Pair of Olympians, including former SBHS star Kami Craig, empower young crowd at National Girls and Women in Sports Day Luncheon
Kami Craig remembers a time when she had to wear the hand-me-downs from the boys water polo team.
Board shorts and polos as the official issued gear — not the ideal look for a strong and fierce young woman that would go on to be a three-time Olympian, complete with two women’s water polo gold medals.
“Change is happening,” said Ms. Craig, a former standout for the Santa Barbara High School girls water polo team in the early 2000s.
“Women’s sports weren’t known how to be handled in that space. It was like, ‘Just give them the boys leftover gear.’ It’s not even about recognition, it’s about the space to be a female athlete.”
Ms. Craig joined fellow Olympian Caroline Burckle on Monday at the National Girls and Women in Sports Day Luncheon at Earl Warren Showgrounds, where the pair relayed a strong message of unity and empowerment to a crowd of more than 500, the bulk a captive audience of local female student athletes.
“It was impactful for us to feel that energy from them,” said Ms. Burckle, a bronze medalist in the 4×200 freestyle relay at the 2008 Beijing Games.”They all have goals and things they want to achieve. You can feel that. We want to help.”
Ms. Craig and Ms. Burckle represented RISE Athletes, an organization that aligns former Olympic athletes with up-and-coming teenagers looking for a competitive edge, primarily through sports psychology and focusing on being present in one’s journey to the “podium they want to find.”
Ms. Craig, who starred in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics and retired as one of the most decorated Olympians in South Coast history, even points to RISE in turning around her own retirement.
Immediately following her departure from the U.S. National Team, Ms. Craig found herself doing outside sales for nearly a year — a year that had success, but not for her soul.
She had more to give. Not just to female athletes — to all athletes.
“(RISE) has given me full purpose again,” Ms. Craig said. “It would be a shame after 25 years of playing at team sport — 13 years at the highest level — to sit on that knowledge.
“The (RISE) service is providing what my significance is at this point — instilling confidence, making connections and instilling belief.”
In terms of credibility and attention, both Ms. Craig and Mr. Burckle agree that women’s sports have had a significant gap to make up for, but that steady progress is being made.
During Monday’s Q-and-A session with host Catherine Remak, Ms. Craig and Ms. Burckle both spoke to the cumulative effect that simply showing up and competing has on continuing to erase inequality and put the focus back on the athletic prowess that women have all over the world.
“(Young female athletes) don’t have to take on the pressure of equality in sports. They don’t have to wear that hat. They simply have to go out and be themselves and compete,” Ms. Craig told the News-Press. “Commit to the process and trust the process. It just takes simple willingness to be there that will continue to move the needle.”
In a revealing moment Monday, Ms. Craig openly talked about her own obstacles of both dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. Her parents combatted her overactivity by getting Ms. Craig into the pool at the age of 3, a place where she immediately felt like she “could be herself.”
Dealing with dyslexia presented a unique situation for Ms. Craig when she eventually moved to water polo in the eighth grade. As sitting down with a playbook wasn’t effective, she had to learn differently than the rest, learning visually and through repetition in the pool.
But she says that made her a stronger person, learning to effectively communicate effectively and overcome adversity.
“We all have areas in our lives that we need more support in. So how do we communicate that, how do we advocate for ourselves? Speak up when we need something,” said Ms. Craig, a USC alum who is the first person in her family to attend and graduate college.
“I challenge you guys to think about where those weaknesses are for you and how people can support you to get to that next level and have the courage to ask for that help.”
Ms. Burckle struggled with her confidence initially, making Junior Nationals as a 13-year-old but refusing to attend the first race. She pointed to a coach who refused to guilt her into going, but pushed her in between meets to believe in her talent and how it could be realized.
“You have to challenge yourself in ways that you aren’t comfortable with,” said Ms. Burckle, who was also an NCAA champion at the University of Florida. “At some point, you have to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation in order to succeed.”
While both have seen the pinnacle of athletics by reaching the podium at an Olympics, Ms. Craig was humbled to be able to return home to a stage that could have a more lasting impact.
“If there is one kid out here that took something away from this today, we’ve done our job,” Ms. Craig said. “It’s a success. This stage is invaluable. It’s priceless to be up here and share this message about something we believe.”
In this case, the hand-me-down knowledge is one size fits all.