Three distinct athletes grace pages of SI’s 50th Anniversary Swimsuit Issue

As the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014, a trio of athletes graces its pages among the likes of models such as Kate Upton and Chrissy Teigen. While the highly popular issue gained criticism over the years for having nothing to do with sport, the presence of female (and the occasional male) athlete has brought a new element of popularity.

Since Steffi Graf turned heads as one of the first athletes to appear in the issue, it has opened the doors for many other athletes to follow. From Danica Patrick to Maria Sharapova to Jennie Finch, Natalie Coughlin once appeared in the issue adorned in nothing but body paint, the swimsuit issue has brought a venerable who’s who in female sport to a much larger audience.

In this year’s edition, three athletes from three very different sports and distinct backgrounds grace the pages. Former Notre Dame basketball star Skylar Diggins, part of the WNBA’s 3 to See Rookies in 2013 (also featuring Brittany Griner and Elena Delle Donne) revealed a warm, softer side beneath what fans know as a competitive and intense exterior. Hoping to bring the Tulsa Shock back in the playoff picture,

Diggins is highly popular for her fashion selections and red carpet pomp. The 23-year-old celebrated her appearance in the issue by going to social media. In a photo in which she is holding the magazine, the caption states “Surreal”.

A gold medalist at the 2012 London Summer Games, Alex Morgan has established herself as soccer’s girl next door. Having also made an appearance in the 2013 edition of the SI Swimsuit Issue, she is the only athletes in the class of 2014 to have appeared before. Like Diggins, she also shared her enthusiasm on social media, stating that she felt honored to be part of the anniversary edition.

The third athlete to be featured this year was certainly the least shy. Professional surfer Anastasia Ashley, who also dabbles part-time as a model, marks the second consecutive year that a surfer appears in the pages of SI Swimsuit. In 2013, surfer Alanna Blanchard graced the pages.

With a rapidly growing fanbase on Instagram, Ashley, who has published photos via social media in which she mimics Kim Kardashian with one of her infamous butt shots, does not exhibit any shyness in the SI Swimsuit edition. She has also openly talked about the sexuality of female surfers, most notably, in the Huffington Post.

Of note, Ashley is featured in some very risqué shots that are visible on the SI Swimsuit website, featuring photos of all three athletes not seen in the magazine. Among them, Ashley dons some see-through mesh tops, leaving very little to the imagination. As a side note, both Ashley and Morgan expose their bare backs in some photos.

While some sports fans may see the presence of these female athletes as controversial, this is a debate that will last for an eternity. The real topic of debate should be what the selection process is for the athletes that appear.

Perhaps a more unique approach could be utilized. Considering that many athletes have had to disrobe for calendars in order to raise funds for their sport or for charity, it would be refreshing if Sports Illustrated could help their cause. Featuring such athletes in their periodical while making a donation to an athlete’s charity of choice may be a more practical way of celebrating an athlete’s commitment to their respective sport.

Elena Delle Donne passes her rookie season with flying colors

Traditionally, being the second overall pick in any sporting draft tends to be a one-way ticket towards a career spent in infamy and unfulfilled expectation. Having graduated from the University of Delaware (the alma mater of Super Bowl champion Joe Flacco), the 6’5” Elena Delle Donne shattered those negative perceptions to become the unanimous selection as the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year.

Selected second overall by the Chicago Sky, Delle Donne had some big shoes to fill. Considering Baylor’s Brittney Griner was nearly selected in the NBA Draft, she was the consensus choice to go first overall to the Phoenix Mercury. Delle Donne found herself sandwiched in between Griner and the highly touted Skylar Diggins, who went third to the Tulsa Shock.

Courtesy of WNBA Images

Courtesy of WNBA Images

While it was a remarkable draft class, Delle Donne would undergo a baptism of fire in her WNBA debut. Competing against Griner and the Phoenix Mercury in the May 27 season opener, Delle Donne would thrive under such pressure. Accumulating a respectable 22 points complemented by eight rebounds and four blocks, the Sky would prevail in a 102-80 victory.

Such a solid debut would pale in comparison to the fact that Delle Donne became the first rookie to lead all players in votes for the All-Star Game. Sadly, she missed the event due to concussion woes. Upon her return, she would continue to help the Sky reach new levels of success. Truly proving that the sky is not the limit, Delle Donne not only helped the club earn a berth in the postseason, but its first division title as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Courtesy of Delaware Athletics

Courtesy of Delaware Athletics

Statistically, she would lead all WNBA rookies in points, free throw percentage, three-point percentage and minutes. Perhaps more impressive was the fact that she was recognized as the WNBA Rookie of the Month during every month of the season, an unprecedented accomplishment. This was complemented by averages of double digit scoring in every month. Of note, her .929 free throw percentage would also rank first among all competitors in the WNBA.

Her greatest accomplishment may have come in an August 11 contest against the eventual WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. A career-best 32 point output would contribute to a 94-86 overtime triumph, one of the most relevant in franchise history. Of note, she would force overtime in that contest by hitting a three pointer with 4.5 seconds left in regulation. A September 11 match against the Mercury resulted in a buzzer beater from Delle Donne that provided the Sky with a pulse pounding 70-68 triumph.
Despite the postseason disappointment, Delle Donne is the feel good story of the basketball season. Devoted to her family and dedicated in the classroom, she is the true embodiment of a student-athlete.

With an older sister that suffers from blindness and cerebral palsy, she abandoned her scholarship with the University of Connecticut in the summer of 2008 in order to stay close to her and family. Her personal break resulted in a sabbatical from the hardcourt that saw her enroll at Delaware and became a walk-on with the volleyball team, leading them to the NCAA tournament.

Returning to basketball in 2009 as a red shirt freshman at Delaware, she would endure struggles with Lyme Disease as a sophomore. Despite such setbacks, a gold medal at the World University Games in 2011 solidified her status as an elite competitor. Her senior season in 2012-13 resulted in many great milestones. From the highest attendance in Delaware history to a 27-3 regular season record, Delle Donne was recognized as the Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, the Capital One Academic All-America of the Year winner and the 2013 Senior CLASS Award winner.

After an outstanding senior season filled with many awards and honors as a member of the Delaware Blue Hens, being the unanimous choice as WNBA Rookie of the Year bookends the two periods in her career. Having displayed a remarkable tenacity, maturity and character in her young life, Delle Donne is more than just a winner in basketball, but a winner in life.

Riquana Williams provides performance of the year in 2013 WNBA season

As the Tulsa Shock finished their season missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time, Riquana Williams provides hope for the franchise. A September 10 contest in San Antonio Silver Starz set the stage for the second-year guard to break the WNBA record for most points in a game.

With both franchises out of the postseason picture, pride was on the line as neither wanted to finish in last place in their division. Williams would lead the way for Tulsa with a record breaking 51 point effort that had San Antonio fans cheering. Although she admitted afterwards that she had no idea she was close to breaking the record, she accumulated a remarkable 20 points in the third quarter as Tulsa proceeded to prevail by a 98-65 tally. She would log 35 total points in the second half of the contest to go with her 16 from the previous half.

Heading into the contest, the previous record was 47 points. Said record was shared between two WNBA legends; the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi (set on August 10, 2006 against Houston) and Aussie Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm (versus Washington on July 24, 2007).

A layup with 1:22 remaining in the contest tied the record as San Antonio fans at the AT&T Center kept cheering for her to get the ball. With 58 seconds left, she would surpass the record to a roar of approval from the 6,500 fans in attendance. In the second half, Tulsa outscored San Antonio by a 59-22 mark Ironically, one of her former teammates from the Miami Hurricanes was donning the silver and black of the Silver Starz; Shenise Johnson. Together at Miami, they were nicknamed “Fire and Ice”.

From the field, she was 17 for 28, while she accumulated a WNBA record eight three-pointers in the game. One of her three pointers was scored over 6’2” Shameka Christon (eight inches taller than Williams) with 1.9 seconds in the third quarter. After the game, her teammates were asking her to autograph the final box scores of the game before taking a group photo to commemorate the record breaking event.

Of note, Williams once had a better performance; a 55-point effort in high school in which she did not score any three-pointers, while accumulating the points in only three quarters.

Should Williams continue to post such strong performances, she could emerge as the steal of the 2012 WNBA Draft. With disciplinary problems in high school and at the NCAA level with the Miami Hurricanes (where she scored 2,148 career points), her draft stock slipped, leaving her available for Tulsa to claim in the second round.

The 51-point performance may be the first step in redeeming herself while staking a claim as part of the next generation of WNBA stars. Joining her on the rebuilding Shock is third overall pick in the 2013 Draft, Skylar Diggins. Having carved her legend at Notre Dame, she would add 20 points in the victory at San Antonio, providing Shock fans with hope for the future. Should anyone break Williams’ record one day, it could be the first pick of the 2013 Draft, center Brittany Griner.

Although Wililams played fewer games in 2013, she managed to start more of them. Compared to her rookie campaign, she averaged more minutes per game (22.7 compared to 20.3), while her point totals increased. Improvement was also shown in three specific percentages: field goal, free throw and three point, respectively.

Should the record one day fall, Williams can only hope it is not at the AT&T Center. Of note, it is the most points ever scored in the history of the arena, which also houses the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. With the Shock looking to recapture the championship years from their years based in Detroit, a focused Williams may become a key piece of the rebuilding puzzle.