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Thursday, June 13, 2002
Updated: June 19, 3:57 PM ET
IX to Watch

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DANICA PATRICK, Open-wheel racing

Pressure? What pressure? There are 100,000 pairs of eyes staring down from the stands. The infield is crowded with CART's brightest stars -- Andretti, Franchitti, Tracy. A dog leash and leather collar await her should she fail.

Danica Patrick
Patrick doesn't back down on the track -- or in the dog-eat-dog pits.
Danica Patrick didn't need that last bit of incentive, but the 20-year-old racer couldn't resist a friendly wager before the Long Beach Pro/Celebrity Race (the undercard to CART's Long Beach GP). "We made a bet in the drivers' meeting," Patrick explains. "I'm sitting next to Tommy Kendall, and he says, 'Let's raise the stakes. Whoever wins gets to lead the other down pit lane by a leash and collar.' "

Tommy should have known better. Patrick stands all of 5'1" in her racing shoes, but she could be the biggest US prospect to come along in 25 years. Raised as a racer on the dirt tracks of Illinois, she's spent the past two years scorching blokes in England, where she placed second in the 2000 Formula Ford Festival -- the best American finish since Danny Sullivan was runner-up in 1974. Her mentor is none other than Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champ. "The way you quiet the critics is by beating them," he says. "The biggest thing that has always struck me about Danica is her determination. She's not intimidated."

Next season, Patrick hopes to catch a ride in the Toyota Atlantic series, CART's developmental league. She certainly didn't hurt her chances in Long Beach, where she led the field -- including Kendall and fellow phenom Sarah Fisher -- from flag to flag, becoming the first female pro to win the event.

If that wasn't enough to turn heads, she still had one last bit of unfinished business: leading the 6'4" Kendall around on the end of her leash.

-- Lewis Franck

ALICIA BOSTON, Football

Unlike most brothers, David Boston is happy to hand out his sister's phone number. That's because Alicia Boston is also the Arizona wideout's agent. Wanna talk endorsements? Contract? Call big sis.

Alicia Boston
Memo to NFL GMs: This Cardinal sis is representin'.
David was hotly pursued by the Jerry Maguire set after leaving Ohio State three years ago. But he knew Alicia, a corporate attorney in Dallas, would make him priority No. 1 (while waiving the 3% agent's fee, of course). "I wanted someone who had my best interests in mind at all times," he says. "So I kept it in the family." Easy decision for them, but hard for old-school agents to stomach. Says Alicia, now 31, "People would tell David, 'You're letting a woman represent you? You can't be serious.' "

Not everyone was hostile. Most front-office execs wouldn't throw an agent a life preserver, but when Alicia arrived woefully underdressed at a chilly Indianapolis Combine in 1999, then-Browns GM Dwight Clark brought her coffee. Seems the NFL is warming to a woman's touch. The league has licensed 33 female agents, compared to just eight for the NBA and MLB (none for the NHL). Boston, who reps a handful of players, and Kristen Kuliga, who negotiated Doug Flutie's $30M deal with the Chargers, are still the exception when it comes to handling big-name talent. At the same time, Boston has noticed that her pitch is often a hit with the sons of single momsnot to mention the moms. "Some players definitely find a woman easier to confide in," says superagent Leigh Steinberg. "I think we're ripe for a breakthrough."

For now, Alicia enjoys her challenging day job too much to give it up. (David's $7M deal is chump change next to those $250M mergers.) But with little bro in the last year of his contract, you know his agent is thinking big.

-- Andy Latack

KIM NG, Baseball

As a trailblazer, she receives poor marks for self-promotion. How often does Ng, vice president/ assistant general manager for the Dodgers, think about becoming baseball's first female GM? "Only when someone asks me."

Kim Ng
Ng arrived from New York in time to keep Ishi happy in L.A.
That self-effacing manner is one reason she's seen as a rising star (she's 33). "Kim's so talented, she doesn't need to toot her own horn," says Dodgers GM Dan Evans. Ng (pronounced ang) broke in as an intern with the White Sox, working for Evans after earning a public policy degree from the U. of Chicago. By 1998 she'd become assistant GM with the Yankees, a job she held until last November, when she decided to take a break from baseball -- only to be lured back by Evans. "I was going to hire Kim or leave the job open," he says. "She's used to winning. She's the only one in our office who went to the World Series the past four years and didn't have to buy a ticket."

Ng, one of three female assistants -- Boston's Elaine Weddington Steward and the Yanks' Jean Afterman (who replaced Ng) are the others -- is involved in every aspect of the Dodgers organization. Last off-season, she negotiated high-profile contracts for pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii and catcher Paul Lo Duca. But while it's easy to point to her as proof of baseball's stated -- though often unrealized -- commitment to minority hiring, there's reality to consider: The sport is the oldest of old-boys' clubs. "Is there a man who believes in a woman enough to put his ball club in her hands?" asks Priscilla Oppenheimer, the Padres' 61-year-old director of minor league operations. "I don't see it happening in many, many years." She pauses. "But when it does, my money's on Kim Ng."

--Tim Keown

NATALIE DARWITZ, Hockey

Spinning like a water bug through the Finnish defenders, the US star took a pass in tight, held it as she cut across the crease, then coolly flipped a backhander past the sliding goalie for the first score in a 5-0 Olympic rout. It was the kind of play fans expect from Cammi Granato, the female Great One. Except this wasn't Granato. It was 18-year-old Natalie Darwitz, leader of a legion of Cammi-come-latelies.

Natalie Darwitz
Darwitz is quickly evolving into Team USA's leader.
The 5'2" Darwitz gave the Finns fits in Salt Lake, netting a hat trick on her way to a team-high seven goals in five games (and a silver medal). "Her skating is so solid," Granato says. "She has great hands and that knack for the net. She wants the puck."

Always has. While watching the 1988 Winter Olympics at home in Eagan, Minn., 4-year-old Natalie informed her mother she would one day win hockey gold. "I didn't care if there was no girls hockey," she says. "I just figured I'd play with the boys."

Darwitz captained her boys Pee-Wee team, idolizing Golden Gopher Neal Broten. When the first women's national squad was created in 1990, she began mimicking Granato. She set a state record with 312 goals in four years for the Eagan High girls, making the US squad at 15 (youngest ever).

Granato is still going strong at 31, but her young teammates are ready to grab the torch. "Cammi has taught us how to lead," Darwitz says. And it's an act the new Great One can't wait to follow.

-- Lindsay Berra

DEENA DROSSIN, Long-distance running

It all started with a bee sting.

Deena Drossin
Drossin's hot streak puts the U.S. in rare air.
Most track fans will tell you that Drossin's dash to the peak of her sport began last November at the New York City Marathon. In her first race at that distance, she finished in 2:26:58, the best American time in a decade. But she really caught the bug at the 2000 World Cross Country Championships. About 100 meters into the 10K, a bee flew into Drossin's mouth and gave her an unexpected jolt. As she continued running with the lead pack, her throat began to swell; halfway through the third loop, she passed out from lack of oxygen. Race over? No way. Deena got up and still finished 12th.

"When she won her first race with me seven years ago," says coach Joe Vigil, "I told her I wouldn't let her rest until she was the best long-distance runner in the world." Now the 29-year-old Drossin is so close she can taste it. In March she took silver behind Great Britain's Paula Radcliffe at worlds. In May she shattered Lynn Jenning's American record in the 10,000 by 29 seconds (30:50.32). Next up: the 5,000 at nationals in late June and again in Stockholm on July 16. In October it's the Chicago Marathon, a flat course that should feel like a breeze to someone who's been training in the high altitude of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. (She put in 130 miles a week there to prep for New York.)

"It's an exciting time for women's distance running," Drossin says. "The bar keeps being raised. Records are being broken." Can she break Joan Benoit Samuelson's 16-year-old U.S. marathon mark?

"I don't want to say." Okay, but here's a hint: She has 2:21:21 taped to her refrigerator door.

-- Dave Kuehls

JENNIFER RIZZOTTI, Women's basketball

The morning after UConn's men won the 2002 Big East tourney in double-OT, they were greeted by this Hartford Courant headline: "Next Jen-Eration." Underneath was a giant photo of Rizzotti cutting the net after her Hartford Hawks had earned their first-ever NCAA bid.

Jennifer Rizzotti
Rizzotti brings the UConn hype to Hartford.
Eyebrows raised when Hawks AD Pat Meiser-McKnett hired Rizzotti, then 25, as coach in 1999. Her previous sideline experience: assisting AAU 12-year-olds. But Rizzotti's résumé was hardly lacking in on-court cred: point guard for 350 UConn in 1995. National Player of the Year in '96. WNBA champ with Houston in '99. Besides, the AD had a "sixth sense" -- like the one she tapped into 14 years earlier when she chose an unknown Virginia assistant named Geno Auriemma to lead the struggling Huskies.

"I know I've benefited a lot from this move," Rizzotti says. "But so has Hartford." Home attendance has more than tripled since her arrival (1,114 a game), and her players now have legit pro aspirations. While Rizzotti moonlights as PG with the Cleveland Rockers, graduating center Kenitra Johnson hopes to catch on overseas: "Coach is so well-known, it means more opportunities for us."

Look out, Geno.

-- Dan Hodes

STEPHANIE READY, Men's basketball

She notices when people point and stare. "Sometimes I think it's because I look really young," she says. "But then I remember ... " As an assistant for the NBDL's Greenville (S.C.) Groove, the 26-year-old Ready is touted as the first woman to coach a men's pro sports team. "I have to get past some perceptions," she admits.

Stephanie Ready
Ready was born that way.
No one blinks when men coach women, but it's still an eye-opener when women lead men. Then again, Ready could coach cats into water. She played hoops and volleyball at Coppin State, later coaching the lady spikers to their first victory in five seasons. Men's basketball coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell hired her as an assistant in 1999. "Everyone said, 'Are you crazy?'" he recalls. "But you should see how much she knows."

Some players still needed convincing after D-League director Karl Hicks hired Ready last August. "But as the season went on," says Groove guard Jeff Myers, "we looked at her less as a woman and more as an equal." Result: Greenville won the title, with Ready filling in as coach one game and getting an OT win.

Pretty crazy, huh?

-- Seth Wickersham

MICHELLE WIE, Golf

Life's tough when you're 12. Especially when you're a 5'11" girl with braces. And especially when you can drive a golf ball 300 yards.

Michelle Wie
Can Big Weisy grow up to tame the Tiger?
Such is the complicated existence of Michelle Wie, a Hawaiian seventh grader with a swing the PGA's Tom Lehman calls "perfect." Lehman saw Wie play, thought of "Big Easy" Ernie Els, and dubbed the kid "Big Wiesy."

But Michelle's got her share of pre-teen problems. Never mind that she's the youngest ever to qualify for an LPGA tournament -- she missed the cut by three strokes at the Takefuji Classic in February. Wie isn't eligible for membership until she turns 18. (At least she has company: 13-year-old Morgan Pressel qualified for the U.S. Women's Open last year.)

Wie's done some research, though. It seems The Masters has no age or gender restrictions, so she figures she'll beat out thousands of men for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and grab an invite to Augusta. Oh, and she'd like to do this by the time she gets her driver's license. "She wants to master the LPGA before she turns pro," says her father and caddie, B.J. Wie. After that? Michelle hopes to graduate from Stanford, then whip The Farm's most famous golf alum. "I think I can beat Tiger when I'm 20," she says. "It's a life goal."

Big Wiesy makes it sound so easy.

-- Eric Adelson

KELLY SMITH, Soccer

She thought playing for Arsenal was as good as it gets. (The storied London pro team sponsors a women's amateur club.) Then she found out about college soccer, American-style. "There's no such thing as an athletic scholarship in England," says the 23-year-old Smith, now a star midfielder for the WUSA's Philadelphia Charge. "University sports over there are more about drinking beer and smoking cigarettes."

Kelly Smith
The blonde from across the pond is leading the charge.
After jumping at the chance to play soccer for Seton Hall, Smith set the NCAA ablaze, leading the nation in scoring in 1998 and '99. She also witnessed the Women's World Cup (England didn't qualify) and the creation of the WUSA. When Philadelphia took her with its first pick, Smith realized just how far from England she'd come: "When I was young, I got kicked off two boys teams because I was too good. Parents didn't like seeing a girl take the ball off their son's feet. Now, when I'm home and I tell people I'm a professional footballer, they think I'm joking."

Her only setbacks stateside have been injuries. Limited to 13 games a year ago with ankle problems, Smith was off to a torrid start this spring -- four goals, three assists in seven games -- before a torn right ACL ended her season. "Kelly's the full package," says WUSA commissioner (and former US national coach) Tony DiCicco. "The way she moves with the ball and accelerates past defenders. The way she bends free kicks and scores with her head. Watching Kelly is as entertaining as watching any of the great men's players. She's that exciting."

You could say she's her own Arsenal.

-- Jeff Bradley

This article appears in the June 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.