This episode of the Strong Women. Better World podcast takes listeners courtside in Lebanon with Racha Kalot (Professor, University of Science and Art; former professional basketball player) and Karen Chammas (Athletics Coordinator, Lebanese American University; former professional basketball player and judoka) to uncover how they fought social conventions to play their passion sports and how they’re helping pave the way for the next generations to follow in their footsteps.
Carole (0:05): Hello, helo. I am your host and ref, Carole Ponchon from Lyon, France, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the proverbial ring as two fearless women spar about their trailblazing journeys in sport. In today's episode, we travel to Lebanon to hear from two strong women who share a passion for sports as a tool to empower women and girls. In the right corner is Racha Kalot, a professor at the University of Science and Art and a former professional basketball player. Building on her love for sport Racha spent the first 10 years of her career working for various non-profit organizations, helping youth from underserved communities. As an expert in special needs education she promotes the concept of learning through play. Racha is driven by a belief that impossible does not exist and everything is achievable--the mindset she will bring to the ring today. Welcome, Racha.
Racha (1:08): Hello, hello. Hi there, I'm Racha, I’m happy to be with you.
Carole (1:13): And we are joined in the left corner by Karen Chammas, another basketball lover and currently the athletics coordinator at the Lebanese American University. As a former professional basketball player and judoka, she is one of a kind in her country. Karen’s sportive achievements includes representing Lebanon in judo at the 2012 Olympic games in London and being a member of the Lebanese national basketball team with whom she won the West Asian championships in 2019. No doubt she will show up to the ring as fearless and determined.
Karen (1:51): Hi, everyone. Hi. Hey, Carole. Hey, Racha. I'm Karen and I'm so excited to be here.
Carole (1:57): Ladies, I am so impatient. I cannot wait to learn about your pioneering work and how you are standing on the shoulder of other Title IX Titans. The ring is yours. So, off we go for round one.
Racha (2:13): Hi Karen.
Karen (2:15): Hey Racha.
Racha (2:16): Well, we have a lot of things in common. And one thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is our participation in the Global Sports Mentoring Program. The GSMP is a sports diplomacy women's empowerment initiative, sponsored by the US Department of State. And implemented by the unbeatable, inspiring, wonderful team at the University of Tennessee Center for Sport, Peace, and Society. So I wanted to give the audience this important background. I'm grateful to spend the short time with you and learn from your experiences, but before jumping straight into the deep end, I want people to understand a bit about you, the special you. So I'm going to start with two fun questions.
Karen (2:57): Alright.
Racha (2:58): For example, uh, if you were an animal, what would, what would you be?
Karen (3:08): I would be a bird just so I can fly around freely and poop on people.
Racha (3:09): Uh, why do you like pooping on people?
Karen (3:11): Because why not? If someone is annoying me.
Racha (3:15): Yeah, he deserved it, or she deserved it. So the second quick question, are you an early bird or a night owl?
Karen (3:22): Of course a night owl, I just like staying up at night.
Racha (3:27): Okay, so you prefer the night shift.
Karen (3:29): Alright, yeah.
Racha (3:30): Thanks for sharing, Karen, and getting us so warmed up. Now, let's get into the match with more substantive questions. Sis, you've got to tell me, how is it you were attached to both by the mat and the swish? What's the link between judo and basketball?
Karen (3:48): To be honest, the main link is my mom and my one year elder brother, I was thrown on the mats at the age of four. Honestly, I was more into gymnastics. I started when I was three more like, cause it was a girly sport and I was also good at it. So growing up, I was questioned and bullied a lot, “Why are you playing a man's sport? It's dangerous, it will ruin your body, it's a masculine sport, go do ballet, or just focus on gymnastics.” To be honest, it used to get me a lot, especially when I used to find myself the only girl in practices sometimes. Fortunately, I had a strong support system that wouldn't let me quit, as much as I tried. I was super attracted by the fighting and the pain. The fighting and competing internationally was my main booster and motivation. Regarding basketball, I started maybe I was 10, 11. We were enrolled in a summer camp, me and my brother. However, I didn't really work on developing much since my main focus was judo. I used to like it, yeah, but it was just for fun. By the time I graduated, I started working and I had to stop, uh, judo, so I signed with the first division basketball team. Racha, I can admit that the explosiveness, the flexibility, agility, and the speed that I developed in judo really helped me a lot in basketball.
Racha (5:05): Well, I saw this in fact, because we were, we like played in the same team for like two years.
Karen (5:10): Yeah, we were teammates. I think 10 years ago.
Racha (5:13): Yeah, for two years, two consecutive years. Well, it's really amazing, impressive how you can switch from an individual game to a collective one. To get back to our discussion, you, you've represented Lebanon on the international scene, both in judo and in basketball. So I'm curious to hear from you, what's one of the biggest challenges that confront women in sport in Lebanon, and why?
Karen (5:39): Racha we both know how it works in Lebanon. Men team sports get all the attention. However, as a female judoka or an individual sport athlete, the challenges are many. There is no respect, no appreciation, no support, no funding. If you want to make it, you got to make it on your own with a little help from the Federation and your parents, of course. Yet, you are not recognized and you are neglected. As a female basketball player, challenges are mainly inconsistency in incomes, no media coverage and exposure. There's no job security. You have to get a job and then play basketball just as a hobby. Yet, as a female judoka in general, I can say I wasn't discriminated.
Racha (6:21): Well I totally agree with you, and I understand the fact that there's not much of importance for the woman in sports. Too bad for us in Lebanon. Last but not least, we both know our country has been in crisis and has suffered a lot lately. What are you doing now to empower women and girls through sports in light of the challenges we are all facing, especially that you're not in Lebanon now?
Karen (6:47): Okay, so honestly, I was working on an event to empower underprivileged girls through a day full of sports activities in the north of Lebanon. But due to the current situation, the project is on hold until further notice. Currently, I'm working with a Saudi club and we'll be probably the first Saudi official club to form judo woman and basketball teams. So we're just waiting for the ministry of sports to give us the green signal to start. And another note, I'm also working on organizing a woman basketball league here, hopefully by the second half of 2021. I think it's a good way to empower Saudi girls to express and showcase their passion for basketball.
Racha (7:24): Impressive. Okay, Karen, I've got one final question. What was your most emotional GSMP moment and what was it like?
Karen (7:32): Definitely the day we had to leave, the last day in DC. It was very emotional, I had to say bye to the UT staff, to the girls, especially my gang.
Carole (7:44): And that’s the end of round one. We are now moving to round two.
Karen (7:49): Okay, Racha. I cannot wait for you to showcase your work in this boxing ring, but first let's warm up our audience with two questions designed to catch you off guard and uncover your personality.
Racha (8:00): Hit me.
Karen (8:01): If you could travel, where would you go?
Racha (8:02): I would choose South Africa, maybe, because it's where I can have it all from, beaches, sightseeings, sports, resorts, extreme sports, friendly people, perfect weather, and good value for money, of course.
Karen (8:18): I've been there, it's beautiful. If you had a warning label, what would yours say?
Racha (8:23): Well, in fact, I have two. The first one is, one day or day one it’s our decision. And the second one, whatever you are not changing you are choosing.
Karen (8:34): Whoa. Oh, Racha. It says a lot about you. Tell me sis, based on your GSMP experience, what were you most surprised to learn about basketball and the US that you weren't expecting?
Racha (8:46): In fact, I was expecting a big difference between a basketball in Lebanon and the US but what surprised me the most is the full package preparations from physical to mental health that can lead to a professional, dedicated and committed basketball player, which is completely missing in Lebanon. As you said before, we have to work, we have to find the everything by our own. So we go to the gym to prepare ourselves. We have to work, and then we have to think about basketball.
Karen (9:16): Yeah, it's a different level in the US, I know, it's really inspiring. Getting back to the ring and your work on the ground. I know how passionate you are to bring opportunities to as many people as possible so everyone can practice sports and learn important life lessons through play. Being a strong, active mother yourself now, can you share about your sports project for mothers and what you learned from your time with them?
Racha (9:39): Well, it was an amazing, powerful and successful project. I did it with daughters and mothers. The feeds, the feedbacks were positive, encouraging, and it was wonderful. So the unforgettable lesson that touched me the most, I can mention the importance of the communication between girls and mothers that can lead to a better relationship between both, without any conflict. And this can help having strong and solid woman in the society later on.
Karen (10:10): Yeah, it's very important what you're doing Racha, and it's impressive, also. Last but not least, as an experienced psychomotor therapist, what advice would you share to all of us who might have this tendency of being inactive or not moving enough? How would you encourage more of us and women and girls, in particular to be more active? Oh, I know we're passing through tough times and people are working from home and it's difficult to juggle between your job and your kids--if you have kids-- your family, and people at home. I'm really curious to hear, from your perspective, about the power of movement and some tips we could all use.
Racha (10:48): Well, as you said, psychomotor is like psychological part of that person and the motor skills of the person, so we work on both. I personally suggest to try to make a physical activity a part of every day. Such as sports work out, for example, or at least if we can’t do sports, just by cleaning the house or do some work at the house, it will help us to do some sports. Because by moving, we are strengthening our muscles, which improves stability, balance, and coordination and reduce anxiety, depression. It can boost self esteem, improve the mood, and minimize stress, which is what we need now. I can share my experience, since July, 2020, I stopped training. I was like home with the kids suffering mentally, if you want, after like six months, I decided no, I have to go back to training and to do some sports because I'm stressing a lot and I'm feeling bad mentally and physically. So what I did is that I opened the YouTube channel for the kids. I put them with me in the room. They were doing yoga and doing some sports, and the same time, I was doing my own sports. So that helped me a lot to, to be back on track. And I'm happy because I train with them, and in the same time, I will be more comfortable with myself.
Karen (12:06): Exactly. Thank you for the advice. I hope people listening to this podcast will take your advice and start working out every day. I'm pretty sure you have a 30 minute break during your day. Go down, like go for a walk, stay active, get it done in the morning. I'm pretty sure your day will feel much better. Okay, Racha, I've got one final question. How are you a better person as a result of your GSMP participation and international cooperation?
Racha (12:32): Participation in such in such an event, I have become a more confident, powerful, sociable and optimistic person. And it helped me a lot later on in my work and my family and the society, and in every project I'm doing.
Karen (12:48): I agree. I think we all feel the same after this GSMP experience. Right Carole? I know you're listening to me.
Carole (12:58): That’s end of round two. We are now moving to round three, with the ladies discussing about empowerment.
Karen (13:05): Okay, we're running out of time, but let's just have a lightning run before our buzzer sounds. What's your definition of empowerment, Racha?
Racha (13:13): Ooh, it's a huge definition, but I will resume in a few words. In my opinion, empowerment starts by being a leader, not a, not a boss. It's being positive, appreciative, lead by example, to support others through thick and thin. What about you, Karen? What's yours?
Karen (13:31): An empowered woman, she's a strong, confident woman that has a voice. She sets her own goals and makes her own decisions.
Racha (13:39): It's you. Simply you.
Karen (13:41): Thank you. You too. I haven't talked to you in years. It was wonderful to share this episode with you, Racha. Thank you for stepping into the ring and helping us learn more about your work to advance gender equity in sport.
Carole (13:55): Ref speaking here, I could not help but end this friendly fight with a sincere thank you to our audience. And guess what? The winner of today's episode is communities around the globe who are benefiting from greater equality and inclusivity. Thank you ladies for your priceless time and energy. You're the stars here and today, so I leave you with the final words.
Karen (14:20): And thanks to our audience for tuning in to this week's episode. We hope you learned something new about women's sports in Lebanon, and that you leave feeling inspired to make a difference in your own community. Social change is a team sport and we’re counting on you to join us as we celebrate the global impact of Title IX. Here are some easy ways to get in on the action.
Racha (14:40): Click the “like” button, subscribe to our channel, and share this podcast with your family, friends and colleagues. Don't forget that. Leave your questions and comments on social media, and remember you can listen to more episodes, of the Strong Women. Better World podcast series on your favorite podcasting platform.