More than a sporting event, Aurora Games give voice to female athletes

Aurora Games keynote speaker Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced Larry Nassar to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse, is working to make sure athlete's voices are heard. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Girls wearing "Next Generation" T-shirts stood in line outside Times Union Center, some holding tennis rackets, some tugging at their parents' hands, all waiting to be let into the main arena for the Americas vs. World tennis event at the inaugural edition of the Aurora Games.

Garbine Muguruza, 2017 Wimbledon champion, fist-bumped a fan in the stands, and Belinda Bencic's first tweener of the night landed long, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

The ethos and energy of the games -- a festival to celebrate women's sports -- perfectly encapsulated Aurora Games keynote speaker Judge Rosemarie Aquilina's goal for the world right now.

"Let's keep the conversation moving forward -- let's never have an athlete, whether they be high school, college or Olympians, be blackballed or blackmailed for using their voice for complaining," Aquilina, who sentenced former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assaults, said during the opening news conference of the event. "Let's make sports safe for everybody."

It has been two years since the Nassar sentencing, and Aquilina said nothing has happened -- no legislation has been passed, and the rules have not made it safer for athletes to pursue their dreams -- and that it sometimes feels like "we are going backwards."

"My kids want to do gymnastics and other sports, and now I question where are they going [for school]," she said. "I shouldn't have to question that, and I shouldn't feel like I have to be with them every second."

More importance should be placed on athletes' safety and welfare over money and medals, Aquilina said.

"And coming together with women for the Aurora Games from all over the world speaks volume to that need. If they can join together never having participated on a team and then practice together, get along and compete ... why can't the legislature get their act together?" she said.

UCLA gymnast and internet sensation Katelyn Ohashi talked about the importance of using sports as a vehicle to talk about important issues such as mental health, abuse and the hardships faced as a youngster in the harsh world of organized sports.

"Getting that call to be a part of Aurora Games [to use my voice] because we bring joy and happiness to the world -- we were talking last night how we wouldn't have imagined this in a thousand years -- that is how I measure success these days," Ohashi said.

University of Florida gymnast Alicia Boren said this was a chance for upcoming gymnasts to dream of more than just the Olympics, that there were more exciting opportunities to showcase their love for the sport.

"I remember talking to young girls and when they tell me they want to be like me, I tell them, 'Don't be me, be better than me -- be the best version of you,'" Boren said at the news conference.

With events such as tennis, gymnastics (tune in for the Parkour event, which has the youngsters hyped in Albany), figure skating, ice hockey, basketball and table tennis, the Aurora Games are like a multisport women's version of Laver Cup, the tennis tournament in Chicago that has garnered a lot of attention, as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have signed on to play.

Jerry Solomon, organizer of the New York event and husband to former figure skating champion Nancy Kerrigan, said the Aurora Games are an opportunity for women's sports to be front and center, not an addition to men's sports, and are designed for female athletes to be open, to talk to youngsters and to start dialogue.

"This event transcends sports -- this is much bigger than that," former UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field said.

A lot of the times important stories in America get swept under the rug, Aquilina said, unless a collective community continues to talk about difficult problems such as sexual assault and abuse.

"In America we have disposable clothes, disposable diapers and everything is disposable -- stories are disposable," she said. "We are on to the next thing. This cannot be a disposable story. Until there is actual resolution, we all need to keep talking about it.

"To me to go to this next level, I am not just on a bench, but having a larger platform to help resolve this. This isn't anything about me; it has to do with my children and your children, a safer world and community. We are all connected in this world."

In the next five days, the Aurora Games will see athletes such as Ohashi, figure skaters Ashley Wagner and Mirai Nagasu and tennis players Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka and Bianca Andreescu competing and conversing with young fans and upcoming athletes.

"We have this voice and platform to talk about stuff that's much more important than winning -- how could we not make use of that?" Ohashi told ESPN.