Celebrating Excellence, Opportunity and Support

Celebrating Excellence, Opportunity and Support

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – She is a national champion, a Miami alumna with a pair of master’s degrees and one of the most decorated track and field athletes to ever don orange and green.

But even with her stellar resume, on Sunday, Michelle Atherley found herself in a surprising new role: public speaker.

Atherley, who is currently in South Florida training for the U.S. Olympic Trials ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris, returned to campus on Sunday as one of several speakers at the University’s annual Celebration of Women’s Athletics, which celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Joining Atherley to celebrate some of the brightest stars across the Hurricanes athletic department were University President Julio Frenk, Vice President and Director of Athletics Dan Radakovich, Board of Trustees Chair Laurie Silver, Deputy Director of Athletics Rachelle Paul, former Hurricanes volleyball standout Christine Williamson, who is now an anchor and analyst at ESPN, and Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, Miami’s head women’s tennis coach.

Each spoke about the contributions of the student-athletes honored at Sunday’s event, their hopes for those women and the importance of women’s sports, both at Miami and beyond.

For Atherley, though, the evening was a full-circle moment of sorts given that not long ago, she herself was one of the student-athletes recognized at the Celebration of Women’s Athletics.

And so, after sharing some of her Miami experience with the 350 attendees who filled the third-floor ballroom of the Donna E. Shalala Student Center, Atherley challenged the young women around her, the young women now representing Miami in nine different varsity sports.

“Nobody’s experience at the University would be the same without us women. So, I encourage every person in this room to take full advantage of every single opportunity available to you,” said Atherley, who won the women’s pentathlon at the 2019 NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships and whose recent score of 6,372 points in the heptathlon currently ranks first in the world. “Explore your interests inside of your sport, outside of your sport, on campus, and in the athletic department. Find what you need to push yourself, especially when you don’t feel like it. Do what you need to do for your future self, today. There are so many people in this very room who believe in you, who you are now and who you are meant to be. That’s why I want to leave you with this reminder: love and value the person sitting right next to you because without the support of women, none of us would be here.”

There’s no doubt more than a few of the young women in the room are already taking advantage of the opportunities given to them at Miami.

Golfer Sara Byrne, one of Sunday’s honorees, has rewritten the Miami record book and was recently named to the Arnold Palmer Cup, a prestigious, Ryder Cup-style tournament that showcases the nation’s top collegiate golfers.

Tennis player Alexa Noel, a two-time ITA All-American who earlier this year notched an upset win over then-top-ranked Mary Stoiana, is gearing up to lead the Hurricanes through the postseason and the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

And diver Mia Vallée, a former national champion at Miami who on Sunday spoke on a student-athlete panel with Byrne and Noel, is training to represent her native Canada in the Paris Games.

Like Atherley, each credited Miami with helping them reach their goals – in competition and in the classroom.

“I’ve had such a great group, great team around me. I have the best friends I could ever ask for on the soccer team, on the volleyball team and they’re all out there today, too,” said Byrne, who hails from Ireland and has navigated being far from home during her time at Miami. “Literally, they have made this whole experience the best. And I think not many colleges, not many universities, have that kind of camaraderie within the sports. I think they have made my life super, super easy, that’s for sure, in the transition.”

Added Vallée, “I’ve met just amazing people who have helped me. I’m doing my master’s right now with a professor who is just completely on board with my diving … the whole department, actually, has been super helpful. … It’s been a really great journey getting here.”

With Sunday marking the 10th anniversary of the Celebration of Women’s Athletics, there was a focus not just on the current student-athletes making an impact at Miami, but on some of the pioneers that came before them, including Isabella Hutchison, who served as the women’s athletic director at Miami from 1965 through 1979, and former women’s basketball coach Katie Meier, who earlier this year announced her retirement after coaching the Hurricanes for 19 seasons.

Both Hutchison and Meier were in attendance Sunday, as was former University President Donna Shalala, who established the Edna C. Shalala Fund for Women’s Athletics to honor her mother, Edna, on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

Each was recognized Sunday, along with Miami’s current student-athletes.

“Isabella Hutchison, I spoke to her before the event and I said, “I am here and we are all here because of you, because of your vision and because of what you were able to do all those years ago,” Paul said. “I don’t have the job I have; I don’t have the opportunities I have competing in sport without pioneers like yourself. It was just incredible to have her in the room with us. … Knowing that she was the one that really paved the way for all of us – whether it’s our female student-athletes or the women that are currently working in sport, she really is a pioneer.”

Even with all the accomplishments garnered by the talented student-athletes in attendance at Sunday’s event, the goal now, Paul said, is to continue building on their accomplishments and continue affording talented, young women opportunities to excel.

“It’s hard to put into words how special this is, to recognize the tremendous accomplishments of our female student-athletes,” Paul said. “To hear their names, and to know they are competing at the highest level in their sports, it’s wonderful to see, especially as a former student-athlete myself. … To see them compete at the highest level, to accomplish so many achievements and then be recognized for those achievements in front of 350 people is just incredible and I don’t think this is something many institutions do. But, obviously, with the growth of women’s athletics right now, and with people being recognized [nationally], I think it’s very special that these young ladies feel like they are special and that they make up a really wonderful part of athletics.”

Added Yaroshuk-Tews, “I think it’s unbelievable, right? For our student-athletes to see and feel the support in the room, I think this is just essential for their development, to see and feel and hear the support. I think it goes so far.”

2024 Celebration of Women’s Athletics Award Winners

Jaida Patrick, Basketball
Daphnee Lavassas, Cross Country
Sara Byrne, Golf
Constance Stirling, Rowing
Julia Edwards, Soccer
Aino Otava, Swimming
Alexa Noel, Tennis
Gabriella Grissom, Track & Field (Indoor)
Erikka Hill, Track & Field (Outdoor)
Grace Lopez, Volleyball