BOSTON — Traveling the world as a member of the U.S. National Field Hockey team and 1980 U.S. Olympic field hockey team, Denise Desautels learned more than just how to put the ball into the net. What she gained from the experience were lessons that have served her in every facet of her life for more than 25 years.
Desautels, now the vice president of brokerage sales at First American Insurance Underwriters in Needham, shared her story with more than 350 elite high school female athletes, including Dracut High School’s Kara Lyons and Kristen Agrella, at the 20th annual Massachusetts Celebration of Girls and Women in Sports Day held at Faneuil Hall on Feb. 3.
“As a kid I was always playing with the boys,” Desautels said. “Today, about 95 percent of the people I deal with in the financial industry are men, so little has changed for me.”
She attributes her success in business to the self-confidence and communication skills she built as a result of years on the playing field.
While playing in an eight-nation tournament in Holland during the height of the Cold War, Desautels and her teammates became fast friends with members of the Russian team.
“We learned to respect each other as athletes and people, despite the language barrier,” she said.
By the end of the event, the Americans gave their extra field hockey sticks to the Russians. Each American girl had come to Holland with eight sticks, while the Russians had only two, one good stick and another than was taped up and glued together.
“The Russians were also thrilled that we gave them our extra pairs of jeans,” recalled Desautels. “In the Soviet Union, they waited in line to pay a shopkeeper $200-$300 for a pair of jeans, in any size the clerk pulled off the shelf, then they had to go outside and trade for the correct size.”
“That experience made me realize how fortunate we are in this country and what an honor it was to wear the American colors,” she added.
Desautels urged the young women in the audience to continue to believe in themselves and their abilities, regardless of the path life may take them after their high-school careers are over.
Agrella, a member of the Dracut High basketball, volleyball and track and field teams, and a fan of the movie, A League of Their Own, was particularly thrilled by the appearance of an unannounced special guest speaker at the event, Baseball Hall-of-Famer Mary Pratt.
In the 1940s, Pratt pitched for the Rockland Peaches in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the team immortalized by the 1992 Tom Hanks/Geena Davis film.
Calling the young women in attendance “a credit to our gender,” Pratt told them that women have overcome a lot of roadblocks in the time since she played ball, but still had a long way to go to achieving equality with men.
“It is time for you to carry on and show people what sport is really about,” she said. “Come back to coach, come back to officiate, but most of all further your education.”
Pratt concluded the event by leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of the Rockland Peaches’ fight song. The enthusiastic crowd gladly clapped to the beat, and by the end of the tune were singing along.
Lyons, also a three-sport athlete at Dracut High, playing basketball, field hockey and softball, was inspired by the morning’s speakers and plans on joining the coaching ranks herself some day.
“Today made me realize that you always have to work hard for what you want,” she said.
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