Kickass Women

History is filled with women doing all kinds of kickass stuff.

Smart Girls

Watch these girls... they're going places!


Need a dose of inspiration? Here you go.

SRPS Entertainment

Some of my entertainment recommendations with awesome female characters and stars.

She's Crafty!

Some of the awesome items made by kickass women!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Lyudmila Pavlichenko - Badass with a gun

It's all well and good to punch Nazis, but Lyudmila Pavlichenko (July 12, 1916 – October 10, 1974) did way more than that. She shot Nazis. And not just a few. As a soldier for the Soviet Army in World War II she sniped 309 of them.

Image description: Lyudmila Pavlichenko wearing her uniform surrounded by women workers, with a quote on the left side: "Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country."

As gruesome as it might be to consider for many of us, at the time killing Nazis seemed to be the only way to stop their march across Europe, killing anyone they didn't deem worthy of living in their 'Großdeutsches Reich.' When the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941, in addition to reneging on their pact with Russian not to invade (one they hadn't actually planned to keep), they went in with the full intention of taking over the western part of the Soviet Union so they could fill it with Germans and use anyone left as forced labor to support their war effort.

Naturally, the Soviets didn't like this idea and immediately began to enlist in large numbers, men and women, to fight against this invasion. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was no exception. She wanted to use her skills as a sharpshooter to defend her country. She was a college student at the time studying history, but she was also handy with a rifle. As a teen she'd joined a shooting club when a boy friend of hers boasted about his achievements. She set out to prove to him that girls could as well, and by the time she was in college, she'd earned a reputation as a proficient markswoman.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko wearing her uniform holding a rifle standing among trees.

When she showed up at the recruitment office, she was initially offered a job as a nurse, but they agreed to let her prove herself. They handed her a rifle and showed her a couple of enemy fighters across the field of battle. She convinced them by handily dispatching both, earning her place as a sniper. In fact, there were over 2,000 female snipers in the Soviet Army. But Pavlichenko was the best. Her successes in the field earned her the respect of her superiors and the admiration of civilians near and far. In fact, after just over a year of battle (in which she'd killed 309 Nazis or their collaborators) she was removed from the front when she was injured because her notoriety she'd become a target for the enemy.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko wearing her uniform standing between Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (left) and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (right) in 1942
She took a position as instructor for other snipers, teaching them what she'd learned in the field, and eventually rose to the rank of General. She used her newfound status to bring international attention to the situation along the Soviet front line -- the "second" front -- where resources were scarce and funds were desperately needed for basic equipment like x-ray machines. She was invited to the US by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to travel throughout the US telling Americans about her experience.

I'm more than a little annoyed by, but totally unsurprised at, the ridiculously misogynistic questions and comments she received during her tour. "One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat." But I am absolutely energized by her amazing response to the treatment she received from American men. "Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist invaders by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?" Boom!

After the war, she returned to her study of history, and spent the rest of her life working as a historian with the Soviet Navy.

You can read more about her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt in the Smithsonian Magazine story "Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet Sniper"

There was a Russian film made about her life, released in 2015, Battle for Sevastopol [trailer]

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Katharine Blodgett Gebbie - astrophysicist and civil servant

Katharine Blodgett Gebbie (July 4, 1932 – August 17, 2016) was the founding Director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and of its two immediate predecessors, the Physics Laboratory and the Center for Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics, both for which she was the only Director. During her 22 years of management of these institutions, four of its scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

As a child, she was inspired by her famous aunt (and namesake), Katharine Burr Blodgett, who was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, and went on to invent low-reflectance "invisible" glass. Almost following in her aunt's footsteps, Katharine also enrolled in Bryn Mawr, but had to transfer to MIT after he father's death.

Her future husband proposed to her, but Katharine initially turned him down saying she was going to move to London to study the stars and earn her Ph.D. Instead of seeing those as a hindrance, he completely supported her and together they moved to England.

After earning her degree in 1964, she returned to the US where she practiced "laboratory astrophysics" -- where scientists study the basic physical processes of astrophysics and perform simulations of these processes to understand how they work throughout the universe.

In 1981, she moved from the laboratory to the management side of operations, eventually accepting an appointment as Chief of the Quantum Physics Division at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). She continued to rise in the ranks of management, eventually directing several hundred employees. Her job, as she saw it, was to select the best and brightest scientists and then make sure they have everything they need to succeed. And succeed they did. She is likely the only manager to have directed four Nobel winners in her career.

She made it her goal to creating more opportunities for women and other marginalized groups in physics, and was a co-organizer of a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics bringing together more than 100 young female physics majors for encouragement and inspiration. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award, among many other honors.

You can watch a short interview with her: Katharine Blodgett Gebbie: In Her Own Words

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Harriet Brooks - Canada's first woman of nuclear science

Harriet Brooks (July 2, 1876 – April 17, 1933) enrolled at McGill University in Montreal in the mid-1890s, just a few years after they'd started admitting women. She knew from the start she wanted to study mathematics, and graduated in 1898 with a bachelor's degree in both in mathematics and natural philosophy -- the precursor to the field of physics.

Impressed with her scientific ability, Ernest Rutherford, the "father" of nuclear physics, and future Nobel winner (with much of his work being built on her research) accepted her as his first graduate student. With him, she studied electricity and magnetism, and graduated with a Master's in Electromagnetism in 1901, making her the first woman in Canada to earn a Master's degree.

After graduation, she left Montreal for the US, where she first served as a fellow at Bryn Mawr and then at Cambridge. She returned to Rutherford's lab, though, where she made a crucial scientific discovery. Working with the element thorium, she discovered that its radioactive decay emissions weren't the expected alpha, beta, or gamma rays, but instead were another element in the form of a gas "transmuted" from the parent element.

This new element was radon, which has a lower molecular weight than the thorium from which it was emitted. In fact, it was this discovery that laid the foundation for the development of the entire field of nuclear science, and created the basis for the work Rutherford did to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908.

In 1904 she moved again, this time to New York City where she took a position as a physics tutor at Barnard College, the women's college associated with Columbia. It was while there that she fell in love with a male physicist from Columbia, and the two planned to marry. When the Dean of Barnard found out, it was made clear that she was expect to resign on the date of her wedding. Instead, Harriet Brooks wrote a stern letter stating her opposition to such a ridiculous practice. "I think it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries. I cannot conceive how women’s colleges, inviting and encouraging women to enter professions can be justly founded or maintained denying such a principle."

Sadly, the policy wasn't changed, and she had to make a tough decision. She broke off the engagement, and eventually left Barnard entirely.

In 1906, she studied at the Curie Institute, where she discovered the recoil of radioactive atoms, using the radium Dr. Marie Curie had discovered. Her research showed that when a radioactive atom undergoes decay, a large alpha particle is released, and the atom is propelled in the opposite direction, proving Newton's Third Law applied to atomic particles as well.

Unexpectedly, considering her previous fight against women being forced to choose between marriage and academic research, in 1907 she married and retired from science completely. After nearly a decade of ground-breaking research where she was frequently compared to Marie Curie, she seemed content to leave future research to others. Perhaps she saw first hand the exhausting schedule of Marie Curie, busy juggling a family and a scientific career, when she was in Paris, and decided she was satisfied with her contributions in one area and was eager to explore the other.

You can read more about her work in her McGill profile, "Remembering Harriet Brooks: Canada’s first female nuclear physicist"

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Alice Guy-Blaché - a Wonder Woman of Film

There's a lot of excitement over the seemingly radical way Patti Jenkin's Wonder Woman movie has changed the way women are portrayed in film and how female directors are given projects. After nearly 100 years of men dominating the majority of on-screen and behind-the-screen roles, it feels like women* are finally finding a footing in Hollywood. But that's not entirely the case. Women have always been involved with films, from the very, very beginning. Like today, they may have been outnumbered, but they were there. And they were making great female-centric films.

Over a century ago, Alice Guy-Blaché (July 1, 1873 – March 24, 1968) was inspiring women on screen. During her more than 25 years as a director and producer she made more than 700 films, most featuring female leads as heroines defending the weak and defeating the "bad guys." Her stories were inspiration for thousands of women who were seeing themselves portrayed on the screen as brave and adventurous women. Stories that likely came easy to Alice, since she herself was brave and adventurous in her own life.

When Alice took a position as a typist with a photography studio in the early 1890s, she was mainly interested in finding a way to support herself and her recently widowed mother. She'd been born into a wealthy family whose fortunes had dropped rapidly over the course of her young life, until the time that her father died when she was in her early teens and they were left nearly destitute. But this job turned out to be more than just an income, it was a event that changed the course of her life.

In 1895 Alice accompanied her boss to a showing of a short demonstration film showing workers leaving the factory, and like everyone else she was awed by the moving pictures on the screen. But she also recognized the potential of using these moving images as a new and exciting medium for entertainment. Fascinated with the idea of film as a creative endeavor, she stayed after work and experimented with the cameras. In 1896 she debuted her first film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), a charming story about a woman growing children in a cabbage patch. It was the first narrative fiction film, and she was the first female director.

She was immediately promoted out of the office and made head of production, where she had plenty of room to be creative. She played around with film techniques and "special effects" like masking, double exposure, and running the film backwards, all to enhance the story she was telling. She worked with special equipment meant to synchronize music and films. She recorded stories about travel and dancing and tried to capture the joys of life on film.

After several years of this, she moved to the US, where she eventually opened her own studio so she could have greater control over her stories. Now she could make the films she wanted to see. Unlike the stereotypical old movie idea we think of today with the damsel tied to the railroad tracks waiting for the gallant young hero to rescue her, most of Alice's films featured a brave young woman of derring-do, rescuing herself and others as well.

Like Patti Jenkin's Wonder Woman, her films were wildly popular with the women who frequented the picture halls of the era. They went in looking for entertainment, and came out thrilled to have seen themselves on screen as courageous, fearless, and strong. They cheered loudly and left marveling at their newfound sense of self.

And all because she followed her curiosity and took a change to try something new.

*White Women. Hollywood has a long history of racism and stifling the voices of people of color, and especially women of color. There are several excellent women of color working on amazing projects, but not nearly enough. I want everyone to be able to feel the way I did when I left the theater after watching Wonder Woman. I want them to cry tears of joy at finally seeing themselves on the silver screen, shown in a purely heroic light, with the all too present filters of racism and sexism removed.

You can read more about her importance to film history: Women Film Pioneers Project

You can read about her influence on film and popular culture: "Alice’s Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché"

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

SRPS Inspiration: Life Lessons from Octavia Butler

I've been thinking about Octavia Butler quite a bit lately. I hate to admit I haven't read much of writing, but I've been reading about her and finding more than enough inspiration from her life and struggles as an African American woman trying to find a place in the (still too) white male dominated field of science fiction.

She credits her perseverance for helping her overcome the challenge of trying to be a writer compounded by being an outsider. From a young age she had to navigate through the physical world where people like her -- female and black -- were told not to aim too high, and then find a place in a fictional world where people like her didn't exist. But she persisted, and through her struggles was able to tell stories that took the entire genre of science fiction to an entirely new level by showing us the complexities of humanity and how we are all connected while at the same we are limited by our perspective.

By reading about her struggles and successes, and what she learned from them, we can find guidance for our own lives and inspiration to continue pushing forward.

1. Allow yourself to dream and then get to work.
"We're all capable of climbing so much higher than we usually permit ourselves to suppose."
Fear of failure as well as fear of success can hold us back from pushing ourselves to find our upper limit. I see this in my own life when I'm afraid to follow through on an idea, afraid that it would be seen as silly, or a waste of time. Well, in a way it IS silly to think that following an idea would be a waste of time. No one was ever successful by just staying where they started.

Octavia knew she wanted to be a writer. She wanted her books read by millions of people. She allowed herself to dream of success. But she didn't just dream it into being, she did the long, hard work of making it happen. She wrestled with the uncertainty and fought writer's block and still sat down at the typewriter every day to create the books she had inside her.

2. Do the right thing. Always.
"I have a huge and savage conscience that won't let me get away with things."
Her father died when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise her with the help of her own mother. Together, her mother and grandmother impressed on Octavia the importance of character and following one's conscience. She said, later, that growing up in this strict Baptist home helped to build her adult morality.

This didn't just mean not stealing or telling the truth. It was her conscience that made her keep working even when it was difficult, and to then turn her success into a means to help pull others up the ladder behind her. She used her experience as a writer to help other aspiring authors, and especially writers of color. Even though she was a renowned recluse, she returned several times to the Clarion Writer's Workshop -- the same annual workshop she had attended during her early years -- to advise other struggling writers.

After her sudden death at age 58, an annual scholarship was set up to help writers of color attend the Clarion workshop, fulfilling a promise she'd made to herself to "send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer's workshops."

3. Find a way to be yourself.
"I began writing about power because I had so little."
Like others who are painfully shy in school, and often bullied because of it, she found comfort in books. She was particularly drawn to science fiction. She kept a notebook she filled with her own stories. When she was 10 her mother bought her a typewriter. In 1954, when she was 12, she watched Devil Girl from Mars, and decided she could write a better version. So she did. This early attempt was the template for what eventually became her Patternist series.

As a young black girl living in the 1950s, she had to find a way to be more than what society told her she was. Even if it was just on the pages in her stories, and in the dreams she had of herself. By carving out this space for the inner young Octavia, she fed the fire that lead her to become the adult Octavia, full of determination and perseverance.

4. Don't let anyone say you can't.
"No one was going to stop me from writing and no one had to really guide me towards science fiction. It was natural, really, that I would take that interest."
When she was 13, her aunt, probably more out of kindness than anything else, told Octavia that "Negroes can't be writers." Her aunt, of course, knew a bit more about the world and how it treated African Americans who try to step outside the accepted roles, and thought she was helping Octavia be more realistic in her career goals. But Octavia wasn't having it. She kept on writing, and by the time she was in high school, she submitted her first manuscript to a science fiction magazine.

Thankfully while her aunt was trying to advise her to lower her expectations, her mother was busy helping to raise them. It was her mother who encouraged her to write, who scrimped to buy her a typewriter on a housekeeper's salary, and who gave up her savings for much-needed dental work to help Octavia travel to the Clarion workshop that changed the course of her writing.

5. Representation matters. So does context.
"When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing."
In college Octavia won a college-wide writing contest, her first taste of success. This was also around the time the preliminary idea for Kindred came to her. It was the late-60s, and a fellow African American student railed against what he saw a passivity in previous generations of African Americans when confronted with injustice. Octavia knew the past was more complicated and dangerous, and wanted to find a way to place their actions into historical context. She wanted to show that what may look like passivity and subservience to the modern generation, was a kind of silent strength needed for survival.

She talked with her older relatives about their experiences as maids and gardeners, and listened to their stories of how it was "back then" and found a greater understanding of how they were able to survive by staying silent in the face of adversity, while also planting the seeds for future change. Her mother had to work as a maid, enduring the humiliation of going into the homes of wealthy white people through the backdoor, to pay for Octavia's education and support her dreams of adding her own voice to the stories. And in doing so, Octavia was also able to give voice to the silent generations before her.

6. You have to do the hard work.
"You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."
After college, she continued to write, taking part time and temporary menial jobs to pay for her small apartment and provide her with the time to write. But she hadn't quite found her voice yet. Her stories were patterned after the writing of white male science fiction authors she'd been reading and didn't accurately reflect her own experiences.

It took nearly a decade, and hundreds of rejection slips, for her to finally work through her early tendency to write like establish authors and find her own style. By the mid-1970s she was working on the novels that would become the Patternist series, and by 1978 she was finally able to support herself with her writing.

That's ten years of getting up each morning at 2 am to sit at the typewriter and write. Even when the words wouldn't come, or the ideas weren't inspiring. Even when she'd rather stay in bed or watch tv, or do pretty much anything other than sit there. Even when she was nearly convinced that everything was trash and she should just give up. She still got up in the dark, and got to work.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Margaret Abbott - unsuspecting Olympian

Imagine you're a wealthy young woman from Chicago who has traveled to Paris with your mother in order to take art lessons from the greats -- Dumas and Rodin -- and while you're there you join a golfing competition with some other wealthy white women for kicks. You win, accept a beautiful porcelain bowl, return to your studies, and live the rest of your life totally unaware that you're the first American woman to win an Olympic event.

That's exactly what happened to Margaret Abbott (June 15, 1878 – June 10, 1955). She was only 22 when she and her mother went to Paris. She had no idea that golf match competition was part of the 1900 Olympic Games, nor that by winning she was making history.

Actually, no one really knew until 1996 when University of Florida professor Paula Welch, who taught sports history tracked down the details of that year's Olympics -- a challenging bit of detective work as the Paris Games were so poorly organized, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) didn't officially add her golf match or other competitions to the list of Olympic matches until after the fact.

Thankfully because of Professor Welch's research, we now know that Margaret Abbott is the first official American woman Olympic winner.

The 1900 Paris Olympic Games was the first time women's sports were included in the official record. The IOC president as well as many other people were opposed to allowing women to compete, but the French Organizing Committee set up events, over the course of six months, for them anyway. It wasn't until later that year that the IOC approved some of the matches -- those that were considered more lady-like like yachting, tennis, and golf.

On October 3, 1900, Margaret Abbott, and her mother Mary Abbott, played in a tournament of 9 holes, where Margaret came in first with a score of 47, and her mother tied for seventh place. In fact, this is the only time in the history of modern Olympics where a mother and daughter both participated in the same event.

So I guess that means she made history twice that day.

To read more about her competition and the 1900 Olympics at Women Golfers Museum.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Margaret Bourke-White - inspirational photojournalist

When I think of photojournalism the person who comes to mind is Margaret Bourke-White (June 14, 1904 – August 27, 1971), the first female photographer at Life magazine, the first woman photojournalist on the ground in World War II, and an all-round remarkable artist. Her career was a perfect melding of three factors: remarkable talent, dedication to her craft, and an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

She grew up at a time when photography was transitioning from a novelty to an art form, and as a child she was fascinated with cameras. Her father was a naturalist, and himself a photography hobbyist, and encouraged her curiosity about the world around her.

Still, when she enrolled in college at Columbia University she was there to study herpetology, not photography. But that changed within the first few weeks when she attended a photograph class. Sadly, she had to leave college after only one semester to deal with the death of her father and to help support her mother and younger brother.

Still, she was determined to earn her degree, and over the next several years, she took classes wherever she was -- Michigan, Indiana, or Ohio -- and eventually graduated with a  bachelor's in fine art in 1927. At first, she worked as general photographer, opening her own studio in Cleveland. She focused on architectural and industrial photography, where she refined her technique.

One of her greatest breakthroughs came while working for one of her biggest clients, the Otis Steel Company. She'd been commissioned to take photos of the factory during production, but the film at the time couldn't capture the color of red-hot molten steel, and all her images came out black. But she solved the problem by bringing some magnesium flares that gave off a bright white light, and had workers hold them to properly illuminate the hot steel.

Her work as a commercial photographer caught the attention of magazine publishers who were on the hunt for images to share. In 1929 she took a position as associate editor and staff photographer at Fortune magazine. In that role she was allowed to travel for international news stories, and was the first Western photographer allowed into the USSR to take photos of their factories.

In 1936, she was hired by the publishers behind a brand new magazine, Life, where her work was a regular feature. In fact, she earned the cover photo spot in their first issue. During her time with Life, she continued traveling to cover important events around the world. When World War II broke out a few years later, she was already on the ground in Europe, making her the first woman allowed in combat zones there. When German forces invaded Moscow, she was the only foreign photographer there, making her images a valuable resource documenting the firefight.

When the US entered the war, she found a spot with troops in North Africa, Italy, and even Germany. She was there with General Patton when Buchenwald concentration camp was liberated and captured the gruesome scenes, the first time these types of horrors were so clearly illustrated for an American public.

After the war, she traveled to India to report on the violence as a result of the contentious partition of India and Pakistan. While there, she was able to interview Gandhi, and take an iconic photo of him at his spinning wheel, just a few hours before he was assassinated.

After an extraordinary career, in the early 1950s she developed increasingly debilitating symptoms of Parkinson's disease and eventually had to step back from her photography. Considering her seemingly natural ability to capture complex human truths in her photos, I have to wonder how she would have used her talents to document the civil rights and feminist movements of the 60s and 70s. Thankfully she was an influence on future generations of photojournalists as well as an inspiration women worldwide to pursue their dreams regardless of difficulty.

You can read more about her life and work in her Library of Congress biography.

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SRPS Role Model: Pat Summitt - basketball icon

Pat Summitt (June 14, 1952 – June 28, 2016) is best known as the inspirational basketball coach with a record-setting 1098 career wins, but how much do you know about her life and how her basketball career highlights the changing climate for women in sports?

Pat was born in Clarksville, Tennessee, into a family filled with sports fans and athletes. When she was in high school, her parents moved to a nearby town just so she could play basketball. This was years before Title IX, and her hometown school didn't offer a girls team.

When she enrolled in the University of Tennessee at Martin, she didn't receive an athletic scholarship like her brothers did, because colleges didn't have to offer parity in sports funding and scholarships. And still, she won All-American honors. And I have to wonder what role her college coach, Nadine Gearin, the woman who founded the UT-Martin women's team, played in Pat's career choice?

After graduating from UT-Martin, Pat took a position as a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville), where she was also appointed as the new head coach of the women's basketball team, the Lady Vols, to replace the previous coach who quit abruptly. This was certainly a fortuitous turn of events for both Pat and UT. Her first season with the team, 1974-75, they won their district championship, setting a precedent that would define her career.

The next year, while still coaching another winning team, she was also earning her master's degree in physical education AND training as co-captain for the 1976 Women's Olympic team. They won the silver medal in the first-ever Olympic women's basketball competition.

She and her Lady Vols went on to have 38 winning seasons. In fact, she never had a losing season in her long coaching career. And when she coached the US Women's Team in the 1984 Olympics she took home a gold medal to go next to her silver.

When she retired, she had won eight NCAA championships, a NCAA women's record, with an astonishing 1,098 wins, the most in the entire NCAA history. I'm sure it's no surprise that she's an SRPS Role Model. This woman who had to chase her dream of playing basketball at a time when women's sports weren't taken seriously, went on to have a serious impact on women's sports by coaching some of the world's best players and bringing world-wide attention to women's basketball.

You can read more about her coaching career in this 1998 Sports Illustrated article "Eyes Of The Storm."

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