Training for life at Mushin Self Defense

Story and photos by ALEXIS PERNO

On a Sunday at 2 p.m. in downtown Salt Lake City, I was held at knifepoint in a Walgreens. 

A week later, I was learning how to escape the very move I had been assaulted with.

I walked into Mushin Self Defense nervous. Martial arts wasn’t something I had experience with, unless watching my little brother earn his taekwondo black belt counts. But still, co-founder and instructor Brian Yamasaki had encouraged me to come, promising in an introductory phone call that I would control the boundaries of our interaction. 

That call was my first inkling that the culture of Mushin Self Defense was unlike anything else I had experienced. And as I continued to learn about the school’s story, that continued to be proved correct.

That first night, I put on a facade of cheeriness in the car ride to North Salt Lake. 

“As long as it’s not chokeholds, I’ll be fine,” I said to the friend who accompanied me. 

We walk in. It’s chokeholds. 

It only took a moment of knowing eye contact with my friend before I burst into tears. I almost asked to leave, sure that coming was a mistake despite Yamasaki’s encouragement. I wasn’t ready. 

But the instructors quickly assured me that nothing was expected of me. My training partner for the night, Ruby Talataina, hugged me tight, saying it was enough just to walk through those doors. She had been there too, she said. 

Talataina and my friend began to spar. I watched, and wanted in.  

It was at that moment, with someone else’s arm around my neck and tears down my face, I knew I had made the right choice in coming to Mushin. 

“I just keep thinking, I wish I had found Mushin 20 years ago,” Talataina said in a phone interview. “From my perspective, for a trauma survivor, you go in there and you work through a trigger in one hour that a lot of people spend years working through.”

Talataina’s journey to Mushin Self Defense unfortunately is similar to mine — she had started working through her healing process and thought a self-defense class would help. Her first class ended in tears too, and she told Yamasaki she wouldn’t be returning. 

“He was so respectful and he said, ‘Yes, we are here any time,’” Talataina said. “Then the very next day, I went to bed and I was like, ‘Man, you’re just going to let this fear conquer you for the rest of your life, or are you gonna do something about it?’”

Talataina went back to the next class.

“Honestly, what made the difference were the coaches, Sir Kiser and Sir Yamasaki,” Talataina said. 

Brandon Kiser is Yamasaki’s business partner and the instructor of the Monday night women-only self-defense class I attend. Together, the two have been running Mushin Self Defense since 2000. But the culture that exists today wasn’t always the one Mushin cultivated. 

Brian Yamasaki, left, and Brandon Kiser are coaches and co-founders of Mushin Self Defense. The gym was known for fighting before the owners pivoted to teach students from all walks of life. Photo courtesy of Mushin Self Defense.

Stepping onto the mat

Flash back to the ’80s: Kiser and Yamasaki are both enthralled by the likes of “The Karate Kid” and Bruce Lee. But as Kiser says, “The flashy kicks was just the hook.”

That hook was literal: Kiser’s journey started with a friendly rival showing off a fancy taekwondo kick. The resulting bout of jealousy inspired him to start taking classes. But looking beyond the movie-star moves, there was a different draw, rooted in a chaotic childhood. 

“At the time, I didn’t make that connection, but now in hindsight as a 42-year-old, I’m like ‘Oh, well I was probably just really insecure and thought that [martial arts] was going to fix some part of me that I was missing,” Kiser said in a phone interview. “And it did.” 

Once he found martial arts, Kiser never looked back. 

“The martial arts just really grounded me and gave me direction in life,” he said. 

I understand the appeal. The first time I slammed someone into the mat, I immediately asked if they were all right. It was easier than I thought — a lot easier, in fact. 

I walked away feeling powerful, like something had finally slotted into place. 

For Yamasaki, there were several draws to martial arts — bullying, for one. Growing up in Davis County, Utah, Yamasaki said he could probably count the number of Asians, not just Japanese Americans, on one hand. 

“I just think, maybe, deep down inside, it felt good to have an Asian hero,” Yamasaki said about Bruce Lee in a phone interview.

The appeal he’s most certain of, though, came from an existing connection: Yamasaki’s father and grandfather both hold black belts in judo.

“That probably was one of the other big driving factors in my interest in the martial arts,” he said. “Trying to understand these people that I love from doing what they did and going on the journeys that they went on.”

Brandon Kiser poses as an attacker while assistant coach and professional referee Dave Seljestad looks on during the Monday night women-only self-defense class. The class utilizes defense moves that rely on limb placement and technique rather than strength.

The reckoning: “We were white belts on the business side of things.” 

In the ’90s, mixed martial arts was practically unheard of. Separate schools taught separate sports, and loyalty to the sport one originally learned was emphasized and expected. Utah, meanwhile, was establishing a name for itself in the jiujitsu world. 

Kiser, who was training in taekwondo, was rebuked harshly by his then coach for expressing an interest in jiujitsu. When he found William Bernales of the Bernales Institute of Martial Arts, Kiser knew he had found the change he was looking for. 

“It wasn’t a hard transition,” Kiser said. “Once I had heard about him and validated the things that I had heard, I was all in.”

Kiser began taking private lessons in 1998, paying for them with almost his entire paycheck from Walmart. Brian Yamasaki walked into the gym the following year. Right off the bat, he could tell what he needed to know about Kiser.

“He was there, finishing up his private [lesson],” Yamasaki said. “I was able to watch a move and I could tell that he was really serious about training.” 

Yamasaki made it clear from the first day that he wanted to compete. But at a time with very little opportunities to do so, that ambition wasn’t taken well by existing members of the gym. 

“I just remember wanting to run him out of the gym, and him not letting that happen,” Kiser said.

Yamasaki’s perseverance proved his dedication to Kiser, and the two struck up a friendship. 

“There was just something about him that I connected to very quickly,” Kiser said. “It’s hard for me to see back through the eyes I had at that time, because now I could go on for hours about all the great things about Brian Yamasaki.” 

As training partners, it became clear they both shared similar visions about martial arts, from the discipline of the journey to the world of MMA. 

“Brandon and I were fighting, but we never saw ourselves as fighters,” Yamasaki said. “I think both of us would agree we’re both more interested in the art aspect [and] self-expression.” 

Yamasaki approached Kiser in 2000 with a business proposal that would center these core beliefs. One handshake later, Mushin Self Defense was born.

“We didn’t even have an agreement between each other more than our word, and I don’t think that works in most cases,” Kiser said. “You would have to find a Brian Yamasaki, and they don’t make a lot of those.”

It was no small amount of effort to ensure success. At one point, the pair put their houses on the line to keep the school afloat. 

“We were not really business savvy,” Yamasaki said. “We were white belts on the business side of things.” 

Their inexperience reflected in the clientele Mushin developed up until 2010. 

“Our gym was a very rough environment to get exposed to martial arts,” Kiser said. “We were just trying to run everybody out of there, and whoever was left was … who we wanted to train.”

With Kiser and Yamasaki’s growing reputations as instructors, the gym became a hotspot for those looking to fight — and to win. But many weren’t willing to put in the effort to succeed.

Nor were they willing to pay.

“Fighters don’t pay and they run out all the people who do pay the bills,” Kiser said. “So at the end of the day, you’re just left with a very broken business model.”

The business model wasn’t the only thing that was broken. Although the school was producing successful, winning fighters, Yamasaki knew something had to change when a fellow school owner called Mushin’s culture a disgrace.

“It was very hard to pivot and change directions,” Yamasaki said. “It was painful. Personally, it was hard to let go of a lot of what we had built.” 

At first, Kiser was resistant, finding himself sucked into the fighting world and its vices. But slowly, he came around. 

“I was determined — and I know Yamasaki was too — to make our business work,” he said. “I give Yamasaki all the credit for really changing course in the gym.”

While he’s proud of what’s been created, Kiser admits that Mushin’s old training methods probably gave people a bad impression of martial arts. But without the path Mushin took, Kiser doesn’t think the school would be where it is now. 

Yamasaki added,​ “We needed to find our people, the people that understand us and understand what we’re doing. And even now, we’re still really refining that process.” 

Students of the women-only self-defense class watch as coach Brandon Kiser demonstrates how to escape from a pinned position. The focus of the class is to teach women how to defend themselves against untrained attackers.

Training for life

The scariest part of my Walgreens experience wasn’t the knife in my face. It was the realization that I had no idea what to do. At Mushin Self Defense, mental preparation and empowerment are just as important as physical training.

“For a number of years you’re a puppy, and if things went bad, you just had to roll over and show your belly,” Yamasaki said. “Well, you’re not that anymore.” 

As he says, a lion never has to tell someone it’s a lion. And like a lion, boundaries are encouraged to be set, as gym member Ruby Talataina knows. The coping skills she had previously used to survive were discouraged within the gym. 

“I remember Yamasaki said to our class on the first day, ‘Do not suffer in silence,’” she said.

Now, over nine months since her first class, Talataina feels safe enough to roll with men twice her size, working through her trauma. 

“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just had a 210-pound man over me who was trying to choke me, and guess what?’” she said. “I effing survived.”

After Monday night’s women-only self-defense class, student India Bown unties her white belt. Bown has been involved with the class since January.

Mushin Self Defense has also survived. It started with action movies and shared heroes, then a handshake and shared values. Now, 22 years later, the journey continues.

“When I made the shift to, ‘I wanna figure out how to teach jiujitsu in a way that people love it and stay with it,’ then that became my new passion,” Kiser said. “That’s still where I’m at now, years later.”

Yamasaki views the martial arts journey as a dynamic, ever-evolving thing. Over time, his journey became more introspective, grappling with how he may have contributed to negativity in the universe. 

“How have I been a bully?” Yamasaki said. “How have I not lived up to my expectations?”

He advises new students to follow where their own journey takes them. 

“Let it have time to take root and germinate and grow and evolve because the story, it just gets deeper and more interesting and more fulfilling as time goes on,” Yamasaki said.  

Kiser can’t even imagine what his life would be like without the influence of martial arts.

“All the good, all the bad, the whole journey for me is what’s kept my life on track,” he said. “I want to share that with as many people as possible.”

The future of the gym isn’t grandiose. For Kiser, it’s continuing exactly what Mushin has been doing: teaching quality classes to anybody who wants to learn. 

And for me, I learned more than just a jiujitsu move. Walking in that first night, I never expected what a bright blue mat and a chokehold would teach me in only one class. 

As they say in this world, it’s not the years, but the hours. 

“There are so many life lessons in there that I have learned from those classes, and that is why I go four days a week,” Talataina said. “That is what Mushin is for me — I am training for life.” 

Students in the women-only self-defense class are encouraged to “roll” with each other in friendly sparring matches. During this time, students have the opportunity to practice against jiujitsu moves instead of preparing for untrained attackers.

Changing the stigma around ski racing 

Ski racing is a sport that isn’t accessible or affordable for most, but there are changes that can be made to make it more accessible. 


Imagine showing up to a sports competition and not having anyone look like you. Or being told that your athletic ability is only because of your race. Or competing in a sport that holds the nickname “rich white person’s sport” when you aren’t white. Unfortunately, this is the crippling reality for many Black ski racers. 

Ski racing is an expensive sport whose participants are predominantly white. Additionally most participants are in the upper-middle-class to upper-class income bracket. There needs to be change made to make it more inclusive and welcoming for all. 

In a study of the 2019-2020 season, the Snowsports Industries America found that in winter sports (skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, etc.) participation rates were 67.5% among whites and only 9.2% for Blacks. 

The history of skiing can be traced back to 8000-7000 B.C. in Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Skiing was used as a way of transportation and eventually transitioned into a leisure activity. 

The first ski competitions weren’t held until the 1840s in Norway. Ultimately, a few decades later, the sport made its way to the U.S. In 1936 alpine skiing made its Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

This Indo-European background of winter recreation established it as an activity predominantly enjoyed by white people. 

Another aspect that makes ski racing inaccessible is the sheer cost. After equipment, club, camp and travel fees, athletes can expect to spend upward of $30,000-$100,000 (depending on the level of competition). For the U.S. Ski Team (USST) to pay for travel costs across all disciplines each year it needs approximately $1.6 million, according to Ski Racing Magazine

So, the question is, what can we do as a ski racing community to make the sport more inclusive and welcoming?

“I began ski racing when I was 6 and it wasn’t until I was racing internationally when I competed against someone Black,” said Luke Mathers, University of Utah Alpine Ski Club coach. “I think it’s surprising that there isn’t more diversity within the sport and I wish there was. I mean, who doesn’t love skiing?”

University of Utah Alpine Ski Club at regionals in Red Lodge, Montana, in 2018.

In Mathers’ four years with the club, only one Black ski racer has been a member of the team and he was only involved for just one season. 

To increase diversity in the sport, Mathers stressed the importance of “getting rid of the stigma that skiing is only for rich white people.”

This has been an issue that the USST has been trying to change for four years. In 2017, the USST created the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee to increase racial, ethnic, gender and socioeconomic diversity at all levels of ski racing. 

All committee members serve voluntarily and are comprised of USST staff, leadership and board members, as well as select members of the community. One of these community members is Lauren Samuels, U.S. Ski Team, Rowmark Ski Academy and University of Utah alumna.

Samuels grew up racing for Team Gilboa in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and at 15 was invited to join the U.S. Ski Development Team in Park City, Utah. 

During her time with the team, she quickly learned it wasn’t quite what she was expecting. 

At her pre-summer testing, known as baseline testing, she broke the record for her vertical jump test. “They said, ‘Well, it’s just because you’re Black, so obviously you can jump,’” Samuels recalled during a Zoom interview. 

She also experienced criticism for not braiding her hair, but her hair didn’t braid. “The coaches didn’t talk to me about my technical skills, but instead they asked about my hair,” Samuels said. “Well we did wind tunnel testing and braids were fastest by hundredths of a second,” her coaches told her. 

Once Samuels finished with the national team she was eventually invited to join the University of Utah Ski Team. After her time racing, she took her talents back to the slopes of Minnesota coaching and focused on making the sport better. 

“I don’t have the end-all solution. But does anyone?” Samuels said. “The main thing is outreach and partnering with organizations. There needs to be a strong partnership between the clubs and the U.S. Ski Team to generate diversity.”

University of Utah NCAA race in 2017 at Beaver Creek, Colorado. Lauren Samuels, left, and teammate Abby Ghent. Photo courtesy of Lauren Samuels

To make change it is important that everyone does their part. If everyone just sits around and points fingers at each other nothing is going to change. We as a community have to go out and create change. 

That is the philosophy of former ski racer Shay Glas, who is looking to make ski racing more accessible and affordable. 

“Skiing is expensive, we all know that. Skis get old and skiers want new ones. But what happens to the old ones? Normally they just sit in your basement or garage and I want to change that,” Glas said in a FaceTime interview. 

Glas is currently working on creating an organization that will provide used ski equipment to people of low income so they can try skiing. The program would provide people of all ages the ability to try out skiing for the day without all the costs and fees that are typically associated with it. For reference, a day of skiing can cost anywhere up to $350 after lift tickets and rentals. 

Along with the U.S. Ski Team, there are many organizations that have been working toward the diversification of skiing. 

Snowsports Industries America has over 20 inclusion teaching videos on its website stating, “SIA has convened an Inclusion Committee to provide feedback on our plan to incorporate inclusivity into our organization and our industry.”

There is also the National Brotherhood of Skiers founded in 1972 on the basis of creating a national Black Summit for skiers, a place for Black skiers to come together. Today it has over 50 clubs in 43 cities with a membership of 3,500 skiers. 

As a community, we need to work together to continue to listen, learn and make change. “If we all work together,” Glas said, “we can create diversity and switch the stigma around skiing.”

How minority communities overcome barriers to outdoor spaces in Utah


Most outdoor spaces are dominated by white people, in the United States and in Utah. That is beginning to change with organizations like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, which encourage minority communities to participate in nature activities and overcome the systemic barriers that they face.

Until the 1950s, national parks and most outdoor recreational spaces were segregated, further alienating Black people.

Meanwhile, white culture experienced a surge of interest in the outdoors, especially with the Transcendentalist Movement in the 1800s. This cultural shift ultimately led to the barriers that people of color now face in experiencing the outdoors.

Perhaps the biggest barrier faced is the economic challenges. People of color and more diverse communities often have lower income rates, which poses a barrier to outdoor interactions in many ways.

Victoria Ramirez, 26, is a graduate student at Utah State University studying archaeology and working as an archaeologist at Capitol Reef this summer, as well as a member of Latino Outdoors. She talked about how her father worked two jobs and her mother worked a job and took care of the family while she was growing up. This is a common experience for minority families.

Many people of color work several jobs in order to just make ends meet and care for their families. When given the opportunity to spend hard-earned money for outdoorsy hobbies versus something that may be more comfortable, it makes sense to choose the comfortable option that is familiar.

Javier Campos, an avid cyclist and member of Latino Outdoors, discussed the expenses outdoor activities can hold, and why minority communities are often less inclined to buy things like tents or hiking boots or bicycles or climbing gear.

Too often, people have to worry about paying the bills or making a car payment or putting food on the table, Campos said in a Zoom interview. Buying a bike is often seen as a luxury.

Nkenna Onwuzuruoha is a Black woman from Georgia who moved to Utah with very little money. She relied on cycling to commute in Salt Lake City. Though she had little interest in nature when she moved, she gained a passion for biking as she relied on it to get around.

Now an avid cyclist, Onwuzuruoha said she recognizes the differences between biking on the more affluent east side of Salt Lake City, versus the more diverse west side of the Salt Lake Valley.

She talked about how the east side of the Salt Lake Valley has better bike infrastructure, such as bike lanes and ways that cyclists can be more visible on the streets. On the west side, money doesn’t go toward things like bike lanes.

She also said African Americans are encouraged to better themselves economically, but this pressure can lead to neglecting physical and emotional well-being.

“I think sometimes that exists in marginalized communities and communities of color that these [nature activities] are not things that we do, because these are leisurely activities,” Onwuzuruoha said in a Zoom interview. “These are things that help us kind of rise up in the world and kind of secure a certain type of socio-economic status, but you can’t have that really nice socio-economic status or middle-class kind of status unless you’re still healthy, happy and healthy.”

Although she began skiing this year, she said she had to overcome a cultural barrier. “For the longest time,” she said, “I was like, I don’t ski, people like me don’t ski, and that is a narrative I had in my mind.”

Victoria Ramirez, the archaeology student at Utah State University, said she faced the challenges of integrating into a new and predominantly white culture when she moved to Utah from Los Angeles.

“I felt like maybe I had to present myself differently, at least in the sense of like, I’m going to buy Chacos (a type of outdoor sandal) or something like that to fit in with everyone else and not wear my hoops (earrings) and make sure that I’m speaking correctly,” she said. She even started pronouncing her name to make it easier for English speakers to say.

The pressure to fit into white society is prevalent in outdoor culture, especially in Utah, whose population is 90% white and clearly reflected in natural spaces. Jonny Gonzalez, the coordinator of the Salt Lake City branch of Latino Outdoors, said it is common while enjoying the outdoors to encounter white people in groups.

To a person of color, looking different can bring unwanted attention and an awareness of the sense of being other. “It’s just one of those things that on a subconscious level just might give people the feeling of ‘well, do I belong here?’” Gonzalez said in a Zoom interview.

In order to create a sense of belonging for people of color who have an interest in the outdoors, groups like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro have been created. They look for ways to create a space that is welcoming for groups that face specific barriers because of the color of their skin.

These groups often work together to create an intersectional environment that promotes outdoor activity for all people.

Campos said, “I think that’s the biggest point of this group is making sure that people feel heard and seen and understood and given that opportunity. And basically … being told hey, this space is also yours, not just theirs. This space belongs to everyone. And you have and you should have equal and equitable access to it. Regardless of your socioeconomic standing, regardless of your social perception of the sport or the outdoors. This is your space and you can own it.”

University of Utah athletic team use their platforms to promote social justice

Story and photo by BRIANNA PEARSON

“I can’t breathe.” Those were the last words uttered by George Floyd before he was killed on May 25, 2020. “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace,” were chants millions of protestors shouted throughout many cities in the United States during summer 2020.

The office of Equity, Diversion, and Inclusion at the University of Utah quickly issued a statement: “EDI stands in solidarity with our Black family, friends, neighbors, students, faculty, staff, and colleagues. We mourn with them as we collectively process the more profound meaning and complexities of the wounds that have been inflicted with the injustices and deaths over the past 400 years.”

After multiple deaths occurred throughout the Black community, many sports teams across the world took action in showing support for the BLM movement and social justice. Some of the University of Utah sports teams have been recognizing the university’s call to action throughout their programs.

Nona Richardson, the executive senior associate athletics director, said two social justice groups within the Department of Athletics have been created. “The student-athletes UTAH group, (United Together Against Hate) as well as the staff UTUA, (United Through Understanding and Action) allows us to educate, have open conversations and partake in activities that engage in action (voting, marches, unity walks, etc.),” Richardson said in an email interview.

“The UTUA group was formulated after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; the UTAH Group expanded in size and scope and has been a catalyst for change amongst the student-athlete population,” Richardson said. 

Richardson said from the formations of these two groups, she has hope that the work in the social justice realm will continue in all areas of social justice issues.  

Many teams — like Utah football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, track and field, and gymnastics — all released statements on their social media platforms in 2020 to show their support of their fellow student-athletes.

Utah women’s soccer team members wearing their warm up jersey before a game against Oregon in support of social justice.

The gymnastics team in particular, posted a unique Instagram post. Athletes came together and created a video that had different gymnasts and staff members speaking. This video gave a message to the community about how they “stand together in peaceful solidarity to demand equality and change.”

A video was later created that included different athletes of a few different Utah sports teams standing in solidarity. This post specifically shows videos and pictures of student-athletes demanding to see change. 

Whitney Hessler is a sprinter on the Utah track team. She said she thinks certain teams at the U are doing a better job at recognizing this call to action as opposed to others. In a FaceTime interview she said, “As a whole throughout Utah athletics, I have seen improvement, but we have a long way to go.” 

The track team has had open forums for discussion about social justice, and some of the women of color on the team spoke on things that are important to them. Hessler said, “This has been a great platform within our team for us to learn more and listen.” 

But, this has been the only thing the track team has done.

The Utah football team was the first team to put words such as “Equality,” “Unity,” “Love,” and “Peace” on the back of their jerseys during the 2020 season. 

Players on the women’s basketball team wore all the same shooting shirts with the team’s social justice verse highlighted during their 2021 season.

“I love the idea of having some sort of word on the back of our jerseys. I am surprised we haven’t done that yet, honestly,” Hessler said. 

Taylor Watson, another Utah track member, said in a FaceTime interview she would love to see a moment of silence or some sort of kneeling before each track meet to recognize social equality. 

Watson said she wonders whether the track team will recognize social equality in the future. “Honestly, it’s sad to say, but I feel like we won’t talk about it again unless there is another situation that happens, like another death or another protest,” she said.  

Her teammate, Hessler, said, “I hope we keep moving in the direction we are, especially with actionable items like bringing girls on here who are diverse, and having a community where everyone feels welcome and comfortable.” 

She wishes the track team was more open about what they stand for, and use their platform to bring awareness to social justice issues. She gives an example of this by explaining how she wished her team did something to acknowledge Black History Month.

“The student-leadership in this area has been outstanding and it encompasses both our men’s and women’s teams, and not only student-athletes of color, but allies as well,” Richardson said. The strength of Utah athletics is in the diversity of its population, she said, “but also like mindedness for change.” 

Out of state student-athletes of color at the University of Utah speak out


A high school student athlete’s ambitious dream is to attend a Pac-12 university, compete at one of the highest levels in the nation, all while accomplishing their academic goals. 

Yet, for student athletes who pack up their life from out of state this can be a challenge. This can especially be challenging for those athletes who are of color at the University of Utah. 

According to a fact sheet released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, African Americans/Blacks only make up 1.2% of Utah’s population. Black student athletes often experience an immense culture shock when their feet step on the grounds of the U for the first time. 

Branden Wilson, from Orange County, California, and a junior on the Utah Lacrosse team, talks about some of his experiences when “fitting in” in Utah. 

Wilson is one of only three players on a roster of 44 who is not white. Wilson said he grew up around a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a primarily white high school. He was not surprised with the Utah demographics being predominantly white.

Fitting in at Utah, however, has been something he has struggled with. “I definitely feel like I didn’t fit in freshman year. I still feel like I don’t fit in,” Wilson said in a FaceTime interview. “I feel like I can’t really relate to people as much here, people don’t really understand me.” He said he tends to go away from the crowd, which is how he has always been since he can remember.

Wilson said his coaches have been very “welcoming,” which has helped his experience tremendously. In a follow up email, Wilson said they would always check up on him when he first arrived at the U. This has made him feel very welcome. 

Wilson said he has a very strong support system from his coaches but not as much from his teammates. He said his support system mainly comes from himself as well as his family members. 

Niyah Becker, a junior on the women’s basketball team, had a different experience. She moved to Salt Lake City from Winnipeg, Canada. Becker said during her freshman year she quickly became friends with players of color on both the women’s and men’s basketball teams. She said she loved her freshman year and how she got brought into the college lifestyle.

But then, everything changed. 

“It was more towards the end of my sophomore year that I had realized everything that was going on, especially since all of my Black friends on the teams had transferred and left the U,” Becker said in a phone interview. “I soon asked myself, what the heck, where did all the Black people go?” 

This year, there are a total of three Black student athletes on the women’s team. “I’m not Black, but I’m not white,” Becker said. She said that being the only biracial player is a little weird, and sometimes she doesn’t know where she fits in. 

When the Black Lives Matter protest occurred in summer 2020 and there was a spotlight on the Black community, the coaches and staff of the women’s basketball team made sure all their athletes were mentally and physically supported. They took their feelings into consideration as team-related decisions were made. At that moment, Becker realized, “Oh wait, I am the only light skin on the entire team.”

Becker said she has felt very welcomed by her teammates and coaches. She said the leadership of one teammate in particular, a senior named Megan Huff, helped lead the way for Becker and made her transition easier. 

She said her team is really well educated and respectful. The team knows what is right versus what is wrong, and would never treat someone differently because of the color of their skin. 

Maya Lebar, a junior track star at the U who came from Spokane, Washington, has a similar “team culture” experience as Becker. 

The track team, unlike the basketball team, had only one Black student athlete in the program prior to Lebar’s class. 

“When my class came in, it was a big shift for our team culturally and socially, and I think we’ve adapted pretty well,” Lebar said in a FaceTime interview. “We have all blended and created a space where everyone can feel welcome and included, and that is so valued.”

On the contrary, Lebar’s transition from high school in Spokane to college in Salt Lake City, was very “unfortunate” as no one specifically helped her acclimate to the state of Utah’s culture. She talks about how being a person of color, there wasn’t anyone who took the time to help her adjust to the culture of Utah. 

“When I came in, there wasn’t really a support system for Black student athletes here,” Lebar said. She said she felt welcome here just as any student athlete would. But, being a Black student athlete, she said, “There was not that focus on being a Black student athlete in a predominantly white state within a predominantly white institution.” She said this was disappointing but the Department of Athletic has begun to change its policies. Lebar is hopeful this will contine to improve.

Lebar later said, “I don’t think it was a bad welcome, I felt like I was made to fit in within athletics.” She said if she had the opportunity to change it for others, she would.  

These student athletes have lives outside of their sport and for all three, their experiences in public are similar.

University of Utah athletes, Maya Lebar, Branden Wilson, and Niyah Becker in action during their competition. Photo illustration by Brianna Pearson.

Lebar said she has seen people stare at her when she is at a mall or eating at a restaurant. “I almost expect for people to look at me when I go out,” she said. “It used to make me feel angry, but I’ve had to adapt to where now, I know they aren’t staring at me in a negative way, it is more just curiosity.” 

Becker said, “I’m surprised when I see someone of color out in public, which is very disappointing, but with Utah being how it is, it’s not shocking.”

And Wilson, the lacrosse player, said, “Going out in public, I definitely get looks, I find myself having eyes on me.”

Being an athlete from out of state as well as being a person of color can be challenging. The experiences these three athletes have been through while being at the U so far has only made them stronger and has given them a voice for future student athletes.

A group called UTAH (United Together Against Hate) has now been formed within Utah athletics, which allows student-athletes to have open discussions and educate others.

More than a Black female athlete


For student athletes, being recruited by a top university is a goal. They spend years practicing and traveling to events, often missing out on school activities such as dances and free time with friends and family.

The stress of being a top athlete is even more difficult as a Black female competitor, who may experience racism, sexism or isolation. 

Maya Lebar, a sprinter with the University of Utah Track and Field team, became interested in sports as a child growing up in Spokane, Washington. 

Her adoptive mother allowed Lebar to pursue anything she was interested in. At the age of 4 she developed an interest in competitive skiing. 

“Skiing was always something that my family has loved to do,” Lebar said in a text interview, “so it’s really just a family tradition. My mom had skied since she was little and was happy to find out that we had a really good ski program up on Mount Spokane for me to learn how to ski.”  She graduated from the program and became a completive skier. 

A few years later, Lebar knew she wanted to do more than skiing.

Cecil Jackson, a competitive track and field coach, noticed Lebar when she was in eighth grade and competing in local middle school meets. “He was the person who really helped me learn about track and field and feel confident enough in my abilities to pursue it seriously throughout high school,” she said. She began to train with Jackson with an eye toward running at a collegiate level. 

Shortly after training with Jackson, she began to get recruited from local and out of state colleges. 

The University of Utah was one of those schools that stood out to her the most during the recruitment process. 

Lebar caught Coach Chad Colwell’s attention during her senior year of high school.

She set a personal record in the 400M. The sprinting coach quickly noticed her potential. 

Lebar, who is Black, said she was initially hesitant about attending school in Utah. There is little diversity at the university and even less among the Utah athletics.

“My family was concerned for me and questioned my decisions for coming to Utah. I was nervous that there weren’t a lot of Black people and were less in the athletic community,” Lebar said in a FaceTime interview.

But, once she began to talk to her potential coaches and take a tour of the campus, she said she immediately fell in love. 

Colwell said in an email interview, “After speaking with Maya over the phone, I knew she was someone who we would be interested in not only as an athlete, but as a student, teammate and person. I remember after our phone call thinking how articulate, confident and smart Maya was. And this was reinforced after speaking with her High School coach who raved about Maya both as an athlete and a teammate/leader.” 

Lebar committed to the University of Utah and adjusted quickly. 

Maya Lebar was recruited to run the 400M, 200M and relays. Now she runs short sprints focusing on the 100M and 200M. Photo courtesy of Maya Lebar.

She said her teammates became her best friends. She appreciates how they push her into becoming the athlete she wanted to be. They had the same goals in mind and were just as committed as she was.

One of her teammates at the time was Kat Lakaye. Lebar and Lakaye instantly become best friends and roomed together their freshman year. “Maya was someone who is so strong, determined, intelligent, and would have your back no matter what, she was the type of person you always wanted around,” Lakaye said in a FaceTime interview. 

Despite becoming friends with teammates, she faced challenges as a Black female athlete. 

There wasn’t a space or environment created for her and Black teammates. Over the years, Lebar has been one of the main student athletes on her team to advocate for the rest of the Black athletes and talk about the problems they were facing among their teams.

 After speaking out and creating an environment to be heard, Lebar said she feels more supported now than ever. 

“The school has done a really good job at listening and responding to our needs. People need to see us and create an environment where we feel supported and welcomed also,” Lebar said. “It has become easier to be a Black female athlete now with all the resources and communities Utah has created for us.”

Lebar decided to major in political science with an emphasis in law and politics. She has a dream of one day becoming a lawyer or a civil rights attorney. Her passions include speaking out for social justice and being an advocate for those who have been wronged by the justice system. “ It is so important to know what is going on in the world. Educating yourself and having the ability to speak out on important topics is so empowering,” she said. 

She is a part of a group called “UTAH Group,” which stands for United Together Against Hate. Within this group she plans events and puts together meetings that cover important topics about social injustice within the community and Utah. 

Some events she has organized are Say Their Names Memorial, United Walk, Indigenous Peoples Day Art Walk and Black Reflections Exhibit at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. This type of work is what Lebar is most passionate about. 

The reason this became her passion was due to the event that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018. “I have always been so passionate about social justice stuff. But it all started after the Charlottesville rally in 2018,” Lebar said. “I then realized systemic injustice is really real. This was such a huge moment for me. Yes, I grew up in a white family but I am Black and I am extremely affected by it. I knew I had to become more educated about everything. I began to read about everything like people in history and people that no one knows about. I researched everything until I understood.” 

A fire was lit inside her and she knew something must change and she was going to be that change. 

A monochromatic mountain

One family’s mixed feelings toward Utah’s slopes


A ski lift traversing a snowy slope. Photo by Simon Fitall on Unsplash.

“I grew up skiing in Utah’s Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons with my dad,” Micheal Bradshaw Jr. said in a collaborative Zoom interview with his sisters. “At the time, I didn’t realize that my dad and I were the only Black ones on the mountain. It doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore.”

In 1974, Micheal, a Millcreek, Utah, native, started skiing with his father, the late Micheal (Mike) Sr., at 3 years old. His younger twin sisters, Sierra and Kellie Bradshaw, started skiing two years later when they too turned 3 years old.

In order to hit the slopes each season, the Bradshaws were often required to make financial sacrifices to afford lift tickets and new ski gear for their growing children.

“Growing up, we never had cute ski outfits like most of the other kids did,” Sierra said. “I remember one year wearing blue camo ski pants and a pink jacket with fur. We wore whatever we could scrape up on clearance or whatever hand-me-downs the neighbors dropped off that year. It always made me sad as a little girl.”

The children’s mother, Ariel Jackson Bradshaw, didn’t share the rest of her family’s passion for skiing. Instead, she often read in the parked car while the others skied on the other side of the resort. She brought sandwiches and snacks.

“My mom loved coming with us,” Kellie said. “She’d always say, ‘I’d rather read in the mountains than on the sofa.’ She rarely missed a week.”

By their college years, the Bradshaw children were elite skiers and masters of the slopes.

In 1999, however, their father unexpectedly died from a heart attack just two months before his 66th birthday.

It was February, and Utah’s shimmering slopes were still covered with snow. “It felt right to go skiing,” Micheal said. “I guess it was both a way to cope and honor his memory.”

By this time, Ariel was too frail to wait in the car parked below the frigid slopes. Instead, she remained in her Millcreek home, reading, while her adult children skiied.

It wouldn’t be much longer until the rest of the Bradshaws would join their mother for warmer weekends indoors and skip the slopes altogether.

A skier pictured below a ski lift. Photo by David Klein on Unplash.

A year later, Micheal went skiing alone one Saturday morning. He was 26 years old.

“Everyone says to never ski alone out of fear for one’s physical safety,” Micheal said. “But I wasn’t worried about it as long as I stayed on populated runs. I didn’t realize at the time that falling off my skis wasn’t the only threat to my safety at the resort.”

After a morning of skiing, Micheal said he went to purchase lunch from the resort’s crowded lodge. He had never been to the lodge before. He had always packed sandwiches like his mother did for him and his sisters growing up.

With his lunch tray in hand, Micheal asked a bearded man seated at a table with his family if he could eat his lunch from one of the table’s three empty chairs.

Micheal recalled the interaction.

“F— no,” the man said while laughing. “Can’t you see that I’m trying to eat with my family here?”

Micheal apologized for interrupting the family’s lunch and asked if he could at least take one of the table’s extra chairs elsewhere to eat his meal.

“Are you kidding me?” the man replied to Micheal. “I just said, my family and I are trying to enjoy our meal. We don’t need a lone n—– like yourself here. F— off.”

Nobody came to Micheal’s defense, despite the room being full of snacking skiers, snowboarders, and stares of shock.

With everyone’s goggles and helmets taken off to eat, he quickly realized that he was the only Black person in the lodge of one of Utah’s most popular ski resorts.

Micheal now understood why his mom waited in the family’s car bundled in jackets and blankets rather than inside the lodge beside the fireplace.

Kellie spoke of her mom as a young mother, having had a similar experience to that of Micheal’s. She was asked to relocate to the other side of the ski lodge after making some of the resort’s regular guests “feel uncomfortable.”

“She was just reading a book,” Kellie said.

In a later attempt to purchase ski pants from a popular outdoor clothing company, Sierra also came face-to-face with the ski industry’s lacking inclusion. After trying on multiple pairs of ski pants that didn’t fit, she was eventually referred to plus-sized alternatives.

“I was 5-9 and 150 pounds at the time. I didn’t wear plus size in any other type of pant. Just in ski pants,” Sierra said. “Those ski pants were made to fit white women, not a body type like mine and my sisters who carry our weight differently.”

Kellie added, “Don’t even get us started on helmet sizing.”

After Micheal’s frightening incident in the lodge, and a few subsequent instances of microaggression later, the Bradshaws retired their skis and hung up their helmets.

“It’s not worth it anymore. The fun of skiing has become so tainted by the lack of inclusion,” Micheal said. “When my father died the bubble of ski bliss popped and we were introduced to the reality that he and my mother tried so hard to keep us from while growing up.”

While the Bradshaws’ story may air extreme, they aren’t alone in skipping out on the slopes. Many of Utah’s minority groups aren’t interested in racing to the resorts each winter either.

An infographic illustrating the racial distribution of Utah’s ski and snowboard population during the 2019-2020 winter season. Image by Hannah Carlson.

 In 2019-20, a Snowsports Industries America participation study reported that 88% of the season’s ski visits were made by people who identify as white or caucasian.

Native Americans and Blacks each represented only 1% of that population. Asian and Pacific Islanders made up 4% and those identifying as Latino made up 5%.

Skiing is also an extremely expensive sport to pursue. In Utah, the average price of a single-day lift ticket last year was $95. The cost of a resort season pass ranges anywhere from $300 to $1,500.

On top of a lift pass, a skier or snowboarder would also require a pair of skis or a snowboard, ski poles, boots, pants, a jacket, a coat, gloves, goggles, and a helmet.

For a median household income of $71,621 in Utah, skiing isn’t an easily approachable sport. Especially for larger families, where Utah ranks first in the country.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Micheal said. “I just wish that I could take my daughters skiing without them having to experience what many of us already have.”

Academic success and social happiness for student-athletes: mentorship and support is just as crucial off the field as on the field


Collegiate student-athletes aspire to reach the highest level in their sport. However, the reality is that only one NCAA sanctioned sport, baseball, has a percentage above 2 percent for college athletes becoming professional athletes. 

Many students who attend universities like the University of Utah travel far from home for the first time, naively entering college with expectations of becoming a professional athlete. They may have assumed that there would be no problems adjusting to the academic and social demands of their new situation.

Though the racial demographics of colleges are less skewed than that of the city within which the campus is located, many students experience culture shock. Salt Lake City is 87.2 percent white, University of Utah students are 70 percent white, yet an average of only six starters per collegiate football team is white. 

What this means is that many minority athletes attend the University of Utah for athletics and encounter entirely new racial demographics everywhere but the field of play. School alone is an adjustment for adolescents, but especially for minority athletes. There must be a liminal space or person to create a space for minority athletes to acclimate and grow academically and socially within the new environment. 

T.J. Burnett, who worked as the U’s football learning specialist, helped create comfort and prowess in the classroom. 

T.J. Burnett was the the University of Utah’s football learning specialist. Photo courtesy of T.J. Burnett.

Burnett, a former four-time Academic All-American, and a five-time All-American track athlete, proudly aided African American student-athletes at the U in their educational and social maturation on campus for two years. 

Burnett knew firsthand from his experience as a first-generation African American student the importance of prioritizing academics and social transitions. These can be overlooked, yet adjusting to these challenges may prove more difficult than the leap to collegiate athletics, which can form a shelter from the outside world. 

Burnett recalled in a Zoom interview, “Transitioning from high school to college, I honestly had no idea what it was going to be like to go to school, to go to college. When I got letters from schools, a lot of times it would be overwhelming. I didn’t really know what it would be like for me to go to college. I didn’t know if it was even affordable or accessible.” 

Nearly five years removed from his final days as a student, Burnett reminisced about his growth as an individual. He attributed much of it to the importance of education, and his gratitude for having African American role models to show him that people who look like him can thrive in the world of academics. 

“I truly believe education is the great equalizer in terms of getting people to have the opportunity for vertical mobility but it isn’t accessible to all students from all backgrounds,” he said. 

Burnett, who hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, spoke of Dr. Damon Arnold, the special associate to the athletic director at Grand Valley State University.  Arnold inspired Burnett to take a job that remained within the realm of athletics while influencing students in a long-lasting way through academics. 

“He was somebody that young Black athletes could look at and be like, it doesn’t matter where you start it matters where you finish,” Burnett said. 

Burnett gratefully reflected that without the mentorship of Arnold and other mentors, many student-athletes including himself would have been worse off in their college experiences. 

“When I was graduating, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I wanted to have this impact on student-athletes as well, paying it forward, and also it is meaningful work,” Burnett said.

U offensive lineman Braeden Daniels said in text message, “He [Burnett] helped relate the school material that was being taught in our classes to our lives as student athletes, men, and real life examples … He understood life from our perspective as he was a student athlete.”

Elijah Shelton, an African American Salt Lake City native and transfer from Utah State University to the U, did not struggle with culture shock, or making friends with either team. 

Elijah Shelton practices for the Utes. Photo courtesy of Elijah Shelton.

Though his transition from high school to college was not difficult, Shelton recognized that many of his former teammates who came from other states struggled mightily adjusting to the academic workload and the 82.4 percent white population of students at USU.

In a Zoom interview, Shelton noted that at Utah State, a class called Connectionsbecame important because it explained Utah’s culture and the importance of getting to know people and appreciating the cultures of everyone.   

“We kind of made our own culture within the Logan culture,” Shelton said. 

Josh Nkoy, a collegiate rugby player at Stanford University from Salt Lake City,  acknowledged several facets in his university experience that contributed to his academic and social acclimation and success. He listed campus organizations for African Americans and members of the African diaspora, including the Black Cultural Center, where Black people can congregate and study.  

People like Burnett provide a Black athlete an excellent academic role model, and can relate to issues of culture shock inherent in attending predominantly white institutions. He understands the balance of school and athletics, and can remind students to prioritize academics because there are worthwhile jobs beyond professional athletics. 

While sports fans focus on athletic feats, Daniels, Shelton, and Nkoy have found succeeding in college relies on a confluence of mentorship, university support, communities of peers, and cultivating a culture of prioritizing academic excellence. 

Nkoy put it best when he observed, “You’ll see a Black face doing good things at all times — I guess all of that really mitigates culture shock for everyone.”

Passion for sports can traverse racial divides in Salt Lake City, some Black sports fans say 


Former Utah Jazz star Deron Williams recently said on The Ringer’s podcast “Real Ones,” “I had been around all the best players in the world … I was trying to recruit everybody. I’m talking to everybody. Nobody’s coming to Utah.” 

Williams implied that no players wanted to join him in Utah due to Utah’s reputation of being inhospitable to African Americans. 

In interviews conducted over Zoom, three Black men involved with the Utah Jazz as journalists or fans acknowledged the reality of racism. However, when it comes to their personal experiences on the job and in the stands, they said that loyalty to the basketball team, not racial divisions, takes center stage. 

Contrary to the experience of many African Americans in America, Tony Jones, a sportswriter covering the Utah Jazz for The Athletic, said he has not experienced racism in his professional life in his many years in Utah. 

During his years covering first the Bountiful Braves, then the Utah State University Aggies and now the Utah Jazz for The Athletic, Jones’ affability and the unity he attributes to the culture of sports has helped him evade racial discrimination in his industry. Once he covered sports above the high school level, most of the athletes he covered were African American, which he said was one possible reason for his comfort. 

Jones has found his time in Salt Lake City to be seamless despite an 87 percent white population. 

He didn’t initially dream of being a sportswriter. However, with a mother he described as a “titan in the [journalism] industry,” he was introduced to Black sports journalism legends like Rob Parker and David Aldridge from a young age. 

Jones realized that many aspiring sports journalists did not have the advantages he modestly partially attributed to being Jackie Jones‘ son. Hard work paid off. 

“I worked on my craft and got good enough,” he said. 

Jones explained writing about the Jazz basketball team is especially rewarding because the entire state admires and supports the Jazz. There is no divisive viewpoint as there could be if he wrote for the University of Utah or Brigham Young University. 

When it comes to that college competition, “The rivalry can dehumanize the opponents’ fans,” Jones said. 

“The Utah Jazz speaks the universal language of the state,” he said. 

The concept of sports banding people of all races together within the context of a game is not an uncommon notion, but Jones’ personal avoidance of racial discrimination in his professional life in Utah was echoed by former Deseret News and current ESPN sportswriter, Eric Woodyard. Jones and Woodyard attribute this to their involvement with a basketball team, in which team goals and success take priority over individual goals or attributes — in this case, the color of their skin. 

Woodyard decided to take a leap of faith and moved to Salt Lake City from his hometown of Flint, Michigan, to cover the Utah Jazz in 2017. Woodyard described his move to Salt Lake City as a risk since he didn’t know what to expect, but he now calls Salt Lake City a second home. 

He said racism exists and he is extremely conscious of it, but he never experienced racism while covering the Utah Jazz. He credited the Deseret News for how it took care of him, as well as the culture and unifying aspects of sports for protecting him from racist encounters.

“People often asked me why I moved to Utah, and it was hard to find diversity in Salt Lake City.” He continued, “For example, I didn’t know who to go to as my barber or where to find good fried chicken initially, but I was treated excellently.” 

The Utah Jazz have had incidents in recent years where opposing players have received racist remarks from Jazz fans. The Jazz have even been labeled as a place that NBA players do not want to play due to these interactions and the numerical lack of African Americans in Salt Lake City. 

Woodyard released what became a viral video of a Jazz fan verbally and racially abusing then-Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, and he personally felt disturbed by the racial abuse from the Jazz fan. 

Woodyard said, “I know what’s right to me and it’s there for the reader to interpret and figure out what it means to them.” 

It can be difficult to try to reconcile seemingly opposite viewpoints — that Utah Jazz fans enthusiastically support the team and people affiliated with it like Jones and Woodyard, and yet have a racist reputation that makes new players hesitant to come to Utah.

Josh Nkoy, a member of the Stanford Rugby Team, is an activist who was born and raised in Salt Lake City. Nkoy, who is the son of Congolese refugees, considers his family to be “proud, proud” Jazz fans. 

 Like Jones and Woodyard, he has successfully traversed mostly white Utah without racial discrimination, attributing it to community support and the equalizing nature of sports. 

“Sports were the only time on the field, well, the only time growing up, I would say that there are no outside expectations in terms of how far you need to go,” Nkoy said in a Zoom interview. 

Josh Nkoy is throwing in the ball. Photo courtesy of Josh Nkoy.

However, he said he felt about the racial abuse Russell Westbrook received from fellow Jazz fans: “It’s frustrating in the 21st century, people still haven’t learned.”

Nkoy elaborated and alluded to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery while Arbery was running, “This is athletics, this is what we are stereotypically good at, and regardless of even that we are still in danger.” 

Woodyard spoke of being “numb” to Black Lives Matter because it is a continual fight he and others have to wage including in Utah outside of Jazz games. He referenced assuming stares he receives in grocery stores and the specific manner in which he has to wear hoodies, as everyday examples. 

Talking about Black Lives Matter, Jones said, “The racial issues are unfortunate and what has transpired has been unfortunate for hundreds and hundreds of years on some wavelength.” He said he was happy to see more recognition of the racial issues in the Salt Lake City community both after the incident involving a racist fan and surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I recognize what I am and what my culture is, and where I’m from, and I’m passionate about where I’m from, and I’m passionate about being Black, and passionate about being African American,” Jones said, “and I have not shied away from stating my beliefs on it, but my primary obligation is to set a good example for myself and kids and those who look like me who want to be in my industry.” 

This self-knowledge is key to Jones’ comfort and liking of Utah. He said he feels appreciated for his work by fans at The Athletic, and not judged by his skin color. 

As a player on a sports team, Nkoy reflected, “Everybody is equal in terms of how much work they put in, how much love they have for their craft, and how many wins they want to rack up with their teammates, especially among teammates.” 

As deep racial tensions have gripped our world, lessons can be gleaned from the unity exemplified in certain communities. In Salt Lake City, racial tension can be superseded by strong communal bonds created within the environment cultivated through sports. 

Basketball star-turned-coach; Vanessa McClendon is paving the way for girls basketball in the Pacific Northwest


Fighter. Go getter. Resilient. Difference maker. These are the words that come to mind when describing Vanessa McClendon. 

Former college athlete-turned-coach McClendon’s life is all about basketball. She was highly recruited in high school and earned a full ride basketball scholarship to the University of Oregon. Her talent would have taken her far professionally, but a career-ending knee injury forced her to retire early. 

Now, McClendon uses her basketball knowledge and love for the game by coaching her travel team organization, Northwest Magic. With teams scattered across Western Washington, McClendon and her husband have built a program that has become a household name in the Pacific Northwest basketball community. 

Vanessa McClendon has had a successful career from playing basketball in college, to now coaching the Northwest Magic. Photo courtesy of Vanessa McClendon.

In the youth basketball world, travel organizations like the Northwest Magic play a critical role. The travel teams not only help young players develop their basketball skills, but they also provide a platform for exposure of these players to college coaches as they chase their dreams of a basketball scholarship. These teams travel the United States to compete in tournaments in the AAU circuit, which is a travel team circuit that takes players and their teams all around the country to play basketball. 

Back in 2008, McClendon had just one scrappy team of teenage girls and an outsized vision for the future. She now has 22 teams — 14 for girls and eight for boys — that compete on a weekly basis around the nation.

University of Utah women’s basketball alumna Megan Huff was on that first AAU team McClendon assembled in 2008. 

“Since I started playing for Magic, Coach Vanessa was always someone I looked up to,” Huff said in an email interview. “When I walked into Magic tryouts, I was shy, uncomfortable in my own body, and insecure about my height and skills. I had no knowledge about basketball or about myself. But, through the whole thing I always knew that Coach Vanessa believed in me and was someone I could always count on.”

That first team McClendon coached produced four big name, Division I college athletes. This included Huff who, after graduating from the University of Utah, got drafted by the New York Liberty in the third round of the 2019 WNBA draft

“Magic was like family to me,” Huff said. “The lessons I learned helped me in college when I was deciding to transfer (from the University of Hawaii to the University of Utah). I knew how to handle the situation with open communication and honesty.”

When asked how McClendon separated her program from other teams in the state of Washington Huff said, “I knew the way things should be when a coach really cared about the individual and not just the organization.”

McClendon’s coaching has greatly impacted many young basketball players, and the teaching does not stop when she leaves the court. Her intentionality to connect with individuals has helped players learn life lessons away from basketball.

Huff said, “My journey was not an easy one but through the whole thing I always knew that Coach Vanessa believed in me and was someone I could always count on. For advice, knowledge, a ride, or a workout I knew I could always count on her and still can even to this day.”

Megan Huff shoots a jumper over a Washington State player in a collegiate basketball game. Photo courtesy of Megan Huff.

McClendon agrees that Northwest Magic is a special and empowering team to be a part of in order to help players get ready for the next level. 

“Our players go to college, and they are impact players right away,” McClendon said. “They can play in a system they’re used to. Some of the stuff that we’ve done, like the way we run practices, they’re used to it already, so I think that differentiates us.”

Current players in the Magic program have been working hard to improve and agree that McClendon has already helped them. 

Sixteen-year-old Tala Mitchell has been a part of the program since she was in the fifth grade. 

“Coach Vanessa brought me out of my comfort zone,” Mitchell said. “In the beginning I wasn’t really a talkative person and was a little shy. She taught me how to speak up and communicate with my team on the court.”

During her interview, she was surrounded and supported by her Northwest Magic teammates, showing how close the bond is that has been formed from her unique basketball experience.

“There are other teams in Washington, but I feel like the people who have been here are very welcoming,” Mitchell said. “When new people come (to join our team), they enjoy us, so they come back and that helps us create bonds that last.”

Mitchell has built lasting memories from her time in the program and has made lifelong friends because of her experience with the Magic. The point guard has already had a strong couple years in high school and only hopes to keep improving. 

Sitting at a table next to a noisy gym for the interview, McClendon looked around at the organized chaos that surrounded her coming from several of her practicing Northwest Magic teams. 

She smiled.

“It is so great to see the full circle of Magic players come through. We have the girls just starting out, to the alumni coming back to show support and it is just so cool,” McClendon said. “I want Magic to continue to develop college-ready players, and then I’d love to see my players that have moved on, just come back and pay it forward.”

Vanessa McClendon established Northwest Magic from the ground up and continues to grow the program. However, there are challenges in this business.

Because McClendon believes every kid should have an opportunity to play, she routinely covers travel expenses for players who cannot afford it. These include hotel costs, plane tickets, food, and tournament fees.

“The biggest challenge right now is money,” McClendon said. “You know, a lot of families can’t afford to do what we do when we have to travel, and so the biggest challenge is trying to fundraise, or get sponsorships for the kids that need to get out there, because we know we have the kids but not everybody can afford to get to these exposure events.”

Setting up fundraisers and collecting donations are the most common ways to raise money, but McClendon is not fazed by the obstacles. 

“Basketball is my passion,” she said. “There is no place I would rather be than in a gym coaching these kids.”

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