Sports Doing Good Newsletter, #207

March 20 – March 26, 2016

Welcome to week two hundred seven of the Sports Doing Good newsletter. This week’s 10 stories include:

  1. Baseball’s role in improved relationship between Cuba, U.S.
  2. How a Soccer Field in Brazil Probably Saved a Boy’s Life
  3. People with Disabilities Swap Their Wheelchairs for Scuba Gear
  4. President Obama: MLB exhibition in Cuba ‘something extraordinary’
  5. NFL Quarterback Cam Newton Graduates from College: “I Promised My Mom I Would Finish”
  6. After Surviving Aegean Sea, Syrian Swimmer Hopes For Spot in Olympics
  7. Runner Boris Berian Goes from McDonald’s Employee to World Champion: ‘A Year Ago I Was Just a Normal Guy’
  8. Thanks to Strong Women in His Life, Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham Becoming a Star
  9. Brayan Peña: The Window
  10. Her Parents Thought Swimming Lessons Were a Good Idea

Coach Across America: Chicago Coach Uses Running to Teach Leadership
Creating a sport support system that delivers
Homeless World Cup to Welcome 51 Countries to Glasgow 2016

We have a water-centric group of stories this week. We include in that group three stories that involve the developing relations between the U.S. and the island nation of Cuba. President Obama’s recent visit to the country brought much attention on how things are in Cuba now and the amazing opportunities there are for collaboration moving forward, including on the baseball field. We also include two stories of swimmersone from the U.S. and one from Syria – who have lived much of their life in a pool and who now have visions of reaching one of their dreams, participation in the Olympic Games. And we include one other story that may be amongst the most powerful we have ever featured. It is a story (and video) that confronts the idea of “can’t” and flips it. We see a group of differently-abled individuals experience time in the water as scuba divers that is life-changing. They are assisted by equally special volunteers who don’t see limits but instead challenges, challenges that can be overcome by working together. We hope that you take time out to appreciate this story and all the other stories this week.

The other stories we are happy to feature include: how a place to play soccer can change an individual’s and a community’s future for the better; NFL MVP Cam Newton who fulfilled a promise to himself and his family when he graduated from Auburn University; world champion track star Boris Berian who has had a not-so-smooth path to becoming a champion and is now poised to be part of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games; and student-athlete Devonte Graham of the University of Kansas, who with the help and love of his mom and extended family, has emerged as a star on and off the basketball court.

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So enjoy. And have a good week.

Baseball’s role in improved relationship between Cuba, U.S.
Chris Archer was 10 when the Baltimore Orioles traveled to Havana to play the Cuban national team in 1999, the first time a major league team had played in Cuba in 40 years. The Rays, on Tuesday, will be the second since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The team flew Sunday to Havana, will work out at the ballpark Monday and return to the U.S. on Tuesday, after its afternoon game. Obama is expected to attend, along with baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and players’ union chief Tony Clark. “It’s going to be huge for all of us,” the Rays pitcher said. “We really don’t get educated on what’s happening in Cuba, at least not in the traditional education system that I came up with. So it’ll be cool to learn about the history from being there. And if I do get to communicate with some people, hear it first hand, not what they put in our textbooks, or don’t put in our textbooks. … I’m looking forward to learning the history of the land directly from the people. First hand. That’d be cool.” Archer, now 27, has played alongside Cubans Yunel Escobar and Leslie Anderson, among others. Outfielder Dayron Varona, who defected from Cuba three years ago and signed with the Rays last May, is the only Cuban on the traveling roster. “The greatest thing for me is to go back after such a short time,” Varona said. “I’m dreaming of that moment where I see a full ballpark again.”–u-s-155828287-mlb.html

Yoan Francisco, a rookie for the Havana Industriales, warms up before a game at Havana’s Latin American Stadium. Cuban baseball has been facing hard times, but improved diplomatic relations with the U.S. have raised the possibility of increased cooperation and new opportunities. Eyder Peralta/NPR

How a Soccer Field in Brazil Probably Saved a Boy’s Life
For years, the kids in Penedo de Cima had nowhere to play the beautiful game. Da Silva and his friends would play soccer wherever they could find space or just stay inside, he said. But in 2013, an organization called love.fútbol (LF) began construction on a field for the community and the da Silva brothers, Lucas and Izaque, got involved. LF is a nonprofit that builds soccer fields mostly in Latin America but has big plans to expand in 2016 to parts of Africa and the U.S. The fields are built and maintained by the local communities. “When the project began, I went every day and tried to participate,” da Silva, who was 10 or 11 at the time, said. “I wanted to join because I knew that one day it would be of use to me. Nowadays, many people come here all the time. More people play soccer and no one stirs up trouble or starts fights.” He said that there are still drug users in the community but when they come to the field, it’s to play as opposed to dealing. “The desire to play is bigger than drugs,” he said.

Children play soccer at the inauguration of the soccer pitch in Penedo de Cima, Brazil. CREDIT: Courtesy of

People with Disabilities Swap Their Wheelchairs for Scuba Gear
The Marine Discovery Dive is an annual event that is the brainchild of EK Lim and his friends at People Support People in Malaysia. The group wanted to give persons with disabilities an opportunity to experience the sea. Many never get this chance because it’s not physically accessible, and it goes against a general perception that persons with disabilities shouldn’t be undertaking such pursuits. Well, People Support People is busting that myth. Not only is this event about bringing together able-bodied people and people with disabilities to learn from and support each other, it’s about showing the community of people with disabilities that they can be empowered and break through their own limitations. One of the most valuable lessons we learnt on this trip is that disability is not about someone’s physical limitations. It’s about the environment. If we work to make it accessible, persons with disabilities have an equal chance of succeeding in everything that able-bodied people do. Underwater and out of their wheelchairs, these persons with disabilities are free. They can’t walk but they can dive, because in the water, we’re all the same. The Marine Discovery Dive 2016 is open to volunteers (those who dive and those who don’t) and persons with disabilities from around the world. Training is provided.

President Obama: MLB exhibition in Cuba ‘something extraordinary’
Baseball in Cuba has played a part in America’s broader history as well. In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers and their farm club, including Jackie Robinson, spent spring training in Havana. Before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Jackie took the field at the famed Estadio Latinoamericano for exhibitions against both American and Cuban teams. It’s the same stadium where we’ll watch today’s game. And it will be an honor to watch with Jackie’s wife, Rachel, and their daughter, Sharon, who are here as part of our delegation. That’s what this visit is about: remembering what we share, reflecting upon the barriers we’ve broken — as people and as nations — and looking toward a better future. Because while I will not ignore the important differences between our governments, I came to Cuba to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. They’re the reason I cast off the failed, Cold War-era policy that left so many Cubans in conflict, exile and poverty in favor of a new course. They’re why our governments are now cooperating on health and education initiatives. They’re why we’re helping families connect by restoring direct commercial flights and mail service. And they’re why we’re expanding commercial ties and increasing the capacity of Americans to travel to do business in Cuba.

President Barack Obama calls the first MLB exhibition in Cuba in 17 years “a symbol of the bonds between Americans and Cubans despite decades of isolation.” AP Photo/Desmond Boylan

NFL Quarterback Cam Newton Graduates from College: “I Promised My Mom I Would Finish”
Cam is already an inspiration to millions. Just off the heels of leading his Panthers’ to the NFL play offs & Super Bowl 50, he’s got another brass ring. He completed his college degree in Sociology from Auburn University. The high profile quarterback carved out some time in his busy schedule to attend classes and even study for exams. Although Newton is already in the financial position many college students would kill for, he was determined to finish college because of a promise he made to his mother, Jackie.  He told People Magazine, “Everyone else has always been worried about the football side of things, but not my mother. My education was her top priority.” Being a famous college student wasn’t easy.  Classmates would take pictures of him and post them online.  He said it was definitely different from before he entered the NFL, but he made it through with his trademark smile.  His educational focus is now on The Cam Newton Foundation, his charity that helps disadvantaged kids achieve their educational goals. “When I was growing up, my parents really influenced me,” he says. “But there are kids who don’t have that type of influence. They need someone who can create avenues for their dreams – whether they want to be a football player, a doctor or a veterinarian.”

After Surviving Aegean Sea, Syrian Swimmer Hopes For Spot in Olympics
Mardini and her sister traveled through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria before reaching Germany. There, the two of them were connected with a local swimming club. Mardini has been training for the past five months, hoping to qualify for the Olympics. In the video released by the IOC, Mardini says she didn’t want to sit around and cry. “It’s tough. It was really hard, for everyone, and I don’t blame anyone if they cried. But sometimes you just have to move on,” she says. She’s proud to be a refugee, she says: “My sister, when she wants to encourage me, says, ‘Show them the refugee, what she will do.’ ” But she’s more focused on being an athlete.” In the water,” she says, “there is no difference if you are a refugee or a Syrian or German.” All told, 43 athletes are aiming for a spot on the refugee team. The IOC has identified Mardini and two others: Raheleh Asemani, an Iranian taekwondo fighter living in Belgium, and Popole Misenga, a judo competitor from Congo training in Brazil.

Yusra Mardini visits the Olympiapark Berlin on March 9. The 18-year-old Syrian refugee hopes to qualify for the Rio Olympics as a swimmer on the refugee team. Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IOC

Runner Boris Berian Goes from McDonald’s Employee to World Champion: ‘A Year Ago I Was Just a Normal Guy’
In two years, Boris Berian went from working at McDonald’s to becoming a global star in track and field. On Saturday, the 23-year-old won a gold medal in the 800-meter race at the IAAF world indoor championships in Portland, Oregon. Berian built a 10-meter lead during the first quarter mile of the race and finished in 1:45.83, according to Runner’s World. “It was simple. Just take the lead right away and then hang on,” Berian told reporters afterward the race, according to the Denver Post. “That’s how I feel most comfortable racing, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do.” Berian won $40,000 for his victory on Saturday – a sum that would have been unfathomable to him just two years ago, when he was earning $8 an hour as a fry cook at McDonald’s and sleeping on friends’ couches. After dropping out of Adams State University in his native Colorado, Berian stayed with friends and found time to train after shifts flipping burgers, according to the Portland Tribune. “I was just staying positive and hoping this dream would happen on my own,” he said. …As for other athletes following unconventional paths, his advice is simple: “Just don’t let go of your dreams,” he told The Portland Tribune. “I just kept running and holding on to that dream, and it came to me.”

Boris Berian competes in the 800-meter final at the IAAF World Indoor Championships. Christian Petersen/Getty

Thanks to Strong Women in His Life, Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham Becoming a Star
“I’m just enjoying every moment of it,” Graham said. “My mom told me to always be appreciative of every opportunity I get and of the people in my circle. I’m definitely appreciative of what I have here.” Perhaps that’s why, after arriving on Kansas’ campus, Graham had the words “Forever Grateful” tattooed across his chest. The phrase, he said, is an ode to so many things. He’s grateful for the coaches who took a chance on him at Kansas, grateful for his grandmother and aunt, who helped raise him; and his little sister, who inspires him. Most of all, Graham said, he’s grateful for Dewanna, who has been inundated with praise since sharing her story last week with the Kansas City Star. A few days later, the same article was picked up by the Raleigh News and Observer, her hometown newspaper. “My wife read it and called me in tears,” Howard said. “It just really showed you how strong of a person Dewanna is. So many girls that age would’ve had an abortion or given the baby up for adoption or been an absentee mother. But Dewanna didn’t run from the situation. “She embraced it.” The more Dewanna hears and reads those types of comments, the more proud she becomes.

Graham leads the Jayhawks with 1.4 steals per game this season and ranks second in assists. Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Brayan Peña: The Window
Listen, I know I’m never going to be a Hall of Famer. I may never win a World Series. But I could thank God every single day until the day I die for that phone call with my family, and it will still not even be close to enough thanks. I was a big leaguer. In the 11 years since that day, I have experienced so much. I met my wife, had children, brought my mom and dad to America, and I’ve even become an American citizen. I’ve played for the Braves, Royals, Tigers, Reds, and now the Cardinals. But when you talk to Cuban players who have made it to America, there’s always a bit of pain behind the smiles. Because we cannot see our families in Cuba. We cannot go home. For 16 years I couldn’t hug my grandmother, and expected that I never would hug her again. Then last season, the craziest thing happened. My friend Leonor Barua from the MLBPA came up to me and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, we’re talking with the Cuban government about a goodwill trip.” I thought it was just wishful thinking. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. But then at the winter meetings, Leonor came up to me with a big smile. “It’s happening. We just need a yes or a no. Do you want to go home?” I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes.”

Photograph by the Pena Family

Her Parents Thought Swimming Lessons Were a Good Idea
Indeed, Krystal has risen to unlikely ranks in a sport bedeviled by persistent racial and socioeconomic gaps. She lives in a modest two-family ranch-style house in Willowbrook, Staten Island, with her parents and two younger siblings. Her father, Frederick Lara, 46, grew up in a Dominican-American family in Brooklyn; her mother immigrated to New York from Colombia…When she gauges the competition, Krystal often finds that she is the only Latina in the pool. “You generally need to be from a pretty good financial background to do swim seriously, so that’s a huge reason you see so few people of color,” she said. “But diversity in the pool is so important.” At Stuyvesant, the city’s most competitive public high school, where Hispanic students are also vastly underrepresented, students call her Krystal the Pistol. She has compiled a long list of school swimming records. Besides the backstroke, her specialty, Krystal also excels at the butterfly and hopes to qualify for Olympic trials in that stroke as well. On dry land, her résumé is no less impressive: She is an honor student with an above-90 average, and a saxophone player in the school’s symphonic band. In the fall, she accepted a scholarship offer from Northwestern University, where she plans to study toward a career in sports medicine.

Krystal Lara, second from right, a student at Stuyvesant High School and an Olympic hopeful, attended swim practice at Asphalt Green in Manhattan. Credit: Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

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