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Walsh takes sports passion from Gulf High to ESPN

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:08 AM

When John and Wendy Walsh had their first child, Sara, there was little choice about what hobbies Sara would be interested in. John was a certified sports nut, and it rubbed off on his daughter. And that environment led Sara from high school star all the way to ESPN anchor.

As a child, while other girls her age were playing with dolls, Sara was watching whatever sports her parents would put on the television. On Friday nights, Sara would walk across the street with her father to Gulf High School's Des Little Stadium and take in a high school football game.

Sara was hooked on sports.

"That's all our household ever was." Walsh said. "That's all we ever did. All my neighbors were boys. So I didn't play with any girls. There were no Barbies. There were no dolls. It was all soccer balls and baseballs. I literally grew up that way, just doing whatever the guys were doing."

Her activities as a youth paid off. When she entered Gulf as a student years later, Sara (a 1996 graduate) was an accomplished athlete. She excelled in volleyball, soccer, and track.

Gulf girls soccer coach Shari McFarlane, who coached Walsh in volleyball and soccer, has fond memories of the student-athlete.

"Sara was such a coachable athlete." McFarlane said. "She was actually harder on herself than I ever was. She was a perfectionist. Sara was an all-conference player, but more than that, she was just an awesome person. She still is. The one thing I appreciate is, she has always kept in touch with me throughout her career.

"I remember her telling me, 'I'm going to be on ESPN one day,' so it's no surprise to me that she's accomplishing her goals. As a coach, I'm able to point to her and show my girls what hard work will do for you and reaching your goals."

Walsh's high school athletic career was so impressive that despite missing her junior season with a torn ACL, she received a soccer scholarship to the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Walsh, ever ambitious, wanted to be a multiple sport athlete in college too, but soon discovered that college athletics was a 12-month job for each sport, so she gave up track to concentrate on soccer full time. Walsh enjoyed an illustrious career for the Ospreys and she still holds the school record for goals and points in a game.

From college, Walsh moved toward her goal of becoming a broadcaster. After stops in Macon, Ga. and Nashville, Tenn., Walsh moved to Washington, D.C., where she covered the Redskins for WUSA-TV for four seasons. In 2010, Walsh decided to shoot for the stars.

She sent her tape and résumé to ESPN and landed a job. In nearly two years at the Bristol, Conn., compound, Walsh has seen her career take off. She's hosted "SportsCenter," "SportsNation," "First Take" and "NFL Live" among other programs as her role at ESPN continues to grow.

Sitting next to NFL legends like Herm Edwards and Jerry Rice on the set of "NFL Live" can be a bit intimidating, but it was another former football player set who provided Walsh with endless inspiration, and a friendship to boot.

Eric LeGrand, a football player for Rutgers University, was injured in a 2010 game and paralyzed from the neck down. LeGrand was a guest of ESPN on "SportsCenter," where Walsh interviewed him on the set and he taught her a valuable life lesson.

"Interviewing Eric LeGrand was a life-changing moment for me." Walsh said. "Here's a guy that's been dealt a terrible blow in life and yet I've never met anyone more upbeat, more encouraging and more inspiring. It puts all the little things in life we complain about in perspective real fast.

"When I'm having a bad day, I think about my problems and realize here's this incredible athlete fighting every day for the ability to be able to sit up for a few minutes. We interview so many star athletes, but nobody I've met shines brighter than that guy. He's also going to be up in Bristol taking my job someday, and I would love it."

Thriving as a female in a male-dominated career can be difficult. Women sports broadcasters are usually held to a different standard, criticized more often, and judged more on their appearance than their knowledge. All you have to do is search Walsh's name on the Internet to find legions of male fans with shrines of pictures of her. But Walsh is undeterred by these types of challenges.

"When it comes to being held to different standards, I do think you're judged more harshly (as a female), but I've never had a problem with proving myself." Walsh said. "The looks aspect is something I refuse to give any credence to. It's not my thing and it never will be. Maybe that will hurt me career-wise, but when I was an athlete I always cared more about scoring goals than how I looked doing it."

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