presentation or job interview … and be like, ‘Wow, I really could have done better.’ Just give yourself that little time and work as hard as you can — and it’ll be over.”
Cross Country: Jodi Johnson
Art teacher and Cross Country coach Jodi Johnson has been involved in both coaching and athletics from a young age, having taught skiing to specialized populations and participated in basketball, track, volleyball and cross country. These passions translated into her career as a coach: first for the softball team, then for the cross country team.
“When I started working at [MVHS], I wanted another way to connect with the students on a non-academic level and so I sought out [the softball team],” Johnson said. “I started volunteering my time out, just helping out where I could help out — it was out of a desire to be part of a team again, and to give back to [MVHS] in a different way.”
Johnson treasures the relationships she has accumulated over the years — relationships that encompass more than just coaching and athletics.
“There are so many facets that go along with coaching — you’re not only coaching students with their athletic abilities but you’re also coaching them through a variety of life scenarios,” Johnson said. “Athletes don’t just come to me for advice on athletics; they come looking for advice on a variety of areas. Those relationships are what keep you going.”
Seeing these relationships develop from start to finish has also led Johnson to the realization that hard work trumps natural ability.
“I think I’ve learned this also from teaching: giv[e] [students] the opportunity to grow [and] not prejudg[e] someone’s ability,” Johnson said. “If [someone] came out to the Cross Country team or came into my art room and ran a relatively slow mile time or drew a stick figure, [that means] not judging [them] on that first performance. Because given the room for growth and the right kind of nurturing, if you’re willing to put in the effort, you never know what you’re going to get.”
That theme of persistence is also reflected in Johnson’s own journey as a coach. When she first took the reins of the Cross Country team alongside Coach Kirk Flatow more than 10 years ago, Johnson faced countless challenges in establishing expectations and building a foundation of strong work ethic. The process was gradual, and pushback from runners was frequent — especially when problematic or unsafe team traditions like night runs were changed over time — but looking back, Johnson is proud of what she and her team have accomplished together.
“It’s really difficult to know if what you’re doing is in the best interest of the athletes,” Johnson said. “It’s been a challenge [especially] with the pandemic — one, am I keeping my athletes safe? And two, how much do you push them? Do you just let them come out and be, or do you push them like you would push them in any normal season?”
Overcoming these challenges, however, is ultimately what makes the journey worth it for Johnson. She shares that her favorite part of coaching is seeing her athletes grow through the challenges of cross country and achieve success.
“Having an athlete who competes to the best of their ability and achieves [their] goal, whatever that goal is [and] wherever they are on that spectrum of abilities, is such an amazing feeling and such a great part of coaching,” Johnson said.