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Episode 78: Don't Miss Your Opportunity - Brenda VanLengen

In this episode, Don’t Miss Your Opportunity, we interviewed Brenda VanLengen, Emmy Award-winning broadcaster, play-by-play announcer, women’s basketball analyst, studio host and telestrator producer. She speaks on her journey to document women’s basketball in her role as producer of the series ‘If Not for Them.’ Experience Brenda’s contagious passion and enthusiasm for women’s sports–which rallies even the most nonathletic. Hear about her stellar career and the “What on Earth” moment that changed the trajectory of her life. 

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Hey, it’s Jen Vellenga. This is Episode 78 with Brenda VanLengen. She is the producer and the mastermind behind the docuseries forthcoming, “If Not for Them,” about the beginnings of women’s basketball. We got a chance to see a little bit of it at a fundraising event, and it’s incredible.  In this episode, we share some emotion about what it is to be a courageous woman making change in this world.  Please take a listen and if you have the means, reach out, find out more about “If Not For Them,” and make your voice known. Alright, here’s the episode. 

We, as women, too often think about our weaknesses or what we aren’t capable of doing, and it holds us back. Instead, focus on your strengths. What are the things, your knowledge, your experience, your skills, the things that you do best?  The things that I do best, that I can lean into and really be confident in. 

Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. I’m Jen Vellenga. And I’m Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. On the Speak with Presence podcast, we believe perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change. And we are here to share stories of powerful leaders who use their voices to inspire others.

And we’re here on location at Real Media in KC where we’re interviewing Brenda VanLengen. Brenda is the executive producer of “If Not for Them,” which is an epic story of the forgotten women who changed the world through the love of their sport. It’s the origin story of college women’s basketball.

Brenda grew up in a small town in Nebraska and she credits Title IX as shaping her life as a young player, as a TV sports analyst and a play-by-play announcer for college women’s sports. She has called NCAA basketball, softball, volleyball, and soccer. She’s been announcing for 28 years in women’s basketball.  Highlights include calling NCAA tournament games on ESPN, Big 12 Women’s Basketball Championship, and SEC Monday games on SEC Network. And there’s so many more.

She coached basketball for eight seasons, including five at the University of Nebraska. She has tons of awards.  I know we’re not letting her talk yet. Many media awards. She’s served as the executive director of the NCAA women’s final four. And she formerly hosted, you know this is my love, a national women’s sports podcast called Women’s Sports Central.  

We’re so excited to welcome you to the Speak With Presence podcast, Brenda. Oh, I’m so excited to be a part of it. Thank you so much. That was quite an introduction. I appreciate it. Well, there’s so much more and we’re going to put it in our show notes, but we are also very grateful that you brought us here to Real Media KC because I’m like a kid in a candy store. We’re in this great podcast studio, JRT. In the future, Jen, you’ll have your own podcast studio. 

When we get the Voice First World headquarters, we’re coming here and saying, set us up.  And you’re doing your whole docuseries here, right? That is correct, yes. So why don’t we just start there and say, you know, your docuseries is an opportunity for you to thank those who’ve come before you, and I’d love to know what inspired you to initiate, if not for them.

I think it’s because I’ve had such an incredible career in sports broadcasting and just sports in general. I played in college because of those who paved the way. I coached at the high school and college level. And I’ve been a broadcaster for almost three decades. And I owe all these things that I’ve been able to experience in my life to those that paved the way. Those that fought the battles, changed social norms, made cultural shifts, did things when it was not popular to do them because women’s roles in society were so much different in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

And so to be able to tell those stories and to give back, I think that’s important to do. I just have this philosophy of, you know, it says in the Bible to whom much is given, much is expected. And so, that’s been my philosophy. I’ve endowed a scholarship at my alma mater. I feel like the game, specifically basketball, but women’s sports, all of it has given so much to me that this is my gift back. To be able to share these incredible stories and to produce this docuseries. And what an amazing docuseries it is and is going to be. We had the fortune of being invited to a fundraising event at the Gem Theater where we got to see where you’ve gotten to so far and JRT, we were completely inspired.

For me, I think it was the fact that you had some of the former players there on stage and sitting in the middle of the theater. Their energy, their emotions vibrated through that entire space. So if you weren’t excited or motivated or really even had a care for women’s basketball, you would by the time you got done because of those women.

It’s amazing to feel that and I can hear the emotion and it brings up emotion in me to think about it. And it’s been a big part of this whole process. And Brenda, we’ve got to just come clean and be totally honest, neither one of us are athletes.  I mean, I played in high school. What did you play? Volleyball and softball. No basketball though. That’s right. I was not a college athlete. No, I was a dancer, but I followed my son’s high school sports plenty. But again, I say that to say we were so incredibly inspired and I learned a lot too. And I think it is and will continue to be a very entertaining docuseries.

Well, I appreciate that. And I think that’s really important because it’s not just about sports. It’s about the courage and the bravery that these women, and the men that supported them, had to exhibit to be able to change the world. And so it’s not just about sports. It’s told through the lens of basketball and women’s sports. But it’s really a women’s empowerment docuseries. 

We felt that and goosebumps. I think the one thing for me that really hit home and I think this happens when you’re going back to try to capture these generations, is you have to move quickly. Because, as you shared, and it makes me very emotional when I think about it, is that you were able to capture some of those women who are no longer with us.

Right. You captured them in a time, I know one of the stories you shared was, even in the last interviews, she was in one of her final stages of life and she was still committed to you to share her story because of the importance it was going to have on future generations of women. And those stories we need to hear and the determination of those women, on their deathbed, to still share their story.

It’s so emotional because that was a priority for me as I put together the plan for this docuseries and estimated how much it would cost to produce a 10-episode series. It was going to be one and a half million plus. We set up a website and we started getting grassroots donations to our nonprofit initiative.  It was real clear we weren’t going to raise $1.5 million from people donating a $100 or $500 or even a $1,000 at a time.  So, we made it a priority to get the interviews because of that sense of urgency. And we raised our first $250,000 and traveled the country and interviewed over a 100 women. And again, the men that supported them, which is so important as well.

And since we’ve gone through that, we finished our first set of interviews about a year ago, and already four of the people that we have interviewed have passed away. It was important to be able to capture those stories when we did and continues to be important that we preserve those important stories.  I bet their families are very grateful too.  Certainly. What we have heard and we’re able to share with them some incredible footage of their loved ones telling their stories. And we have that preserved for them.  Such good work.

Well this, I think, it’s going to be probably one of the hardest questions for you, because I don’t know if I could answer it if I was in your shoes. Can you pick one of the most uplifting stories you’ve heard from the women you’ve interviewed? It is a really hard question because there are so many incredible stories. I think, more than a story, one of the most incredible experiences by going through and interviewing these women, was the opportunity to sit down with them in person and allow them to tell their stories.

One of the most kind of life changing and inspiring parts of that was watching them as they would recall these memories from sometimes 50, 60 plus years ago.  And the way they would reach back into their memories and share those stories, the countenance of their faces just changed and you could see the young person in them, you know, telling that story and just like emerging to say, thank you for remembering.  Thank you for remembering and thank you for letting me tell this story.  

One of the things that we’re going to really try to capture as we sit here at Real Media Studios is we have some incredible graphic developers and artists that are going to look at ways that we can, as you are viewing this and as you are looking into the face of the older person telling their story, we’re going to use some effects to let you see what they did look like as a younger person.  I think it’s going to be so cool. It’s something we’re working on right now. We just got out of a production meeting to talk about it. I think it’s going to be an incredible part of the storytelling of this, because sometimes when you’re sitting and you’re listening to your grandparents talk about the old days, it’s hard to envision, right?  It’s hard to think about the time that they lived in or what they might have looked like. You only see this version of them. But by showing people what they looked like when they were younger, you’re transported back in time. And I think you can experience their story even more richly.

I think one of the things, counting the night when you talk about bringing things to life, is Millie Barnes. I saw her on stage. I’m going to say, she’s in her early nineties, would that be a fair statement? Yes. And literally as she was telling her part of the story that evening, I imagined myself going on stage, non-basketball player, thinking she could totally take me on that stage because she was full of life as she was telling that story.  Like, there was nothing going to stop her. The energy that was brought back to her because of what you’re doing.

Thank you. I saw that over and over. And there were several people that were in their 90s that had that kind of energy that were able to share those stories. And one of the really fun stories is the Flying Queens of Wayland Baptist. It’s a university in Plainview, Texas, who had a sponsor that flew airplanes all over the country in the 1950s and flew them to various cities to play in various tournaments and the AAU championship in St. Jo, Missouri. They had a routine at the beginning of each of their basketball games that they did in their warmups. They actually learned, directly from the Harlem Globetrotters, some ball handling routines.  And then they did them before every game. A lot of people came just to watch their ball handling routines.

So each person that had played for the Flying Queens from the 1950s, 55 up through the late 70s, I asked them what was their routine.  And not only would they explain it, but they would start visually showing you, spin it on my finger. I would go around my back. I would, and you’re looking at this 70, 80-year-old woman, showing you how they did their basketball routine.

It was so awesome to go back and watch them, you know, reenact what they did. I had one of them, Patsy Neal, who now lives in an assisted living facility in North Carolina say, I still have a basketball in my room and I still do some of my ball handling routines so that it keeps me alive. It keeps me active. It makes me feel alive. And she said, I could probably show you some of my skills right now.  Amazing.  That was one of the funniest parts about the Flying Queens and the other was they were really good. Weren’t they champs? Yes. They won 131 games in a row at one point. Right. And so, the other teams were kind of snarky about them. They were like, well, they’re princesses because they’re flown everywhere. It was so fun. You’ve really captured their story so well.

Yeah, thank you. It’s fun when we do the rivalry episode about their big rival. They have a few things to say about them. So, you know, rivalries and smack talking that didn’t just start in the last few years. That’s been going on for a little while. And that’s one of the parts of this story that we want to say. Don’t think that you just invented this. I mean, it’s been happening for a while and you need to know the stories of those women that paved the way and did it first.  Competitive mindset.  It’s not just for men, and it’s not just for the 21st century. 

Okay, so I’m going to ask, as we’re talking stories, how do you hope the storytelling of this docuseries impacts social change? There’s so many good things happening right now in women’s sports with the record viewership of various sports events. Last year, the Women’s Final Four had nearly 10 million viewers, breaking all records, to watch that championship game between Iowa and LSU.

There are record investments from businesses investing in women’s sports. You know, here in Kansas City, of course, we have the soccer stadium being purpose built for a women’s sports team. First in the world. There are so many good things happening, but I think this look back at how we even got here, how the battles were fought so that we even had this opportunity to grow where we are now, is inspiring for social change. Because as good as things are in many ways right now, there are still barriers. There are still obstacles. There are still things to battle through. And if the women of today and tomorrow’s generation can see what these women went through 50 and 60 years ago, to even have women’s sports, to even have high school girls’ sports or college women’s sports. To see what it took to get that, it’s inspiring to say we can fight through whatever battles we may face today.

So the opportunities for women’s equity, equitable pay, equitable opportunities, inclusiveness of all races, ethnicities, backgrounds, all of those battles that are still being waged.  I think we can really gain a lot of inspiration from those women that did it so many years ago. Absolutely. And shout out to our friends at KC Current Women’s Professional soccer.

We know broadcasters need presence in order to be heard. I’m just curious, how do you define presence? You two met with me a few weeks ago, and we talked about this a little bit, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  You know, presence is exuding confidence. It’s really stepping up and showing courage and, being able to show you belong. And as a broadcaster, you know, you may get in situations where it’s stressful and nerve wracking and it’s really important that you come through in your voice and your stature and everything as far as exhibiting that confidence so that people are focused on your message and not distracted by anything else.

I’ve thought about presence as an athlete for a long time because there were women that I looked up to and Pat Summitt is number one. I remember the first time that I saw Pat Summitt on TV and I thought, I want to be her because she had a presence. She had a stature, a confidence, a courage about her that everything in me said, that’s who I want to be.

And it brought this awareness to me about the importance of that. And I think we, as women, too often, you know, think about our weaknesses or what we aren’t capable of doing, and it holds us back. And, we decide, I’m not quite ready. I think I need a little more time. And so, we don’t step ahead in faith and in confidence.

And I just think that that’s an area all women can be better at. It’s just understanding and relying on your strength, really focusing on your strengths. If I look at my broadcasting career and stack up my credentials against some of the top broadcasters out there, my credentials don’t necessarily stack up.  I went to a small school in Nebraska, played at an NAIA school. I have a business education degree, not a broadcast journalism degree. As far as my basketball playing, I never played in a national championship. I never was a head coach. I was an assistant coach. I played for an NAIA school. All those things.  If I would focus on what I don’t have or what I haven’t done, I would be very intimidated to go out on a nightly basis and be on national television broadcasts and talk about the most elite athletes in the world.

Instead, and this is my message that I give in a lot of my speeches, it’s focus on your strengths. What are the things, your knowledge, your experience, your skills, the things that you do best. The things that I do best that I can lean into and really be confident in. And in my broadcasting, I know the game, I have an education degree, so I know how to put words together in a way that educates and instructs, and I have a natural passion and enthusiasm for basketball, for women’s sports, that I think is a contagious, I hope.

And that energy, that enthusiasm, and then my confidence in my knowledge of the game. It’s something that from a young age, I remember sitting on my dad’s lap and watching sports with him and have him give me a little cue about this football game we were watching and how this quarterback had his foot setback a little bit more and that’s a tip off that they’re going to have a running play instead of a passing play. I’d watched that develop. And it made me watch sports in a different way from a very young age. And so one of my strengths is really watching and understanding sports in a way that maybe not many do. And if I can put all that together in a broadcast and deliver that, I’m playing to my strength.

And I don’t have to worry about the fact that I didn’t play professionally, and I didn’t play in a national championship game, or I wasn’t a head coach. But what I do and what I bring to the table are some of the best qualities of a broadcaster. And it helps give me that presence. It helps give me that confidence to be able to communicate in a way that draws people in.

And my whole life is about my passion and about drawing people into loving women’s sports and being drawn into their talents, their skills, and to be educated a little bit more and to love it a little bit more because you’ve heard me talk about it. And that’s my motivation every time I go on as a broadcaster.

As I do this docuseries, it’s the same thing. And hearing you both say, we’re not athletes, but we were really drawn into it is exactly what I want to be able to share with people because I want to share this passion that I have, this enthusiasm and let people know that these incredible women are doing amazing things. And I want you just to appreciate it and enjoy it just a little bit more than when we started.

I have to say, I did not necessarily appreciate sports the way that I do now. Even 15 years ago. Certainly not when I was a teen or a child. My brothers played, I did not play. I was in dance and singing and plays and theater and made my career there. But what I now have understood as I’ve gotten the great fortune, through this podcast to meet so many athletes, especially women athletes, and those who love women’s sports, it’s the same thing as those who are in entertainment.  You bring a greater sense of yourself to a team or a cast and you make something bigger than any of you could have created alone and that ability to create that expansion makes all of us better.

I just want to say, thank you for sharing that with us.  And then also getting to see it, the entertainment part of it, the docuseries of this sport that was greater than any one single individual. So, there’s an education going on for both of us here, JRT, and I just am grateful.  As we’re almost to Thanksgiving, we’re going to say, we’re grateful.

As I was sitting there processing everything that you just said, and what our social responsibility is, I think, as women, we constantly underestimate our power and our presence in the room. Especially the number of … I don’t know, at this point, I used to say it all the time. You know, the little girls that are watching. Of course, little girls are watching, right. But women our age. Women who are older. What is our social responsibility?  To show up and share our gifts. We were given these gifts for a reason. And they’re not to question these gifts. It is to expose them and give them. And when we do that in the way that you just modeled, we all can talk about people that have inspired us.  What we know for a fact is the number of people that we ourselves have inspired that we’ll never know. And we’re not supposed to. That’s the beautiful gift. So just keep doing what you’re doing. 

I’m going to take the serious moment and go to something a little more humorous for just a second. This got started, we don’t need to go into all the details of the what on earth moments. But you know, through life, there’s these times where you sit there and go, you see something unbelievable and you go, what on earth? At some point in your life, have you had a what on earth moment?

Well, this is a story that I’ve told in many of the speeches that I’ve given. But the part of it that I want to convey I’ll emphasize. After I was coaching, I got into broadcasting through Nebraska Public Television, did a few local broadcasts. I moved to the Kansas City area. I did a few, it was called ESPN Regional at the time. Small broadcasts, but had not really broken into the national scene.

I was in Kansas City responsible for the Women’s Final Four that was hosted here in 1998. I was the executive director. It was a very busy time, but a friend group and I went over to Lawrence to watch a KU/K-State women’s basketball game. And we got to the game and there was a really long line, so I decided to sneak around to the back and use my media credential (air quotes) to see if I could get in a little more quickly.  And, I walked in and they said, oh good, you’re here. And I thought, well, that’s good because I just snuck in the door. And they said, are you ready? And I said, ready for what? And they said to do the television broadcast today.  And I said, what are you talking about?  They said the announcer for today’s national broadcast on Fox Sports didn’t show up and will you do this game?  

So part of the story that I like to tell is that how many times as women, either subtly or not so subtly are we given an opportunity and we shrink back and think, I don’t think I’m ready for that. I’m not prepared.  I don’t know if I have the skills. What if I fail? What if I mess up? And we miss opportunities. There was no way in the world I was missing that opportunity. I mean it’s 20 minutes before the game and I walk in and get introduced to the play-by-play announcer and shake his hand.

He wonders who in the world did we just pull off the street to do this game. And we call the game and it was a good game. And I knew the teams well enough that even now when I prepare for a game, I study for hours and hours and hours. But I went in, no preparation and just called the games and afterwards, the producer brought me back to the truck and said, hey, you’re pretty good at this. Would you like an opportunity? And I said, yes. And it was my big break. It was my lucky break into broadcasting. And that’s what started my broadcasting career on a national level. And so I think what on earth, I mean, how did this happen? How did this manifest? And it’s a big part of my story.

Oh, that is a great story. And what on earth, just be brave and also break the rules a little bit.  But let’s just point out the number of times that the universe has aligned those moments and we miss them. We miss a lot of those moments that have been put in front of us because we don’t believe it. So, thank you for sharing the What on Earth story to show that even when you are given that opportunity, go for it.  

What’s the worst that happens? It changed the trajectory of your life. It absolutely did. I mean, maybe a few years later, I would have been able to break into the national scene, but you know, a lot of it is having the right connections, meeting the right people at the right time, having the correct opportunities.  And I know me. I would have found a way into the broadcasting at the national level, but that opened a door wide open and it gave me a live audition on 15 minutes notice and that’s where I relied on my strengths of knowing the game, being able to communicate, being confident, it came through, and that’s what opened the door for me to be able to broadcast on a national level. Thirty years later. She spoke with presence.

Alright, we could talk for quite a bit, but most importantly, we need to bring this to close, but we need to bring it to close by asking you, what’s next? And how can individuals or communities or organizations get involved and support “If Not for Them?”

Thank you for asking, because I would love for everyone to get involved. The easiest thing you can do is follow us on social media. Whether it’s Twitter, X, Instagram, or Facebook, or even establishing a presence on TikTok. Follow us on social media. That’s the easiest thing. That’s the low hanging fruit. Be involved. Find out what we’re doing with this project and share it with other people.

As an individual, you can support by either purchasing apparel. We’re all in our “If Not for Them” apparel today. Or making a small donation. It’s a nonprofit initiative. Any contributions are charitable in nature and tax deductible. So, if you make a contribution as an individual, I will send you a private link to the one-hour preview of the 10 episodes. So, what you two got to see at the Gem Theater, people can have a private link to be able to see that by just making a contribution.

It’s really good! It’s absolutely worth it and, whatever contribution you make, you’re part of the team. You’re part of the “If Not For Them” team. If you are part of a business, and want, or you are a philanthropist and want a bigger opportunity, there are different levels of contributions that you can make that you will get various levels of recognition, whether it’s on our website or in the credits of each of the episodes. Or if you want to sponsor an entire episode, it’s $125,000. And you’ll be recognized as being the presenter of that episode for here and ever more.  And it will allow you to have a presence wherever this is distributed. And we don’t know where this is going to be distributed on television streaming platforms yet.

But once we are through the full production, we will be pitching it. And wherever this ends up living forevermore, people will be able to watch the entire docuseries. Then we are also going to be developing leadership curriculum, sports history, women’s studies, other things that will continue to teach people the lessons that we learned from these incredible women and be able to pass it on to the future.  There are ways to get your name, your brand associated with this at whatever level. Like I said, small levels of contribution gets you recognition on the website, but anything over, I believe it’s at the $5,000 level, you at least will be in the credits for the first episode; at the $10,000 level, you’ll be in the credits for all of the episodes.

There are real opportunities for people to associate themselves with a really powerful groundbreaking docuseries about these courageous women that changed the world through the love of their sport. And there are various ways to get involved. All the information is right on our website (ifnotforthem.com), and that’s probably the best way to do it.

Thank you so much. And we will definitely link to that in the show notes. Brenda, thank you so much for being on the Speak with Presence podcast. We will continue to follow, and we were laughing earlier because we’re not quite there to do $125K to sponsor an episode, but maybe in the short future, that will be a thing.

Anyway, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate you inviting us into the studio and hearing your voice. Thank you so much. Thank you for letting me be a part of this. You’re welcome. 

I’m Jen V with JRT. Thanks for listening to the Speak with Presence podcast. If you or your team need to gain speaking presence or build communication skills without being perfect, I can get you there. I use actor training tools, but revamped for the professional, so don’t be nervous. Go to voicefirstworld.com/chat to book a free call. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week. 

Alright. I want to tell you one more quick story.  When you were asking me something, I thought of this and it didn’t quite fit, but I was talking to a potential funder about “If Not for Them.”  You know, kind of planting the seeds about what this is all about.  She lives in Iowa.  She went after we talked, completely unrelated, into a little store. Can’t think of the name of it, but one of them that sells things that you would buy for somebody that’s getting married. You know, little knickknacks or whatever. She went into this store, and she didn’t have any representation that she was an Iowa women’s basketball fan or anything like that, but the woman behind the counter said something to her about what was going on in the WNBA and how these teams were competing so hard and some newsworthy story came up that the person behind the counter said something to her.

Well, this woman is a huge supporter of women’s basketball, and she was just so surprised. She said, why did you think to mention that to me? And she said, when I was in ninth grade, I had a coach named Brenda VanLengen, who was my coach at Kearney High School, and she taught me about speaking up and being an inspiration for girls and women in sports. And I’ve just always held that in my heart. And you know, she’s a broadcaster now, and I just always love talking about women’s sports because of her.

Oh, is that not amazing? I’m like, who was this? Who are you talking about? I still haven’t found out who it was. But somebody, like you were saying earlier, sometimes you’re going to touch somebody’s life and you don’t even know. And one of the girls that was on my 9th grade basketball team right when I got out of college is out there spreading my gospel about supporting and being enthusiastic about girls and women in sports. And that was just so cool. And it was just this woman was going to be making a big contribution to my docuseries.  So, it was pretty amazing. Wow. Full circle.

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Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at www.voicefirstworld.com/calendar

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