Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — In a city still shaken by last month’s terrorist attacks, a band of famous female athletes gathered earlier this month for the Women’s Sports Foundation’s annual celebration, but their personal achievements took a backseat to the role they now play as healers and patriots.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and recent anthrax poisonings, Olympians and pro athletes revealed a different side of their power as role models and spokeswomen — one that rarely surfaces in glossy ads or slick commercials. Throughout the festivities, athletes pledged their commitment to their country and trying to secure its economic strength.
World champion distance swimmer Diana Nyad, whose emcee style is generally as demure as a Bronx cheer, struck a serious tone, spurring on attendees “to celebrate our strength and freedom.”
“What if those oppressed women could lift those veils and dream of something equal, other than being beaten for their thoughts or even for their laughter?” said Nyad, referring to the the role of women in Afghanistan’s Islamic fundamentalist society.
Then it was on with the show, with some 100 women hitting the stage in a “Grand March of Athletes.” A handful of other women were lauded for their nonathletic efforts, such as Susan Blake, the first woman to pass the New York City firefighters’ exam. Later in the program, Michelle Akers, who battled chronic fatigue syndrome and underwent 20 major surgeries in her 15-year soccer career, tearfully dedicated her Wilma Rudolph Courage Award to rescue workers at Ground Zero .
After a press conference on Oct. 15, tennis legend Billie Jean King said that as a child, she often hung out at the firehouse where her father worked for more than 40 years. Familiar with the power of such camaraderie, she said this year’s awards dinner should stand as “a catalyst to go back out and get back to normal, or the economy will suffer.”
“When the economy slows and people stop traveling, that’s giving into the fear the terrorists are giving us,” King said. “We need to reach out, help each other and get on with it. We have to keep defining our lives and not let terrorists define them for us.”
For many of the athletes, that meant returning to flying commercial airlines to get to New York for the dinner. There was some trepidation about travel, especially in light of the FBI’s warnings earlier this month, said WSF president Julie Foudy.
“There’s a lot of hesitancy to congregate, but that’s the best way to heal whether it be in a stadium or wherever,” she said.
Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci said that she and her husband, Olympic gymnast Bart Conner, were not eager to go to Belgium last month to help prepare for the world gymnastics championships. But they knew they had to go to further their sport, she said.
“There was a time when everyone thought they didn’t want to do anything, and anything you did didn’t matter,” Comaneci said. “But you can’t sit forever. People get encouragement by going back to what they did before.”
“It’s not about the publicity,” said WNBA star Lisa Leslie, who has pitched in to raise money for relief efforts. She is rallying folks to be responsible citizens and help quell fears.
“We need to encourage kids to be strong at this time, and to wear the red, white and blue,” said Leslie, this year’s recipient of the WSF’s Team Sportswoman award.
World pole-vault-record holder and this year’s individual athlete award winner, Stacy Dragila, another Nike-sponsored jock, plans to use her clout to inspire children and adults.
Olympic swimmer Janet Evans, one of this year’s inductees to the WSF Hall of Fame, is lending a different kind of support. She visited soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas, where her sponsor, Speedo, sells its merchandise at the military PX, last weekend.
World-boxing champion Kathy Collins and other pros served meals to rescue workers at Nino’s and visited Ground Zero. “I could have lived my whole life without seeing that,” she said. “It is surreal that it’s been more than 30 days and the site still looks like that.”
If anything, recent events have instilled in Collins more motivation to succeed.
“Instead of fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for the pride of our country. We need to use this to make us stronger as a country,” Collins said. “We have to deal with the reality that this was done to terrorize us. The fact is the country united and, as a people, we strengthened one another. That should be the focus.”