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Pittsburgh's female sports stars score big with local youth initiatives

Swin Cash

Meghan Klingenberg greets a young fan during her appearance at a Pittsburgh Riverhounds game on July 15.

Brianne McLaughlin

Pittsburgh’s image as a bona fide sports town affects how both visitors and residents view the city. Successful pro teams play a large part in our reputation among the rest of the nation, but the business of sports has also changed the fate of neighborhoods, from the Hill District’s rise, fall and reemergence as home to the Civic Arena and Consol Energy Center to the birth of the North Shore, thanks to PNC Park and Heinz Field.
 
And we love our hometown heroes with a passion that not only rivals but possibly surpasses other fans. The Steel City has always spotlighted male sports teams. But is this city ready to give its female stars a place to shine?
 
Honoring female athletes isn’t new to Pittsburgh. In 2007, the Women and Girls Foundation hosted a special event called “Women in Sports: Leveling the Playing Field.” But beyond the women’s football team Pittsburgh Passion and national fast-pitch softball team Pennsylvania Rebellion, Pittsburgh lacks professional women’s teams. Many of our best athletes must leave to showcase their skills in other cities.
 
Hockey goalie Brianne McLaughlin, soccer champ Meghan Klingenberg and basketballer Swin Cash are making their marks in professional team sports. Despite the fact that none of them can compete on teams from Pittsburgh, they are each working to nurture the next generation of girls in sports in this region.
 
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, six-time WNBA all-star and two-time NCAA champion, McKeesport native Swin Cash has built an extensive set of programs designed to support opportunities for girls in sports as well as the community in general.
 
“With visibility comes great responsibility,” explained Cash in a recent interview. “I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. This city supported me throughout my career and made me the person I am today.”
 
Even though she hasn’t played for a Pittsburgh-based team since she left high school, Cash gives back to the community with a dedication only rivaled by her success on the court. She’s also the founder of Swin Cash Enterprises, LLC, which renovates and offers homes to low-income families through the Cash Building Blocks program.
 
Cash recently accepted the annual Chuck Cooper Leadership, Diversity and Community Service Award for her work in the community and spoke at the Pittsburgh Pirates African-American Heritage Sports Luncheon.
 
She doesn’t back down from tough competition on the court and doesn’t balk from the challenge of taking almost 40 local middle-school students on an annual trip to New York City.
 
“It’s a cultural and sports experience. We’re showing them opportunities,” said Cash.
 
The trip is an aspect of her Cash for Kids program that uses sports and cultural activities to motivate, educate and elevate all youth.
 
“Sports for young women is invaluable,” said Cash. “Sports teach lessons, not just to be the best but how to be a team player, how to push yourself. Sports helped me in sports and business.”
 
Cash has seen big improvements in sports opportunities for young women, but she says we can do more.
 
“We need to we start to acknowledge the people that came before us and the women now like Tanisha Wright and Ashley Battle, also WNBA players, and the other number of females that come from Pittsburgh, that have success,” said Cash. “Women are starting to be in the forefront. We make up half the population and we have the potential for a woman to be president. Women are stepping up and taking the torch.”
 
Cash, Wright and Battle continue to represent the best of the City of Champions outside of the city. The WNBA explored a possible team for Pittsburgh back in 2004, but no expansion team has ever come to this city.
 
“Pittsburgh is a sports town and there are so many girls in sports; I would love to see a pro WNBA team,” said Cash. “I would love to see investors take on that opportunity and any investors who want to make it happen should get in touch with me!”
 
Steel City supports all athletes
 
“We already have an environment that attracts visitors to women’s sports events,” said Jennifer Hawkins, VisitPITTSBURGH’s director of sports marketing and development. “USA Gymnastics’ premiere event, the P&G Championships, last August attracted a record number of spectators, many of which traveled from across the United States and stayed multiple nights to watch these amazing female athletes. In 2010, the USGA U.S. Women’s Open attracted visitors and the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships – 1st/2nd Rounds were so successful in 2007 that they returned in 2011.”
 
One athlete from Pittsburgh who will get a chance to shine in her hometown is soccer player Meghan Klingenberg, a defender on the U.S. Women’s National Team and World Cup Champion. Klingenberg, from Gibsonia, will take to pitch at Heinz Field on Aug. 16 when the United States faces Costa Rica. The reception for the U.S. Women’s National Team is expected to be big. Over 35,000 tickets have already been sold for the event.
 
Like other top female athletes, Klingenberg hasn’t played in Pittsburgh since her high school days at Pine-Richland High School.
 
“In Pittsburgh, we’re stuck with this very traditional sports market. It’s mostly generational and if you talk to someone over 50, soccer doesn’t do it for them. They aren’t that interested,” said John Krysinski, writer for Pittsburgh Sports Report. Krysinski, who blogs at pittsburghsoccerreport.com and lives in Aspinwall, was a soccer coach at Point Park University from 1996 to 1998 and played from 1989 to 1992. “But then you talk to this generation of parents, our kids played soccer, a good portion of us played soccer. Meghan’s impact is going to be significant down the road. Girls in this area can see they can make a World Cup and play for a U.S. team.”
 
Krysinski noted that while the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the men’s professional soccer team in the Eastern Conference of the United Soccer League, draws a good crowd, he doesn’t expect Pittsburgh to get an MLS team in the next 20 years. Riverhounds President Richard Nightengale has mentioned having a women’s team here, but Krysinski is not sure how it can be made profitable.
 
“I honestly think the best way to go is to follow the WNBA. They created partner or affiliate enterprises with NBA teams. The New York Liberty were partnered with the Knicks. The MLS needs to be a key component to supporting a women’s league,” said Krysinski.
 
Klingenberg recently hosted MK Soccer Camp in partnership with the Riverhounds.
 
“She loves Pittsburgh, and we’re going to see a lot of Meghan Klingenberg giving back to the community,” predicted Krysinski. “I’d love to see Meghan represent our city on a professional team. And hockey’s the next one. It’s only a matter of time.”
 
Gold medal goalie
 
If hockey is next, Brianne McLaughlin, goalie for the U.S. National Team and two-time Olympian, is ready.
 
A transplant to Pittsburgh, McLaughlin came here in 2005 to play hockey at Robert Morris University. During her four years of collegiate hockey, McLaughlin set the NCAA record with 3,809 career saves. After a taste of life in Pittsburgh, she liked it enough to stay and now lives in Moon Township with her husband. Her Twitter profile lists both Pittsburgh and Cleveland as hometowns.
 
“When I came out here in 2005, there was no girls’ hockey,” said McLaughlin. “But in the last 10 years it’s grown. Hockey is exploding, especially in this area. After every Olympics, women’s hockey explodes and they’ve gotten better at promoting the team.”



McLaughlin earned a Silver Medal in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Sochi, Russia, and was a goaltender when the U.S. team won silver in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010.
 
When she’s not competing internationally, McLaughlin is working to provide something for girls who want to play hockey that she herself never had growing up: a team.
 
“I started playing when I was 5 years old in Cleveland, Ohio. Hockey wasn’t that big for boys, let alone for girls, so I had to play with boys all the time,” recalled McLaughlin. “It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school when I made a U.S. Olympic Development camp that I realized what I was missing.”
 
She hosted her first girls-only summer camp, Gold Medal Goalie Training, at her facility on Neville Island in June so that other hockey-loving young women could experience the camaraderie and teamwork while learning about the game. McLaughlin has also partnered with local Girl Scout troops to get girls out to games.
 
In addition to her new camp, McLaughlin just signed with the brand-new National Women’s Hockey League in Buffalo, N.Y.
 
“There’s no team in Pittsburgh but they plan to add teams every year,” said McLaughlin. “I think if there was a team [in Pittsburgh], the reception would be good with the right promotion. The more people hear about it and watch good hockey, the more they come back.”
 
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