Naomi Osaka traded rallies, serves and empowering messages with girls in Los Angeles as part of a special kickoff to her Play Academy initiative on April 14.
First launched in Tokyo in 2020, Play Academy with Naomi Osaka (Play Academy) was created through a partnership with the multiple Grand Slam champion, Nike and Laureus Sport for Good. The program has since expanded to three other sites, including LA, where it provided grants to four grassroots organizations in early 2022, with the aim to change girls’ lives through play and sport.
Thursday’s action-packed evening was one to remember for 45 girls from LA-based organizations Beat the Streets, First Break Academy, Kids Enjoy Exercise Now (KEEN) and Pete Brown Jr. Tennis Program. Participants rotated across four activity stations that incorporated fun tennis and wrestling drills unique to each grantee, all while emphasizing life skills such as the importance of teamwork and strong values. And they experienced it all alongside their female role model in Naomi Osaka, American tennis star Frances Tiafoe and Olympic legend and Laureus Academy member Michael Johnson.
“I remember picking up a racket for the first time when I was 3 years old, and it changed my life,” said Naomi Osaka. “I grew and learned so much through tennis. But I also realize not every girl has the same opportunities I’ve had. Around the world, and even here in LA, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys. Some girls, especially from underrepresented communities, never even get a chance in the first place.”
“I hope with Play Academy, we can change that. I want to level the playing field by increasing girls’ access and participation in sport and play. I want them to be active and healthy, but also have positive experiences, to feel confident and inspired as they grow up and try to find their own place in a big world.”
– Naomi Osaka
The evening wrapped up with a question-and-answer session between the tennis star and the girls, who ranged from 10-14 years old. From topics including her early days in tennis and her current career, Naomi Osaka passed on words of wisdom from her own experiences that she hoped the girls will find helpful in years to one.
“Our KEEN Los Angeles girls were so excited to be included in this Play Academy with Naomi Osaka event,” said Suzanne Philips, Executive Director at KEEN Los Angeles. “The girls were so happy to have the chance to meet new friends, have a special opportunity to engage in activities with Naomi and be a part of a program that supports all girls in sports. Including girls of every ability is a vital part of our programming, and we are grateful to Naomi and her team for bringing KEEN on board.”
Hosted at First Break Academy in Carson, the event was the first unique gathering with Naomi Osaka, Play Academy grantees and corporate supporters.
Olympic sprint champion and Laureus Academy Member Michael Johnson said: “Girls face different barriers than boys when it comes to accessing sport and play, and they miss out on so much that it can bring in their lives. As Laureus, we devote a huge amount of time to trying to remove those barriers and level the playing field. Naomi Osaka understands those barriers in this world, and she also understands about the power of sport in one’s life. It’s amazing to see her give back to girls in communities close to her heart and we are very happy to be working with her.”
Since its launch in Tokyo in 2020, Play Academy has also expanded to two other sites near and dear to Naomi’s heart — Haiti where her father is from and her birthplace Osaka, Japan. The program has provided grants and capacity-building training for community sports organizations and emphasizes fun, positive play experiences and coaches who are trained in gender-inclusivity.
In total, Play Academy is funding 10 organizations across LA, Haiti and Tokyo, and is currently seeking expressions of interests in Osaka.