DANICA PATRICK, Open-wheel racing
Pressure? What pressure? There are 100,000 pairs of eyes staring down from the stands. The infield is crowded with CART's brightest stars -- Andretti, Franchitti, Tracy. A dog leash and leather collar await her should she fail.
Tommy should have known better. Patrick stands all of 5'1" in her racing shoes, but she could be the biggest US prospect to come along in 25 years. Raised as a racer on the dirt tracks of Illinois, she's spent the past two years scorching blokes in England, where she placed second in the 2000 Formula Ford Festival -- the best American finish since Danny Sullivan was runner-up in 1974. Her mentor is none other than Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champ. "The way you quiet the critics is by beating them," he says. "The biggest thing that has always struck me about Danica is her determination. She's not intimidated."
Next season, Patrick hopes to catch a ride in the Toyota Atlantic series, CART's developmental league. She certainly didn't hurt her chances in Long Beach, where she led the field -- including Kendall and fellow phenom Sarah Fisher -- from flag to flag, becoming the first female pro to win the event.
If that wasn't enough to turn heads, she still had one last bit of unfinished business: leading the 6'4" Kendall around on the end of her leash.
-- Lewis Franck
ALICIA BOSTON, Football
Not everyone was hostile. Most front-office execs wouldn't throw an agent a life preserver, but when Alicia arrived woefully underdressed at a chilly Indianapolis Combine in 1999, then-Browns GM Dwight Clark brought her coffee. Seems the NFL is warming to a woman's touch. The league has licensed 33 female agents, compared to just eight for the NBA and MLB (none for the NHL). Boston, who reps a handful of players, and Kristen Kuliga, who negotiated Doug Flutie's $30M deal with the Chargers, are still the exception when it comes to handling big-name talent. At the same time, Boston has noticed that her pitch is often a hit with the sons of single moms—not to mention the moms. "Some players definitely find a woman easier to confide in," says superagent Leigh Steinberg. "I think we're ripe for a breakthrough."
For now, Alicia enjoys her challenging day job too much to give it up. (David's $7M deal is chump change next to those $250M mergers.) But with little bro in the last year of his contract, you know his agent is thinking big.
-- Andy Latack
KIM NG, Baseball
Ng, one of three female assistants -- Boston's Elaine Weddington Steward and the Yanks' Jean Afterman (who replaced Ng) are the others -- is involved in every aspect of the Dodgers organization. Last off-season, she negotiated high-profile contracts for pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii and catcher Paul Lo Duca. But while it's easy to point to her as proof of baseball's stated -- though often unrealized -- commitment to minority hiring, there's reality to consider: The sport is the oldest of old-boys' clubs. "Is there a man who believes in a woman enough to put his ball club in her hands?" asks Priscilla Oppenheimer, the Padres' 61-year-old director of minor league operations. "I don't see it happening in many, many years." She pauses. "But when it does, my money's on Kim Ng."
NATALIE DARWITZ, Hockey
Always has. While watching the 1988 Winter Olympics at home in Eagan, Minn., 4-year-old Natalie informed her mother she would one day win hockey gold. "I didn't care if there was no girls hockey," she says. "I just figured I'd play with the boys."
Darwitz captained her boys Pee-Wee team, idolizing Golden Gopher Neal Broten. When the first women's national squad was created in 1990, she began mimicking Granato. She set a state record with 312 goals in four years for the Eagan High girls, making the US squad at 15 (youngest ever).
Granato is still going strong at 31, but her young teammates are ready to grab the torch. "Cammi has taught us how to lead," Darwitz says. And it's an act the new Great One can't wait to follow.
-- Lindsay Berra
DEENA DROSSIN, Long-distance running
"When she won her first race with me seven years ago," says coach Joe Vigil, "I told her I wouldn't let her rest until she was the best long-distance runner in the world." Now the 29-year-old Drossin is so close she can taste it. In March she took silver behind Great Britain's Paula Radcliffe at worlds. In May she shattered Lynn Jenning's American record in the 10,000 by 29 seconds (30:50.32). Next up: the 5,000 at nationals in late June and again in Stockholm on July 16. In October it's the Chicago Marathon, a flat course that should feel like a breeze to someone who's been training in the high altitude of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. (She put in 130 miles a week there to prep for New York.)
"It's an exciting time for women's distance running," Drossin says. "The bar keeps being raised. Records are being broken." Can she break Joan Benoit Samuelson's 16-year-old U.S. marathon mark?
"I don't want to say." Okay, but here's a hint: She has 2:21:21 taped to her refrigerator door.
-- Dave Kuehls
JENNIFER RIZZOTTI, Women's basketball
"I know I've benefited a lot from this move," Rizzotti says. "But so has Hartford." Home attendance has more than tripled since her arrival (1,114 a game), and her players now have legit pro aspirations. While Rizzotti moonlights as PG with the Cleveland Rockers, graduating center Kenitra Johnson hopes to catch on overseas: "Coach is so well-known, it means more opportunities for us."
Look out, Geno.
-- Dan Hodes
STEPHANIE READY, Men's basketball
Some players still needed convincing after D-League director Karl Hicks hired Ready last August. "But as the season went on," says Groove guard Jeff Myers, "we looked at her less as a woman and more as an equal." Result: Greenville won the title, with Ready filling in as coach one game and getting an OT win.
Pretty crazy, huh?
-- Seth Wickersham
MICHELLE WIE, Golf
But Michelle's got her share of pre-teen problems. Never mind that she's the youngest ever to qualify for an LPGA tournament -- she missed the cut by three strokes at the Takefuji Classic in February. Wie isn't eligible for membership until she turns 18. (At least she has company: 13-year-old Morgan Pressel qualified for the U.S. Women's Open last year.)
Wie's done some research, though. It seems The Masters has no age or gender restrictions, so she figures she'll beat out thousands of men for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and grab an invite to Augusta. Oh, and she'd like to do this by the time she gets her driver's license. "She wants to master the LPGA before she turns pro," says her father and caddie, B.J. Wie. After that? Michelle hopes to graduate from Stanford, then whip The Farm's most famous golf alum. "I think I can beat Tiger when I'm 20," she says. "It's a life goal."
Big Wiesy makes it sound so easy.
-- Eric Adelson
KELLY SMITH, Soccer
Her only setbacks stateside have been injuries. Limited to 13 games a year ago with ankle problems, Smith was off to a torrid start this spring -- four goals, three assists in seven games -- before a torn right ACL ended her season. "Kelly's the full package," says WUSA commissioner (and former US national coach) Tony DiCicco. "The way she moves with the ball and accelerates past defenders. The way she bends free kicks and scores with her head. Watching Kelly is as entertaining as watching any of the great men's players. She's that exciting."
You could say she's her own Arsenal.
-- Jeff Bradley
This article appears in the June 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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