Sports shape the success of barrier-breaking West Point first captain Simone Askew

Austin Lachance/U.S. Army via AP

Simone Askew is making history as the first black woman to lead the Long Grey Line at the U.S. Military Academy. She is responsible for the overall performance of the roughly 4,400 cadets at West Point.

If it weren't for sports, Simone Askew might not have made it to West Point. It was while watching the midshipmen from the Naval Academy and the corps of cadets from the United States Military Academy march onto the field at Army vs. Navy football games that Askew entertained the "artificial attraction," as she said, to attend a service academy.

She has come a long way from the kid in the stands at football games wondering how she could make it onto the field. Now, Askew is the corps of cadets first captain at the U.S. Military Academy, the first African-American woman to hold the position, and sports helped shape the leadership that got her there.

An international history major, Askew speaks precisely, measuring each of her words for accuracy. She is the definition of someone who does not mess around. Her position as first captain is the highest-ranking student position at West Point.

The historic nature of her appointment is not lost on Askew -- who used the word awesome a few times -- but she has so much to do that dwelling on being appointed is not an option.

"I would rather my teammates and my classmates see me as the best first captain they've ever seen rather than the first black, female first captain they've ever seen," Askew said. "It's great -- don't get me wrong -- but my duty is to serve the corps, so I have to focus on that."

Askew grew up with sports in her hometown of Fairfax, Virginia. In addition to the football games her mother, Pam Askew, took her to as a way for Simone to interact with male mentors, Simone has been running triathlons with her mother and sister since she was 10. She played volleyball, basketball and ran track. She tried swimming but was turned off because she didn't like having only her success be the focus, instead of how she contributed to a team.

"I very strongly prefer team sports," Askew said.

She did crew for one year at Fairfax High School, then walked on to the team at West Point during the second semester of her first year, or "plebe year," as she put it, after hearing what an amazing experience some of her friends were having.

She was drawn to the inclusivity of the team and rowed with the team for two more seasons. Having a common goal is something Askew enjoys, and the relationships she built through working through a shared struggle are ones she holds dear.

"Anyone can relate to that on any team that you're on," Askew said. "I would say that it was the best decision I made since being at the academy."

It was from these experiences in sports that Askew learned both what she idealized in leadership and what she did not. An AAU basketball coach yelled far too much for Askew's liking. She does not respond to what she calls "yellers."

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

U.S. Military Academy Cadet Simone Askew, first captain of the corp of cadets, speaks during the groundbreaking of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C.

"There are some people who respond well to that, and there are some who push themselves to perform in the spirit of fear," she said. "I really felt uncomfortable with that, and I actually performed worse. So I knew that when I grew up, or whenever I would be telling other people what to do, by no means did I want to be a yeller."

In her day-to-day life, she adopts a style of leadership that is more inclusive, honed by the positive examples of coaches in her life.

"Influencing people's lives can be keeping your cool in a less-than-ideal situation," Askew said.

It makes sense, given that Askew's line of work might put her in a less-than-ideal situation after graduation. While she points out that AAU basketball and the success of a 10-year-old are not exactly life or death, what she leaves unsaid is that some of the things she has trained for are that serious. Although she would never cramp someone's leadership style, there is also the consideration of how she would respond should her platoon be anxious, hungry and sleep-deprived while being fired upon.

Yelling is not going to be her first response.

"You really do have to embody calm behaviors," she said. "That comes in your tone of voice, the speed at which you talk, your actions and your demeanor. Paramount to all of those is how you communicate with others."

West Point is student-run, so the cadets organize and execute the training schedule, the activities and all of the day-to-day operations of the academy. The first captain of the corps is the liaison between the officer leadership on West Point staff and the student cadets. If there is an inspection scheduled for Saturday morning before a football game, Askew works with her superiors to ensure that task is executed and listens to their direction for the items in her purview.

It's great practice on a larger scale for what will be many of officers' jobs as platoon leaders following graduation. In many ways, the structure reflects the team sports of which Askew is fond. She is essentially the school's point guard -- in a player-coach sort of way.

"You can think of me as the messenger, but there are a lot of people that make it happen," she said.

Although Askew decided to not compete with the crew team this year because of her first captain and academic responsibilities, her position comes with some privileges. She threw out the first pitch at Nationals Park when the Washington Nationals faced the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the NLDS. She met Senator Kamala Harris and was awarded the Pinnacle Award by the Black Women's Agenda, an organization committed to elevating issues important to black women.

After graduation, Askew hopes to enter the engineering branch of the Army. On Wednesday, she will receive one of the envelopes that "tell us what we're going to do for the rest of our lives," she said. The humanitarian work done by the engineering branch is of particular interest to her.

"That's what I envision myself doing in the military: helping others," she said.

On Dec. 9, Askew's life will come full circle at the Army-Navy game. A decade ago, she was a young girl watching the cadets march onto the field and wondering how she could become the person leading them. Now, after years of hard work and dedication, she has her answer.

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