Lea B. Olsen’s remarks next week at the 34th Annual Minnesota Girls and Women in Sports Day almost certainly will make mention of her longtime mentor, the man after whom the award she will receive is named.
On February 5 at the Minnesota History Center, Olsen will be the first Black woman to receive the Kwame McDonald Media Award. The noontime ceremony will honor the Minneapolis native among 17 individuals, groups and programs for their promotion and advancement of girls’ and women’s sports.
“When I saw that the award was the Kwame McDonald Award, that moved me to tears a little bit,” Olsen said of the late MSR senior writer, who decades ago set the high standard for women’s sports coverage. The annual award was renamed in his honor after his death in 2011.
She first met McDonald during her Gopher playing days (1988-90). “I didn’t know who he was then,” Olsen recalled. “He introduced himself [and] said, ‘I would like to help you in any way that I can.’” From then on until his death, McDonald did just that.
“Throughout the years we saw each other at different events,” Olsen continued on McDonald. “What he did was [that he] provided so much guidance, information, and he was very helpful when I was starting in broadcasting, what it looked like and what I needed. He made me realize that I can do the same thing he was doing.”
Arguably the Twin Cities’ dean of Black female broadcasters, Olsen, a South High and University of Minnesota grad, begins this summer her 10th season as Minnesota Lynx color analyst. For five seasons she has worked on ESPN’s WNBA broadcasts. She also is a longtime Timberwolves television broadcast team member as well as a familiar fixture each March during the state girls’ high school basketball tournament telecasts.
Olsen has been a positive example for other females of color who might want to one day work in media. “I think it is so important to see someone that looks like us,” Olsen declared.
“I think it is critical that a lot of…young girls have seen me broadcasting or speaking in the community, and they, too, can do it because I am doing it.”
Olsen also saw how McDonald advocated for female athletics, especially athletes of color. She founded her nonprofit Rethink the Win Foundation in 2016, which helps young athletes of both genders to have a positive experience in sports.
“I really didn’t think of it thoughtfully that way,” Olsen stated. “As soon as I got into it, because I have a presence in the community…people [were] asking me to come into schools and speak.
“I understand better that I not only wanted to serve the community,” she said, “but there was a certain responsibility to serve the community as well. That’s why the Kwame [award] is so important, because I didn’t have to ask [him] to help me—he just helped me.”
Olsen expects to be a little emotional at the Minnesota History Center next Wednesday when she receives the McDonald Media Award. “It definitely put Kwame back in my life again,” she said.
“It made me think of him more, to remember him and how much he did for all of us. It also made me thankful that I have a job and a career that I love. It is such a blessing. I’m hopeful that I have many more years being in this work, inspiring young women and young girls of color.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.