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Athletics: Shooting hoops with Shelly Boyum-Breen

Shelley Breen talks at a Central Lakes College event about Women in Sports Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Brainerd campus. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Like the title character in her children's book series Shelly Bean the Sports Queen, Shelly Boyum-Breen's life has revolved around sports.

The Brainerd High School graduate, children's book author and public speaker has used athletics as a platform for change. Her crusade is providing athletic opportunities for everyone regardless of sex, physical ability and economic opportunities. She explains how sports can make anybody, athletic or not, into a better person.

Boyum-Breen has played sports, coached basketball, worked in public relations for the NBA and WNBA. With sports as her backdrop, Boyum-Breen is helping girls believe they can and should do anything.

Boyum-Breen takes a break from Shelly Bean to tell us a little bit more about herself.

Question: Let's get right into Shelly Bean the Sports Queen. When did you know you wanted to put pen to paper? And how hard was that first sentence?

Shelly Boyum-Breen: I'd like to say there was a want but truthfully, I became an author out of need. It was 2006 when I came across a Scholastic book order form. I used to love getting those in elementary school and seeing the books like "NBA's Greatest Dunks" or "NFL's Greatest Hits" or something like that. At the time, I had been working in professional women's basketball for the Lynx and had started a nonprofit to help girls be able to afford to play sports. So, I thought to myself, 'Millions of girls are now playing sports. I wonder what books there are now that represent that?' But as I paged through the order form, all I could find were books with girls doing cheerleading and horseback riding. That was it. So, right then and there, I started jotting down ideas about what I would have wanted to read when I was young.

Getting the first few words on paper wasn't difficult. I love to brainstorm. But, those first few words never made it in the books. As any writer knows, which I did not know at the time, after much editing, the book morphed and changed in concept and title.

Q: After that first book was published, has it become easier? You know the process. You know what is expected and when it's expected. Has it become almost formulaic now?

SBB: Definitely easier because I have learned so much about the process, about the industry, about what children want to hear and see. I always tell the kids on my school visits that the first three books — which I published all at once — took me three years. My fourth took nine months and the latest took three months. However, because I publish under my own label, I am my marketing team, I am my finance team, I am my booking agent and the key project manager on each book. It's never easy but it's always worth it.

Q: Why does sports work in teaching young girls they can do and be anything?

SBB: I've never thought of it that way. And to be honest, I'm not sure they do. But, sports can teach all kids the value and rewards of not giving up. Rarely are we good at something the first few times we try it. But, if we really want it, we'll get back up and try again. Sports provide us countless opportunities to do that along with learning other valuable life lessons such as how to contribute to a team, how to use our bodies, receiving feedback, how to win and certainly how to lose. Those are concepts that can be used throughout life.

Sports also provide an opportunity to learn and apply strategies, learn progressions, planning and executing. Those are key reasons why 94 percent of women in the C-suite are former or current athletes. They are known to have these core business and leadership skills.

Q: What's it like to read your stories to a young audience and watch their faces captivated by what your character can accomplish?

SBB: Life-giving. I've had tears at times when I look back at them and see them hanging on every word. I can see their inspiration when I read about Shelly Bean getting back up and trying again. I can feel their warmth and pride in Shelly Bean when I read about her rewarding herself with a new charm for her crown. I had no idea the rewards I would reap and every time I am able to hear from parents that their child begs for Shelly Bean every night or sat still through an entire book for the first time, I am moved beyond my wildest dreams.

Q: You have five books out now. What's the next sport Shelly Bean is going to tackle?

SBB: I hate to say this but, it depends on who's helping me finance it. Ha ha. The last book I finished was "...the Brave Swim" mainly because I partnered with the USA Swimming Foundation. But seriously, as a self-published author, every penny I have made has been invested back into the next book and it's not an inexpensive venture. I'm currently working on about a dozen books in the picture book series and I spend time dabbling in a chapter book series where Shelly Bean and her friends are a bit older and have more complex storylines.

However, most of my time right now is spent on writing and producing a cartoon series version of Shelly Bean.

Q: It would be easy to assume Shelly Bean is you growing up given the name, but is she?

SBB: She is. She is a version of me I wish I could have been. Of course, I was successful in sports growing up, but what many people don't know is that I experienced some very difficult times as a child as well. To name a couple of them, when I was in first grade, I was struck by a truck when crossing the road and had a significant head injury which meant not being able to play at all for a month. The truck had a plow on the front of it, which also left a permanent dent in my hip from where it struck me.

I am also a childhood sexual abuse survivor. It started very young for me and affected me deeply. And, I wasn't able to play all the sports I wanted to like hockey and football. So, while I grew up playing playing all kinds of things and making many great memories, I was always looking over my shoulder out of protection of myself and I was always dreaming of doing something more than my gender limited me to. Shelly Bean the Sports Queen gets to play whatever she wants, whenever she wants with whoever she

wants without fear of failure or worry. She's free and in the process of making her come to life, I experienced great healing as well.

Q: Speaking of you growing up, what was it like to be an athletic girl in Brainerd? Were you accepted by your peers or was it a struggle?

SBB: There were times when I was teased by other kids because I was maybe the only girl doing something or I looked like a boy when I was younger with my short hair.

But, my fondest memories are playing sports with my peers. Whether we were on the ice rink or baseball diamond at Bane Park or playing a pick-up game of basketball at the YMCA or just a little 2-on-2 football in my friend's yard, I had a blast.

The Brainerd Youth Athletic Association came to life and grew exponentially when I was young, but our girls' teams lagged a bit so I played with the boys for fourth- and fifth-grade basketball and then in sixth grade, I was moved up two grade levels with the girls and so on.

In golf, I was on varsity as a seventh- grader playing with juniors and seniors. Every team I played on was a sisterhood. The older girls were terrific role models for me and many are still my dear friends today. And so are the boys I played with.

Q: You scored 1,216 points for the Brainerd Warriors girls basketball team. You were the first girl to reach 1,000 career points in Brainerd. How much did it mean to you to be the first? And does it mean more now than it did back then?

SBB: I actually share my 1,000-point story at every presentation I give. And not because I was awesome but because I failed. Did you know that I had 999 points and was at the free-throw line to shoot a technical? Just me. No one else around but the referee and photographer under the basket. Do you know what I did in that moment that no one could have scripted? Here I was, about to be the first. It was my senior year. I had had all kinds of success. Dozens of little girls and boys holding their breath watching me. Our cheerleaders had made a banner, KVBR was broadcasting the game, there were roses waiting for me...do you know what I did next, Jeremy? I AIRBALLED the shot. I choked. That is the story I share with kids—over 50,000 of them across the country so far. I failed and then I got back up and kept playing. So, to answer your question, it meant something to me then, but it means more to me now for that reason. I also get to share with kids that while I was the first, two of my teammates hit the mark right after me and there have been many more since. I can't wait for the next one.

Q: How jealous, envious, excited are you about how many different sports that are available to high school girls now? Even in Brainerd, which is certainly not a metro school, there are 17 high school sports offered to girls. Talks of girls wrestling are being entertained by the Minnesota State High School League. Do you wish you were a young girl growing up again?

SBB: I was just in California and I always pick up the sports section in the different cities I'm in to look at their girls' and women's sports coverage and there I saw on the front page, the girls' state wrestling championship. They are already doing it in California.

I'm really excited to see the growth happening— including adapted sports. All kids deserve an opportunity to play regardless of their gender, ability, socio-economic level. Do I wish I was a young girl growing up again? How in the world would I have managed playing both hockey and basketball at the same time? I wouldn't have been able to make that choice on my own.

Q: You spoke at Central Lakes College during National Girls and Women in Sports Day and thinking about all the great females who blazed the trail for the next generations. Who were your role models growing up? And how much does it mean to you to be a woman in athletics?

SBB: My brother Bill was my main role model. I even chose his jersey number of 51. He is six years older than me so when I was first beginning to play on actual teams, he was in high school. I loved going to his football and basketball games. And even more, I loved our games of PIG on our court at home. There's a hashtag trending "If she can see it, she can be it." When I was young, I saw very little in terms of athletic female role models. I didn't know what was possible because very little was visible to me. Women's sports weren't televised, there were no pro women's teams within my visibility and coverage of the college sports was sparse if at all. The first girls' varsity basketball game I went to was when I was on the team. I didn't know who my female heroes really were until I was older. But, there were a couple people who inspired me locally.

Carol Miller, Jean Martin, Beth Wroolie and Lisa Salo were very impactful coaches for me. And then there was my classmate Misty Larson (now Neilsen) who played hockey with the boys through Bantams and Tracey Brown (now Malone), who later became my basketball teammates, who was playing baseball with the boys in Broncos and Pony league. I thought they were so cool and brave. I am on a mission to help girls see what's possible and make sure boys are also growing up with strong, female role models as well. I consider it a responsibility.

Q: There's the WNBA. The U.S. Olympic Women's hockey and soccer teams are phenomenal. NHRA has women drivers winning titles. Women aren't just breaking barriers anymore they are standing toe-to-toe with their male counterparts in some cases. How much work is left to be done, though? Are we close?

SBB: Progress has been made, no doubt about it. We have much to celebrate. And it takes allies to make it happen. I don't know that we are close to being done. There are still tremendous pay issues for female athletes and coaches. There are gaps in the number of female coaches compared to male.

Girls are dropping out of sports by age 14 at 60 percent higher rates than boys. The money that the NBA is investing in its secondary leagues far outpaces what they invest in their one women's league despite the incredible increases in popularity, viewership and participation. Look at the U.S. Women's Soccer litigation and the gaps that are clear as day.

Women and girls' teams are still getting their games in the smaller arenas, the less preferred practice times, smaller budgets and minimal media coverage and airtime. Now, I believe it's actually not far out of reach to be on an equal footing. It takes an investment of dollars and engagement from communities and voices getting behind these girls and women. It's happening, but we have to keep our foot on the gas. There's a wave happening and we need to make sure we catch that wave.

Q: Here is my controversial topic question for you. Men identifying as women to play female sports. Your thoughts?

SBB: Love the topic. Trans athletes are athletes. Like all trans youth and adults, I believe they deserve and are entitled to participate in society in a way that is best for them as long as their hormone therapy is consistent with any substance policies.

Look, I feel it's most important that people become educated about our trans community first before weighing in on whether or not they can participate in something or use certain facilities.

There are so many layers to every individual story that if we can come from a place of compassion and love first and then get to the details after, our dialogue can change. If we leave the conversation at only the question of men identifying as female are an issue for sport, we then leave the conversation at a point of saying, all men are stronger, faster and more developed than women. It just isn't the case and there is no one-size fits all. That's where I lean on substance policies. All that being said, I'm continuing to educate myself about the topic as I certainly am not an expert.

Q: Did you have to work to make sports your platform for change or did you choose sports because it was familiar to you and the opportunities to create and make changes were greater?

SBB: I believe sports chose me.

Participating in sports kept me alive in some very dark times in my young life. Sports are a microcosm of society. They reflect what is happening in other aspects of our world. There are race issues in sports. There are gender issues in sports. There are religious issues in sports. There are socio-economic issues in sports. And so on. Maya Angelou said, "When we know better, we do better."

The more I learn, the more I feel a responsibility to use the voice and platform I have for the good—to do better. To help make things better than how I found them.

Q: You've coached college and high school basketball. You worked in the marketing department for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx and now you write about a young girl who can do any sport she wants to try. You've lost jobs because of budget cuts. You've overcome adversity and you've certainly given back to athletics and specifically, women's sports. When you think about when you first started—bouncing that basketball for the first time in your driveway or in school to where you are now and what you've accomplished so far, how bizarre, surreal, amazing is it?

SBB: I really appreciate that. I am proud of the things I have accomplished and more importantly, I'm proud of who I have been in the process. I'm grateful for all the support. Nothing I have done in my life has been accomplished purely on my own. I've always leaned on others. I'm a survivor in so many ways in my life. I am imperfect. I have made mistakes and poor decisions. But my heart has always been in a good place with the right intentions so looking back, I'm proud of that little girl I was, the young woman I was, the middle-age woman I am and I look forward to seeing what is yet to come. Maybe this is it. Or maybe there's something more. I hope there is something more.

Q: Finally, being a Brainerd grad, how exciting was it for you to watch your hometown girls play in the Class 2A State Hockey Championship game a few weeks ago?

SBB: I was so proud to be a Warrior. You know, I usually read my hockey book when I go to schools. Hockey was my love before basketball, but I wasn't able to play on a team. These girls...well, I just can't wait to see how the participation numbers grow moving forward. I met a few girls at Xcel who had never been to a girls' hockey game before and were now considering playing.

That is what it's all about.

Q: The MSHSL's girls basketball tournament will be starting this week. Do you

go to any of the games?

SBB: I will certainly be there this year. I haven't gone every year for a variety of reasons but I'm not traveling this year and I need to see Paige Bueckers play live. She's so inspirational. I just love when I hear about a young woman like her and all I hear about is her work ethic and humility. She's a baller. This is my favorite time of year.

Jeremy Millsop

My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.

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