NEXT ATHLETE: MICHELLE WIE
You want someone who can change a sport? Michelle Wie can change the world.
We called Michelle Wie NEXT in 2000, when she was 11. Three years later, we called her Now. And in 2005, she made Time's list of "People Who Mattered," appeared on the cover of Fortune and schmoozed on The Late Show With David Letterman. What could possibly still be NEXT about Michelle Wie?
Open a web browser and find ESPN's Athletes of the Century. The list starts with Michael Jordan and ends with Jack Johnson. If we lived in 1906 instead of 2006, all 100 would be NEXT.
And not just because they won big. MJ redefined what it means to be a sports icon. Babe Ruth gave birth to modern baseball. Jim Brown quit at the top to make a statement about society. Jesse Owens stared down racial prejudice. NEXT isn't about pure dominance. It's about change. Matt Leinart may be the next Tom Brady, and Tom Brady may be the next Joe Montana, but did any of them shake their sport or sports itself the way Jackie Robinson or Jim Thorpe or Babe Didrikson did? NEXT should be someone who makes us uncomfortable (see Ali, Muhammad) because he or she stirs debate and challenges what we know.
So please, let's not settle for an athlete who might change games when we can choose someone who might change sports. Actually, let's not stop there. Let's choose someone who might stir a change in society.
Let's go to Lebanon, Ohio. Its 7:18 a.m. on a blazing July morning in 2005, and Ryan Sims is finishing his graveyard shift on the assembly line at a label-making plant. His feet burn in his black steel-toed boots, but he's not going home. He gets into his car and then sits in the teeth of morning traffic for nearly an hour. He exits and winds his way to a golf course. He parks, puts on his shades and prepares to walk 18 holes. A few of the older, whiter fans stare at the 31-year-old African-American in navy shorts and Timberlands, but Sims keeps his eyes on the teenage girl playing a USGA amateur tournament for a shot at the Masters. How could he not? "She's history in the making," he says. Sims has heard people say Wie doesn't belong in a man's game, or even in an older-woman's game. He smiles. "If she's got the ability, why not? With all the guys she's beaten, should they be allowed to play with her if she's better?"
Let's go to Kochi, Japan. This time its an Asian man named Hifumi getting stares on the rope line at Novembers Casio World Open. Hifumi wears a white robe, a conical straw hat and tennis shoes. He's a computer programmer who just finished walking for 43 days straight - 700 miles total - while completing a spiritual pilgrimage to 88 different Japanese Buddhist temples. He tells a story about Day 28, when his knees screamed and his feet blistered and he wanted to fall down and sleep. Then he saw a flyer advertising that Wie was playing in a tournament against men here in this coastal resort town. He figured if some teenage girl could compete against grown men, then surely he could walk a little more to see it. And what does Hifumi think of those critics in America who cluck about Wie's never having won anything? Not much. He doesn't understand English.
Let's go to Las Vegas, to Southern Highlands Golf Club, which oozes old money and testosterone. Let's walk into the clubhouse at 8 a.m. on the last Sunday in October and marvel at the plush carpeting, the wing chairs and the oversize door handles straight out of a Dickens novel. Now look at the gilded members board. There are only 260 names listed, but you've heard of a few: Rudolph Giuliani, Reggie Jackson, Baron Davis, Steve Wynn. There's even a man named Lexus.
Two VIPs are playing today. The first arrives with her parents. The second, a self-described "old man" from Arkansas, arrives next. They shake hands, exchange gifts and take some questions from a handful of reporters. The man says a few words about the girl, Michelle Wie. "Hawaii and California are the only two states where the majority of people are not of European heritage," says Bill Clinton. "By 2050, the U.S. will have no ethnic majority. America's great gift is our global independence, and that we are held together by our ideas and values. Other nations may have bigger economies and bigger militaries, but America has the power of example. Michelle represents that."
Ryan from Ohio did not see a 15-year-old qualify for the Masters. Hifumi from Japan did not see a girl make the cut against men. And Bill from Arkansas is still waiting for his young friend to win a pro tournament. Does it matter? No. Because they can look forward to 2006 knowing that all three might happen. And even that wasn't possible in 1996 or 1986 or 1906. In those years, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club didn't open the British Open to women on the same day a 15-year-old girl turned pro. In those years, the LPGA commissioner didn't call for a national convention to discuss lifting age restrictions. In those years, Hootie Johnson didn't say he'd welcome a female entrant into Augusta if she qualified. And in those years, Asian-Americans, now one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country, didn't have an icon who challenged stereotypes about height and charisma.
"There isn't a vocal leader or political figure in Asian-American society," says Michael Won, a reporter with a leading Korean newspaper out of Seoul. "Asian-Americans feel a little insecure. If they show an opinion, its taking a risk"
Wie shows an opinion, and takes a risk, simply by playing against adults and men. "I'm proud to be Asian-American," she says. "I'm proud that I'm fully Korean, and that I'm fully American. I want to represent hope, the belief that it can happen. I made my goals very high, and it's going to be very hard for me. But I enjoy it."
Look back at that Sports Century list. There are more horses (three) than Asian-Americans (none). Now look ahead. If Wie is, as former President Clinton calls her, the future of America, imagine the list in 100 years. Will you be able to complete it without Michelle Wie? Without a girl who has affected sports and culture in a way that someone with 30 tourney wins never will?
You cant say no. Not yet. And that is the promise of NEXT.
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