First of a three-part series
A trailblazer is a pioneer, someone who’s willing to take risks and blaze a new path for others to follow. This three-part series will feature several Black trailblazers in sports.
Lea B. Olsen clearly is the dean of Twin Cities Black sportscasters. She is “the face” of state high school basketball tournaments and a longtime familiar voice on Minnesota Lynx and Timberwolves broadcasts.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Lea got into sports late as a teenager, playing basketball in her junior year at South High School. She began her college playing career at then-Minneapolis Community College and finished it at the University of Minnesota (1988-90), where she also studied journalism with hopes of one day becoming a talk show host.
She did try out on a national talk show search and finished as a finalist. Lea propelled that into a longtime successful sports journalism career rarely seen locally by a Black woman.
“I’m so, so happy I had the opportunity to do the work I want to do, and that I love so much,” said the sports broadcaster, entrepreneur, mother and public speaker. “I never really knew where it would take me or how long I would stay in it. I didn’t have a plan.”
Lea has worked for NBC Sports Network and ESPN on a national basis, and as a game analyst for the Lynx and sideline reporter for the Timberwolves. Each March she lends her voice and expertise during Minnesota boys’ and girls’ high school basketball tournaments.
“When I walk into gyms in Minneapolis,” Lea continues, “every gym has a history to me. South High because I played there. North High always [has been] a tough place to win.
“Every school gym has that history for me… There tend to be some memories, people I know. I think that’s why I enjoy the job so much. It is my hometown.”
She’s also a media trailblazer, something that Lea said she never imagined.
ESPN’s LaChina Robinson, according to Lea, once told her, “‘I want to thank you for being a pioneer, for creating this space for Black female broadcasters.’ I really appreciated the fact that she considered me one of the pioneers that she looked up at. You do realize that you need to see these faces that look like you.
“I hope that I have helped the younger generation coming through who want to get into this career to see it’s open to them, that they belong there as much as anyone else does.”
On being “the face” on local sports broadcasts, a role not often afforded to people of color locally or nationally, “What an honor that when people turn on the TV they expect to see you there. I’m very thankful for that.”
Over the years, she has been a tireless advocate for women in the media, has served on various boards, mentored University of Minnesota Black athletes, and once moderated a civil rights discussion with the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis.
Lea founded Rethink the Win in 2015, an organization dedicated to promote fun in youth sports as well as teaching them how to apply to life lessons learned from sports. A longtime advocate for youth in sports, especially youth of color, “It is a natural fit in all what I do,” she explained. “A natural extension of my career.
“It is really important that I got in front of young athletes to help them participate in sport, to make sure they learn more than just being an athlete,” Lea said. She and her husband are now empty nesters themselves with their two college-attending children away.
“I just say thank you for the support, for making it comfortable for me to have a nice career here locally,” said Lea. “It’s really not been easy to do, and I’m super proud and thankful to be able to carve it out for myself.
“To our community,” she concluded, “thank you so much for all the support you have given me over the years.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.