Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stitches West: So much yarn, so much fun

A Verb for Keeping Warm / Pioneer naturally-dyed yarn.

My wife loves to knit -- she's been a yarn and fiber enthusiast for the past decade-plus -- and she maintains many project bags that are ready to travel. And, when you're the husband of a knitter, like I am, you set aside the last weekend in February for the fiber arts -- and embrace this creative experience.

Last Saturday, we attended the 2014 Stitches West yarn and fiber exhibition in Santa Clara, Calif., where we also connected with fiber friends. I've been my wife's regular companion -- and enabler, too -- at this annual gathering for several years, and together, we have seen it grow into one of the West Coast's premiere fiber arts events.

Although husbands and boyfriends make up a very small percentage of the ever-growing yarn and fiber crowd at Stitches West, I attend willingly and feel uninhibited, totally at ease. If you've ever been tempted by the fiber arts, whether it be knitting, crocheting or spinning, the Stitches West marketplace is the place to go see. After all, there's so much yarn, which can only mean one thing: So much fun.

Upon entering the Marketplace Hall, knitters and their enablers are easily tempted by row upon row of booths filled with colorful, luscious yarn and gorgeous fiber that's not only attractive to look at, but also lovely to touch. It's the place to plan the perfect sweater, find fiber friends, learn new things -- even take engaging classes.

For instance, there's the incredible softness and beautiful colors of the Malabrigo Worsted Merino yarns from Uruguay that are always very pleasing to see and touch. Then, there's Miss Babs Hand-Dyed Yarns & Fibers, whose booth is always an inspiration for lovely designs and colorful fibers -- and whose Road Trip #1 scarf I chronicled last fall. And, I have a fondness for all of the naturally-dyed yarn and fiber that my dear friends Kristine Vejar and Adrienne Rodriguez create at A Verb For Keeping Warm, their warm and spacious brick-and-mortar shop, which has become a haven for knitters and fiber artists close to home in Oakland. Their booth at Stitches is always a beautifully decorated and inviting space. Mid-morning Saturday, when we dropped by, AVFKW was abuzz with newly-designed and naturally-dyed yarn and fiber, and there were plenty of knitters and enablers perusing the booth and buying yarn and fiber, patterns and project bags.

Yarn Pop / A Top Shelf Totes product that is designed
for knitters and crocheters who knit on-the-go.

Of course, there's a plethora of knitting and weaving accessories on display throughout the marketplace, including: knitting needles of every imaginable size, yarn winders, and sock blockers. This year, a recent trend I noticed in years gone by has grown bigger: Handmade, hip and colorful project bags and totes, created by designers such as Yarn Pop and Slipped Stitch Studios, are big attention-getters.

Because I've been a regular attendee of the Stitches West Marketplace, I think a lot of people are surprised to learn that I can converse decently in the language of knitters -- and, my wife seeks my advice and trusts my judgment when it comes to buying yarn. I know what a "skein" is; I can tell the difference between tweed and alpaca yarn; and, I understand the importance of matching "dye lots". It helps that I try to stay current by perusing some of my wife's knitting magazines and reading a variety of knitting blogs, too. Plus, photographing all of her finished projects for Ravelry -- the Facebook for knitters and fiber artists -- has given me great street cred with knitters, too.

Over the years, I've made many acquaintances among the yarn and fiber vendors and artisans at Stitches West -- and, it's nice to be recognized like an old friend by them. Among my Stitches friends are Robin Senour, a glasswork artist from Berkeley, whose witty Sacred Laughter artwork and philosophy ("Bring more art into your life") I admire and adore. On Saturday, I bought our seventh piece of Sacred Laughter, a lovely and colorful polar bear with a whimsical smile. I showed Robin a photo that I took of all of our Sacred Laughter artwork we've bought over the past half-dozen years that's at home atop our fireplace. It drew a big smile from her.

Meanwhile, my appreciation of the fiber arts has grown, and I enjoy exploring the creative process and discussing what inspires various fiber artists. I've found that many vendors are very appreciative of being asked about the background and detail that goes into creating their products such as hand-dyed yarn, scarf patterns and eco-friendly, upcycled cashmere sweaters.

As I perused the aisles at Stitches West this year, I spoke to a few of the fiber artists about their creative work experiences and asked each of them: "What inspires you?"

StevenBe / Glitter knitter.
Steven Berg AKA StevenBe: "I love watching fashion shows. I love color. I love to design," the Minneapolis-based fiber artisan, who would look right at home with the Rolling Stones, told me. "The future is getting people people interested in crafts and knitting."

StevenBe's motto is catchy but positive: "Be inspired. Be brilliant. Be limitless." And, on his website, he reminds all fiber aficionados: "The possibilities are endless. There are no mistakes, only variations.

"And always remember to 'glam it up'."

Stella Neptune /
Everyone loves critters.
Eva Kisevalter AKA Stella Neptune: This former DJ-turned-devoted thrift shopper, has combined her love of pop graphics with her addiction to cashmere. Her L.A.-sourced, "upcycled" cashmere sweaters caught my eye. "Every little scrap can be turned into art. Every scrap is an opportunity," she told me.

Asked why she works with recycled clothing, Stella Neptune admits she's not a knitter, but she's been an artist going back to the days when her DJing gigs meant spinning vinyl. "The thrill of the hunt turned into a lifestyle obsession that just happens to be a better way to make new things without feeling guilty about all of the waste and excess in the world," I learned from her website. "The end result is creating eco-fabulous designs."

Kira K Designs /
Clean lines and intriguing details.
Kira Dulaney of Kira K Designs: This Oakland-based fiber artist creates original hats, scarves, cowls, shawls, sweaters, gloves and mittens under the moniker Kira K Designs. She also designs patterns and teaches a variety of knitting workshops around San Francisco and Oakland.

Kira told me she's inspired by period costume and design. Upon exploring her Ravelry page, I learned this about Kira K: "I first learned the basics of crochet around age three and knitting around five. ... I retaught myself to knit while I was in college. I studied theatrical costume design and worked as a costume designer in and around San Francisco for several years.

"The research I have done in historical clothing is a strong influence on my design sense, and many of my patterns reference styles from the 1920s through the 1960s. My designs tend toward garments with clean lines and intriguing details that are interesting to knit and easy to wear."

Finally, a poster at the Ontario, Canada-based Zen Yarn Garden garnered my attention for a moment, but nicely summed up my Stitches West experience for this year. It said: "Create something unique everyday."

All photographs by Michael Dickens, 2014.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Memo extra: Прощай, Сочи (Goodbye, Sochi)

Citius, Altius, Fortius / To the victors went the gold medals.

Прощай, Сочи. 

It's time to say goodbye, Sochi. Over the last two weeks and three weekends, the Sochi Winter Olympics were filled with lots of excitement. 

Sometimes, it was loud, sometimes it was elegant. There were plenty of thrills and excitement, just a few spills and disappointments, but enough flash and panache to make it all seem worthwhile.

We tuned in to the Winter Games at all hours of the day and night via television. We watched online. We kept up-to-date while going about our daily lives with the aid of our smartphones, mining for scores and results. For those of us who cared, the lessons we learned about Russia's history and of its culture were a real treat.

Sometimes, even in the Olympics, history has a way of repeating itself. Canada proved its superiority in ice hockey, while the Dutch masters from the Netherlands  -- the Oranje crush -- were untouchable in long track speed skating. And, host Russia, culminated by their sweep in the men's 50-kilometer cross country ski race and gold-medal performance in the four-man bobsled, won the most medals overall with 33, including 13 gold.

Thank you to the youth of the world -- such as 19-year-old figure skating champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, the first Asian male to win an Olympic figure skating gold medal.

Thank you to the young at heart -- like Norway's Marit Bjøergen, 31, the most successful female winter Olympian of all time, who won three gold medals in Sochi in cross-country skiing, and now has amassed 10 total medals spread over four Winter Games. On Sunday, Bjøergen received her final gold medal during the Closing Ceremonies before over 40,000 appreciative fans. She was truly touched by this unforgettable moment. 

And, who can forget Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjøerndalen, who at age 40 claimed his 13th Olympic medal to become the most medaled Olympian in the history of the Winter Games. He won his first medal at the Nagano Games in 1998 and has kept earning medals since, including two gold medals at Sochi.

Finally, thank you to all of the world's elite athletes who competed fairly while pursuing their Olympic dreams. Faster, higher, stronger still means playing by the rules. And, in the Olympic sport of curling, a game of skill and traditions -- the one played with the funny little brooms -- curlers played to win but never to humble their opponents, in following the etiquette of the game. For those who did compete fairly on the snow and ice, each of you left us with many wonderful memories that we'll cherish for a lifetime.

Спасибо, Сочи.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Four minutes of brilliance in front of the world

Terry, Tara and Johnny / Candid, colorful, compelling.

"Along with Tara Lipinksi and Johnny Weir, I'm Terry Gannon, the one wearing the suit."

One of the joys of the Sochi Winter Olympics on TV for me has been watching the live figure skating competition, which airs here in the U.S. during the morning hours on NBCSN. At times, it's been outlandish and outspoken, but thanks to the candid and colorful commentary of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, it's made for compelling viewing. And, thanks to Weir, every day we're rewarded with a fabulous fashion show, too.

If you've only been watching NBC's limited -- and heavily edited -- prime-time coverage featuring veteran commentator Tom Hammond partnered with choreographer Sandra Bezic and former Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, which focuses only on the Americans and the top skaters shown on tape hours after they've skated, you've been missing out on all of the fun.

The live coverage airing on NBCSN (NBC Sports Network), with the trio of commentator Terry Gannon, and Lipinksi and Weir, showcases each session from start to finish -- every skater from best to worst -- and the fun also includes getting to see Weir's flamboyant wardrobe come to life. It may be morning in the States, but in Sochi where it's nine hours ahead of New York and 12 hours ahead of San Francisco, it's night time -- and the stars are shining brightly, on and off the ice.

Weir, 29, who is openly gay, enjoys being free and open in sharing his opinion about what's happening on and off the ice -- including being critical of Russia's LGBT laws. The two-time Olympian's wardrobe choices have included a bright pink Chanel blazer for Valentine's Day that accentuated a lace top underneath and a gold brooch around his collar. Another day, he wore a Kelly green jacket with a matching tiara. Most days, he's the one wearing the most jewelry and sporting the loudest hairdo.

One day last week, Lipinski, 31, wore charming flowers in her hair, and for Valentine's Day, her attire featured a lovely blouse with little pink hearts. On some days, Lipinski and Weir coordinate their appearances. There's a wonderful spark between them. They're fun and energetic.

Meanwhile, Gannon is the one who is simply attired in dark suits and skinny neckties. And, sometimes, he's the one with the best throw-away lines. During Monday's broadcast, Gannon described American ice dancer Evan Bates' wardrobe by tossing out this pop culture gem: "That's the second puffy shirt from Seinfeld we've seen tonight."

Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir
One thing that I've found refreshing about both Weir and Lipinski, who won an Olympic gold medal at age 15 at the Nagano Games in 1998, is that both of them are extremely knowledgeable about figure skating -- its history, its artistry and its social dynamics -- and they offer a fresh and thoughtful perspective as former champion skaters without being arrogant. An added bonus: They talk in a friendly, conversational tone of voice. Neither feels compelled to shout to be heard and they play off of each other well.

On the ice dancing rivalry between Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games, and their chief rivals and 2010 silver medalists, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Lipinski said: "Obviously, they have great respect for each other, but they're competitors." 

Weir knows all the competitors thoroughly, can anticipate what's going through their minds as they skate, and what it takes to win. "It's going to be such a showdown. Meryl and Charlie seem to have such an advantage. It's going to come down to what happens today."

Not since the legendary Dick Button has there been an American figure skating commentator like Weir, who's been unafraid to express his opinion -- even if it sometimes upsets the figure skating community.

Tara and Johnny /
A mischievous rapport.
The camaraderie and chemistry that Weir and Lipinski bring to their broadcast -- one critic described it as a "mischievous rapport" -- has been a joy.

"It's a Michael Jackson kind of night," said Weir, after the American ice dancing siblings, Maia and Alex Shibutani, became the second team to dance to a Michael Jackson medley during Monday night's free dance.

As much as I enjoy listening to the BBC's insightful and, at times, bubbly commentary offered by Sue Barker and Robin Cousins -- I've been listening to the British duo live online while taping Weir and Lipinski for later viewing -- I feel both Tara and Johnny have found just the right mix in offering enough technical expertise to educate their viewers in what they are seeing while also knowing the value of silence, something that Bezic, Hamilton and ice dancing analyst Tracy Wilson haven't learned or shown during NBC's prime-time broadcasts from the Iceberg Skating Palace.

After Virtue and Moir's elegant and heartfelt performance, a display of ease and unison skated to the music by Russian composers Alexander Glazunov and Alexander Scriabin, here's how Lipinksi, Weir and Gannon summarized it so succinctly:

Tara: "That was flawless. Their performance wrapped up their career so perfectly. It was effortless and smooth."

Johnny: "It was impeccable. The whole arena was silent soaking it all up. It was a beautiful, pitch-perfect moment. Their performance painted a beautiful picture."

Terry: "Their 114.66 is the best score we've ever seen."

Sometimes, letting a figure skater's performance talk -- as Gannon, Lipinski and Weir did during Monday's ice dancing final when they remained silent for four minutes during both Virtue and Moir's beautiful free skate as well as the impeccable and energetic gold medal performance by Davis and White -- speaks volumes.

As they took the ice, Gannon very tersely set the scene for Davis and White's free skate as the cameras zoomed in close on the Americans, who've skated together 18 years: "They've been dreaming about this moment since coming together as kids on ice growing up in Michigan."

Then, Davis and White exuded a dramatic tension of love and escape in skating to "Scheherazade." They engaged the judges, the fans and, just as importantly, a world-wide TV audience.

After Davis and White concluded their four minutes of brilliance in front of the world, culminating in the first gold medal by an American ice dancing couple, here's how Gannon, Lipinski and Weir described what had just happened:

Terry: "Four minutes to gold and it's over; not in their hands right now."

Tara: "Terry, when you think about it, Torvill and Dean are the most famous names in ice dancing. But, Charlie and Meryl are going to carry that same weight with what they're doing for U.S. ice dancing now. That program was pure perfection. ... So much pressure."

Johnny: "The pressure was so intense and they handled it beautifully. They fought the whole way through that performance. You could see it in the last minute. Charlie doing those very expressive stop and spins, stop and spins. ... "Whew! It was breathless. When you go for a gold medal, you fight for it."

Terry: "Three times Americans have medaled at the Olympics in ice dance. In 1976, then it wasn't until 2006 with Belbin and Agosto the silver, and in 2010 Davis and White with the silver medal. This right now, was it a gold medal performance? The number they need to win is 112.11. There's only one time that they haven't reached that moment."

Tara: "Every moment of their program was so precise. From the finger tips to the toes, the emotion telling the story of 'Sheherazade.'"

Johnny: "When you're a team, this is what you're all about. You're all about this moment. It's hard to explain to people that haven't been there. That amount of pressure. Four years of your life down to four minutes in front of the world. If one little thing goes wrong, then you completely lose the last four years of your life. (Davis and White) owned it. They fought from top to bottom."

Tara: "You have to stay in the moment." 

After a brief pause, the scores for Davis and White are finally announced to the crowd at the Palace and to the world-wide audience tuned in. They scored 116.63 points, for an overall score of 195.52. The crowd erupts in thunderous applause for the winners. Hugs for all in the kiss-and-cry box.

Terry: "A U.S. ice dance team will stand atop the podium. Meryl Davis and Charlie White are the gold medalists.

Tara: "They're Olympic champions."

Johnny: "They were stunning. They deserved it. It wasn't a political weirdness situation that we've come to think of when we come to ice dancing. They earned it. This night was so special. I can't remember the last time I sat through a whole free dance -- and I loved it! I loved every second of it. They entertained, they wowed us. We marveled at the lifts and the spins and the beauty. It was just so enjoyable."

During a recent USA Today interview, Weir wore his feelings for figure skating on his sleeve. "We take great responsibility for what we say and how we teach people about the sport," he said. "Honestly, as a broadcaster, all I want is for people to skate so well that we're struck dumb, that we're unable to speak. But when it's called for, I'm not afraid to explain the judging system or why somebody beat somebody else. That's who I am.

"My job is to help bring skating back, and to help educate masses about what's going on in skating."

A postscript: In a New York Times column Wednesday, "Amid Blunders on Ice, Only a Few Signs of Grace," dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote:

"The only sure thing left is off the ice: the sparkling commentary of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who, along with the sportscaster Terry Gannon, call the daytime live broadcast. They make it possible to suffer through wretched performances, not because they make fun of bad skating -- though you can usually count on priceless giggles at just the right moment -- but because they take it so seriously.

Tara and Johnny /
Always fashionable.
"While never short of opinions, they're generally quiet during performances. While they get to the nitty-gritty of technique -- pointing out when skaters are flat on their feet, or why they fall out of synchronization -- they also have information about more obscure aspects of skating, like how ice temperature affects a performance (speed skating requires harder ice than figure skating) or how male ice dancers have been known to build up their heels for extra height.

"It helps that Mr. Weir is a champion of inspired one-liners. While watching several near collisions during a men's warm-up, he blurted, 'It is Nascar out here in the world of rhinestones.' "

Screenshot images via the internet courtesy of NBCSN.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sochi Winter Games: From Russia with Love

Sochi 2014 / The whole world's watching.

The 2014 Sochi Winter Games are less than a week old. Already, these Olympic Games taking place in this Russian resort town on the Black Sea coast have been all about the host nation, Russia, being buoyantly confident while projecting a sense of pride for the rest of the world to see.

Colorful fireworks light up the
Sochi sky at night.
Sure, during last Friday's elaborate but colorful Opening Ceremonies there was plenty of selective and revisionist 20th century history -- glossing over the bad parts -- going on. One didn't need to be an expert in Russian or Soviet history to realize there was no mention of gulags or, for that matter, Joseph Stalin, either. You know, that big fat chapter of Russia's evil history. I think if I were narrating the Opening Ceremonies, I might have looked the other way during the Stalinist Years, too, and fast-forwarded from the 1917 Revolution straight through to the Communist Cold War Years, filled with cosmonauts and the space race. But, then, that still leaves perestroika, the dissolving of the Soviet Union, which is so 20th century, and its growing pains with democracy in the current 21st century, which sadly has included gay repression.

However, leave it to Russia to always put on a good show when it comes to ballet and music. For me, the Alice in Wonderland-inspired lesson in learning the Cyrillic alphabet and seeing the multicolored onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral bobbing in the air were nice touches. So, were the tributes to Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." 

For Russia, the show is especially enjoyable when it's ballet and music set on ice.

After all, a dominant nation that's given us so many figure skating champions, especially pairs champions -- the Protopopovs, Rodnina and Zaitsev, Gordeeva and Grinkov, and now Volosozhar and Trankov -- not to mention ballet artists like Pavlova and Baryshnikov, and classical composers such as Prokofiev and Stravinsky, is definitely a nation secure in its own cultural identity. Forget the politics, if you will. Because when you combine the art of ballet and music with the athleticism of figure skating, you stop for a moment, soak it all in, and smile in appreciation.

The soul of Russia is found on ice and it's their vital tradition.

"Figure skating is our tradition," Tamara Moskvina, the longtime figure skating coach who has coached Russian pairs skaters to four Olympic gold medals, said in a New York Times interview this week. "It combines technique and art, and Russia has a great tradition in those fields." 

On Sunday night in Sochi's Iceberg Skating Palace, the inaugural Olympic team ice skating competition reached its crescendo. On the strength of Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won the short and long programs in ice dancing, the United States won the bronze medal and Canada won the team silver medal. Both countries will be competitive during individual the competitions, which began today.

However, when it was all said and done Sunday night, there were lots of bouquets tossed onto the ice and plenty of applause in appreciation of the "home team." Team Russia had won its first gold medal of these Winter Games, and I'm sure they will win more during the ice skating competition.

It's all about the tradition of artistry meeting athleticism.

While Russia and, before that, the Soviet Union have dominated pairs and ice dancing events, there have been moments of individual brilliance, too.

For instance, Evgeni Plushenko, 31, who is competing in his fourth Games, won the men's long program during the team event in what could be seen as a valedictory performance that was full of perseverance in overcoming numerous injuries. What he may have lacked in technical skill -- he attempted just one quadruple jump -- he made up for by dazzling the crowd, and a world-wide audience, with his enthusiasm and showmanship.

Plushenko now has four career Olympic medals, most in the modern era. He won the men's singles in 2006, and silver medals in 2002 and 2010. Arguably, he may be more popular among Russians than President Vladimir V. Putin, who attended the team figure skating event and, later, congratulated each Russian team skater individually.

Yulia Lipnitskaya / The little girl in the bright red dress. She's
brought joy on ice to an entire country, and she's winning gold, too.

Meanwhile, the ladies free skate portion of the competition turned into a coming-of-age gala for 15-year-old Russian figure skater Yulia Lipnitskaya. She brought joy to an entire country, skating poised beyond her years -- and flawlessly, too -- to music from from the Academy Award-winning "Schindler's List." She was the little girl with the ponytail skating beautifully and brilliantly in the bright red dress. And, Lipnitskaya was the same little girl who scooped up a preppy, Russia baseball cap as she skated off the ice. She put it on without hesitating -- it was an age-appropriate thing to do -- and she kept it on her head through the rest of the competition, including the flower ceremony for the medal-winning teams afterwards.

By winning the short and long programs in the women's portion of the team event, Lipnitskaya became the youngest gold medalist since Tara Lipinski of the United States won the women's individual competition at age 15 during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. (Incidentally, Lipinski was in the arena working as a figure skating analyst for NBCSN during Lipnitskaya's short and long programs.)

When you see Lipkitskaya's flexibility and fearlessness on the ice, not to mention her gravity and emotional resonance in interpreting a serious music score, you realize that you are witnessing something very special. Now, I can't wait to see her perform in the ladies individual competition against the reigning Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea during the final week of the Games.

Gold, silver, bronze /
It's all about winning medals.
Undoubtedly, the Sochi Winter Games, believed to be the most expensive Olympic Games in history, have brought bright lights and color to an area of the world that's not far removed from war. The Caucasus Mountains look beautiful and inviting. There's been lots of patriotic flag waving in the arenas, on the slopes, and in the plaza of Olympic Park, too. They have made for good TV visuals back here in the United States (thanks to NBC and the Today show, which desperately wants to see the Americans do well -- and win often). Thank goodness, I've found a reliable Internet link to watch the BBC2's refreshingly enjoyable, commercial-free coverage that is far less pretentious and glitzy than NBC's boosterish -- and, sometimes, boorish -- 24/7 coverage that's full of commercial interruptions every few minutes here in the United States. 

What's important is this: During its first week, the Sochi Winter Games have been about breaking down barriers of age, for which we can thank Plushenko and Lipnitskaya, an old wisehead and a young upstart, among many competing at these Games -- and, for Russia, it's been about restoring a little bit of tradition, too. For better or worse, it's also brought the whole world just a little bit closer together.

Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov /
Continuing a tradition of excellence in pairs figure skating.

A postscript: On Wednesday evening, Tatiana Volosozhar, 27, and Maxim Trankov, 30, won the gold medal in pairs figure skating, beating fellow Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov by 18 points.  It continued a tradition of excellence and their country's dominance in this Olympic sport.  Skating to music from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar," Volosozhar and Trankov presented a challenging free skate program that was steeped in difficulty, and they finished it without any big mistakes. At its conclusion, Trankov triumphantly slid across the ice like an international football player celebrating a goal. Meanwhile, Volosozhar, tearful and standing with her knees bent slightly, buried her face in her hands. It was a celebration in joy. Although there were two more pairs to skate, they knew the gold medal was a possibility.

Photo of Yulia Lipnikskaya courtesy of Reuters/Google images. 
Photo of Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov via BBC Sport/internet image.
Other photos courtesy of Google images.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

We A.R.E. Pride: Leveling the playing field

We A.R.E. Pride / If you can play, you can play.

It started with a dialogue between rivals on the basketball court, but off it they are athletes reaching equality.

Now, seniors Mikayla Lyles of the University of California, Berkeley and Toni Kokenis of Stanford University are standing front and center, together, creating a shared space for inclusion and a conversation about acceptance.

After all, there is no rivalry in equality.

Lyles, a co-captain of her Cal team, who's been writing an insightful blog for espnW.com this season about her life as a student-athlete, isn't afraid to speak out about social change. She and Kokenis, who was forced to give up basketball after suffering a pair of concussions during her three seasons at Stanford, have worked together for the past five months on a series of programs which were held last week on their respective campuses to connect their schools in support of LGBTQ inclusion in sports called We A.R.E. Pride, Athletes Reaching Equality. 

The Cal & Stanford Edition events also included video documentaries and photo galleries featuring candid shots of recent and current Cal and Stanford student-athletes.

A rivalry of equals / This candid shot featuring
Layshia Clarendon, Mikayla Lyles, Toni Kokenis and Avigiel Cohen
was included in a photo gallery of Cal and Stanford athletes.

"In particular, we wanted to focus on bringing awareness to the inequality of LGBTQ inclusion in sports, with the hopes that if we could prove that two student-athletes could spearhead an initiative such as this, then we could inspire communities, cultures, and generations to take the progression of any inequality into their own hands," Lyles and Kokenis wrote in a welcoming letter that was handed out to forum attendees at both the Field Club in Memorial Stadium at UC Berkeley and Burnham Pavilion at Stanford last week.

"As we have taken the necessary steps to put our vision into fruition," their letter continued, "we have been humbled enough to realize that in order to progress any inequality, one must understand that the fight is bigger than the self. ... No war was ever won by battles fought alone."

In the spring of 2012, Kokenis helped found Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT), a student group dedicated to supporting LGBTQ and allied athletes. Through her association with StAAT, Kokenis initiated a dialogue with her university's athletic department, which led to "You Can Play," a video which featured 28 Stanford athletes, coaches and administrators. Last summer, after she saw Lyles' participation in a Br{ache The Silence public service announcement that featured former Cal star Layshia Clarendon, she contacted Lyles. Soon after, the two decided to work together on We A.R.E. Pride.

Mikayla Lyles has been
outspoken about inclusion
and acceptance in athletics:
"No war was ever won by
battles fought alone."
While both have been vocal activists on their own campuses, Lyles was instrumental in the idea of bringing two rivals together. "Every school has a rival, but that doesn't mean you can't unite on the ground level, wanting to fight for something together," Lyles told espnW.com's Michelle Smith. "We want to start the conversation because in the athletic culture, there's been a lot of silence to this point. It's been extremely silent."

According to Kokenis, silence isn't equal to acceptance. "The only way to make sports more accepting is to talk about it. I feel like we have perfect opportunities as student-athletes at some of the top schools in the country. Athletics still has to catch up with the rest of the world," she said in an espnW.com interview.

Together, Lyles, an interdisciplinary studies major who is straight and calls herself "naturally an ally, naturally inclusive," and Kokenis, a human biology and sociology major who came out to her teammates before her basketball career was cut short, said they wanted to show that the "essence of tradition and rivalry can be more than just a symbol of competition; it can serve as a platform for unity and progress."

"This isn't about making athletes come out, it's about fostering an environment where it doesn't matter," said Kokenis. "We need to deal with it, instead of pretending it doesn't exist."

Lyles and Kokenis enlisted the support of an impressive group of educators and activists for last week's panel and audience Q & A discussions. The panelists at the UC Berkeley event, which I attended with my wife and friends, included: moderator Pat Griffin, a national LGBTQ and athletics educator and activist; Wade Davis, a nationally recognized speaker, educator and former NFL player; Helen Carroll, director of the National Center for Lesbian Right's Sports Project, which aims to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender players, coaches and administrators receive fair and equal treatment free of discrimination; and Nevin Caple, co-founder of Br{ache the Silence, which advances LGBTQ inclusion in sports through professional and college campus integration initiatives and public awareness campaigns.

Griffin asked the panelists questions about LGBTQ inclusion in sports and other issues touched on racism, religion, sexism and homophobia.

A courage of their convictions / Mikayla Lyles (L) and Toni Kokenis
have worked together to connect their respective schools,
Cal and Stanford, in support of LGBTQ inclusion in sports.

Both Lyles and Kokenis were asked about their reasons for their project, and both were frank and eloquent in speaking out about inclusion. According to Lyles, college athletes have a unique voice that needs and should be spoken louder. "Acceptance can be achieved only through understanding, and understanding can be achieved only when athletes speak up to share their opinions on this important social issue," she said. Adds Kokenis: "Acceptance is acceptance. We can leave a legacy of inclusion."

I'm very proud of the leadership that Mikayla and Toni have shown in speaking out about social change -- inclusion and reaching equality -- in athletics. It was a pleasure to be in the UC Berkeley audience of about 200, which included Lyles' basketball teammates and coaches; many male and female Cal student-athletes, alums, and several UC professors and administrators. Hearing Mikayla and Toni speak out and contribute to a lively discussion of these important issues meant a lot and it showed me not only their leadership qualities, but also a courage of their convictions.

In an e-mail sent to event participants last week, Lyles wrote that the panel members were impressed with the Cal and Stanford communities, "and we have all been inspired to continue using student-athletes and rivals as a platform to really bring people together all over the country. ... It is one of my greatest college and life memories that I will never forget.

"The aura you get in a room when you allow people to be completely themselves makes for an experience of human connections; that is incomparable."

Photographs of Mikayla Lyles and Toni Kokenis by Michael Dickens, 2014. Creative images courtesy of We A.R.E. Portrait Gallery (originals by Mollie McClure of McClure Images).