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Women Olympians wow at Women In Conversation event in Rohnert Park

Former Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi talked about how she was born with a leg deformity that put both legs in casts as an infant and toddler. She had to struggle to learn to walk.

Ex-Olympic and professional soccer player Brandi Chastain said she was cut from the U.S. women’s soccer team because she was too focused on herself and her role as a forward. She found herself on the outside looking in.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the heralded Olympic beach volleyball player, told of losing several major competitions leading up to the London Summer Olympics in 2012. The odds were against them, but they prevailed and won a gold.

“We outlasted,” she said.

These top athletes used lessons they learned in overcoming obstacles to go on and emerge as winners.

All three of the Olympic gold medalists, all from the Bay Area, wowed the crowd with their wit, wisdom and accomplishments Wednesday at the first in-person Women in Conversation event sponsored by The Press Democrat and Summit Bank in 18 months.

The programs were switched to virtual after the pandemic struck.

Each of the women encouraged the mostly female crowd at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park to have confidence in their abilities and persevere in their own worlds.

Chastain, 53, is best known for celebrating her soccer team’s victory at the 1999 World Cup by taking her shirt off, revealing her sports bra in photos shown around the world.

On Wednesday, she came out swinging her hoodie, then putting it back on over a tank top to the audience’s delight.

Chastain continued to make fun of herself and use her life experiences in and off the soccer pitch to inspire those in attendance. She even told of failing to “follow her gut feeling” that she had forgotten something on her way to the speaking engagement.

Ten minutes before she arrived, she realized “that what I had forgotten was what I was going to wear tonight,” she told the gasping crowd. “Hey, they said business casual and this is my business,” she said, stepping out from behind the podium in her sweatpants.

“I didn’t trust my instincts there,” Chastain said. “So that’s my message — trust your instincts.”

She talked about her career, dotted with adversity, such as surgery for a torn ACL that knocked her out of competition for two years while she was going to UC Berkeley.

“For me, soccer has been great preparation for life. My endeavors in sports have really been this convoluted mess. But, you know what we say in sports, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” she said.

Chastain, who played on the team that won the inaugural women's World Cup in 1991, and won Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004, said she believes it’s important “to have conversations, and to stretch ourselves. Being uncomfortable is all right.” She retired in 2004.

Yamaguchi, 50, is not only a two-time world champion and 1992 U.S. champion, she became the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal in a Winter Olympics competition that year.

She not only discussed her sports career — finding a sport she loved at age 6 (she especially loved the costumes at her first ice show) and ending up winning it all.

She said her mother counseled her that she’d have to work harder than some of the other skaters and she dedicated herself “to sleeping and eating skating” from the time she was 12.

After her career ended, she and her family decided she needed to give back, she said.

She started her Always Dream Foundation in 1996, which is focused on bringing literacy programs to low-income families in California, Arizona and Hawaii.

Her life lessons, which she listed as different colored medals, were: “There are no shortcuts in life (bronze), ”You must face new challenges and set goals (silver)“ and ”You should never give up (gold).”

Walsh Jennings, 43, spoke from her home virtually, apparently because she hasn’t been vaccinated and vaccinations were a requirement at the event.

A three-time Olympic gold medal winner in beach volleyball along with her partner, Misty May-Treanor, she also played volleyball while at Stanford University and was a member of the U.S. Olympic team, placing fourth at the Sydney Olympics.

She said that fourth-place win really stuck in her craw. It still bothers her.

Walsh Jennings told of having a miscarriage, later almost losing her husband and then reconnecting. He told her she was “too focused on her goals instead of being focused on the journey,” she said.

She spoke of not being chosen for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with her partner, April Ross, and said she’s not sure she’s done with her Olympic career.

“Paris is only three years away,” she said.

The next Women in Conversation on Nov. 6 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa will feature Academy Award-winning actress and activist Laura Dern.

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

(Editor’s note: The name of the foundation started by Olympian Kristi Yamaguchi has been corrected.)

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