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It's About The Journey

May 11, 2021

Someday – hopefully next spring – the Cal Athletics community will gather in a shared space to be inspired by the latest crop of student-athlete leaders.

But the missing in-person component certainly didn't diminish last week's inaugural Cal Athletics Leadership Showcase hosted by the Cameron Institute and Cal Athletics Fund. 

Four current Cal student-athletes and one alum dazzled Golden Bears coaches, staff, fellow student-athletes and more with Zoom presentations that told the story of each's leadership journey. Softball's Cameron Kondo, lacrosse's Catherine Roxas, track & field's Camryn Rogers and men's soccer's Fernando Andrade each had a unique narrative that accompanied eye-popping accomplishments, and baseball alum Matt Friend provided insight on his path to becoming the Chief Financial Officer of Nike.

"It was really the continuum of the work we are doing in terms of getting them to reflect, refine and grow their leadership," said Cal assistant athletic director Dr. Sean Hendricks, who serves as the Director of Leadership & Personal Development for the Cameron Institute. "We saw that on full display. You heard a lot of them talking about going through a journey, that they are learning every day, they are curious, and they see it as a lifelong learning opportunity."

The original idea for an annual leadership showcase was developed before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with plans for an in-person TED Talk-style event for Cal student-athletes to demonstrate their growth as leaders. The virtual format worked, as the approximately 130 attendees were treated to an array of leadership accomplishments and styles from the panelists.

Kondo, who has made an impact in a myriad ways off the field during her career at Cal, generated a commotion in the chat when she revealed that she needed to teach herself to throw with her opposite hand after getting a case of the "yips" - a sudden inability to make even the simplest of throws due to either a mental or physiological hurdle. Naturally right-handed, Kondo now plays outfield for the Bears and throws left-handed.

"My yips got to the point where I literally could not throw the ball 10 feet," Kondo said. "I couldn't play defense anymore. There were so many people in my life that said I should just quit softball, that I would never play defensively for Cal. The switch was tough, and it tested everything that I was as an athlete. I could have easily decided to be just a hitter, or quit. But looking back, all of the struggle was worth it. Through the struggle, I broke. And the only way through was to become something new."

Kondo also shared a photo of herself on her first day of classes as a freshman and one of her before this season. Each slide was labeled "Student-Athlete." But the hyphen was much bigger accompanying the picture of her this season.

"It represents everything else I have become outside of my student-athlete identity," Kondo said. "As I stand before you today, I am so much more than who I was as a freshman. This version of me has been through four years of memories, experiences – both good and bad and everything in between."

Roxas has also immersed herself in a variety of activities and causes as a Cal student-athlete, but made the biggest impact when she and a few teammates led the "Go Bears Go Vote" initiative last fall. The group met with 21 of Cal's teams on Zoom to check voter registration status, discuss requesting and casting absentee ballots while also reviewing the ballots themselves and the importance of voting.

"We can sink, we can float or we can swim," Roxas said. "The difference between floating and swimming is the difference between deciding to get better and deciding just to get by. There is a huge difference between taking opportunities and making opportunities. Those who make opportunities for themselves are the people who are going to change the world. At the end of the day, nobody is going to invite you to change the world. You have to decide to do it for yourself and those around you."

Rogers, the 2019 NCAA champion in the hammer throw, discussed her journey of overcoming pressure. As a freshman, she missed qualifying for nationals after a 13th-place finish at NCAA Regionals. With help from throws coach Mohamad Saatara, she learned to embrace pressure as motivation and later won the gold medal at IAAF World U20 Championships.

"Pressure means you care about what you are doing," Rogers said. "It doesn't have to be this weight on your shoulders. It can be the thing that fuels you to do better. I knew that I could use this excitement and this pressure and this fear to my benefit."

Andrade spoke of a challenging personal period he negotiated when he arrived at Cal in 2019. Widely viewed as a leader in high school, Andrade didn't feel that identity at the outset of his college career. But he has since immersed himself in racial and social justice causes, including helping to launch a nonprofit organization that provided over 5,000 blankets and socks for orphans, refugees and low-resourced families in his hometown of Chula Vista.

"It's thanks to these struggles that I now know that my purpose in life is to leave my dent in the universe in absolutely everything I do, and that leadership is about inspiring and helping others to do the exact same thing," Andrade said. "For someone to leave their dent in my life is a privilege. To leave my dent in someone else's life is an honor. But to inspire and help others leave their own dent in the universe is an indescribable feeling."

Matt Friend

Friend played for Cal's baseball team during the late 1990s and is the son Cal Athletics Hall of Fame basketball player Larry Friend. He said the lessons he learned being a member of a team have contributed to his accomplishments during his professional career.

"After my first few years of working, I knew I always wanted to be somewhere where I was part of a team," Friend said. "Knowing how to be a member of a team has been a great asset. On a team, everyone plays a position. The team has a common set of goals to win. A team can honestly and transparently break down what's working, and what isn't. Everyone is on board to change for the betterment of the team and the program."

Cal's four current student-athletes were picked among 23 candidates nominated by staff, coaches and student-athletes. Among the candidates were community leaders taking on issues such as injustice and poverty, nonprofit founders, volunteers, team captains and high-achievers both in and out of the athletic arena. A committee then discussed and debated the nominees before finally making the tough decision on the panelists. From there, Hendricks gave them some general questions to ponder and encouraged the panelists to tell their unique personal leadership stories.

"This is what it's all about – creating spaces where they have the opportunity to further enhance their skills," Hendricks said. "When you think about how much went into that and how those four will hopefully remember that night for the rest of their lives - thinking about preparing a speech of that magnitude and delivering it, and how that could potentially set you up for future career success. It really touches on the Cameron Institute mission and what we are trying to do."