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Inaugural Aurora Games ready to kick off in Albany, NY

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — When former UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field was asked to be part of the inaugural Aurora Games, she jumped at the chance. Celebrating the female athlete is right up her alley.

"The thing that really struck me is that we do celebrate these high-level athletes so infrequently — every four years at the Olympic Games," Kondos Field said. "To be able to give an audience a glimpse of how impressive these athletes are in a little bit more relaxed environment, to be able to give them an opportunity to get out, to compete and to perform and be on TV more than just once every few years was what struck me."

The Aurora Games is an all-women's sports and entertainment festival. Competition begins Tuesday at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany and features Olympic medalists and national champions in gymnastics, tennis, basketball, figure skating, ice hockey and beach volleyball. The events will air on ESPNU and ESPN3.

Among the approximately 150 athletes participating on the two teams — Team Americas vs. Team World — are former UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, who gave her sport a jolt with electric performances that went viral on social media ; 19-year-old tennis player Bianca Andreescu of Canada; beach volleyball players April Ross and Alix Klineman of the U.S. and Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan of Canada; U.S. figure skaters Mirai Nagasu, Alysa Liu and Ashley Wagner, and five-time French national champion Mae Berenice Meite; Haley Skarupa, a member of the 2018 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning hockey team, and Finnish player Susanna Tapani; and Minnesota basketball coach Lindsay Whalen and former WNBA player Barbara Turner, who played at UConn. Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Olympic gymnastics champion Nadia Comaneci are serving as honorary team captains.

There will be an appearance by Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over the sentencing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Aquilina will serve as keynote speaker during a discussion on athletes' right to be protected from emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Kondos Field coached the Bruins to seven NCAA gymnastics titles and along the way discovered the recipe for success was to have fun. "We won four championships in five years and our fan base did not increase," Kondos Field said. "It wasn't until I really switched to understanding that it's about entertainment. You've got to get people excited to come and stay in their seats. Once I shifted the production value of our meets, that's when we started selling out.

"People think your numbers double when you win a championship. We didn't experience that, but when I had an athlete take a bar dismount, I would pick up the stanchion and I would have her run up and down the student section high-fiving. That's when the arena went electric. I don't think that ticket sales are going to set the barometer for the success of this event. I really feel that it's going to be the athletes and TV."

The idea was the brainchild of Jerry Solomon, who is married to former Olympic ice skater Nancy Kerrigan. It hits close to home for them. "We did a bit of research going into all of this, and one of the things we found is that the history of men's sports is pretty ingrained in the social consciousness," Solomon said. "The history of women's sports is not, and the best example that I have is my 11-year-old daughter who doesn't really follow sports. She knows exactly who Babe Ruth is and has no idea who Babe Didrikson Zaharias is. I would say that's pretty representative of people out there, and yet I think you could fairly easily make the argument that Babe Didrikson Zaharias was a better athlete than Babe Ruth."

The Babe Didrikson Zaharias Trophy will be given to the winning team at the conclusion of the Aurora Games. She was one of the greatest female athletes of all time, a star in track and field, basketball, baseball and softball, and a champion golfer in the early days of the LPGA Tour. Zaharias, a six-time AP Female Athlete of the Year, died in 1956.

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