We're kicking off National Girls and Women in Sports Day by sharing stories from females in the HYLETE community who have pursued athletics to better themselves and motivate others to take on their athletic goals. Follow us as we feature empowering females throughout the month of February.

The GRACEDBYGRIT foundation has made it their mission to develop a new generation of female leaders through programs focused on building GRIT with events, coaching, mentorship, and a collegiate athletics scholarship fund. HYLETE is proud to support the GRACEDBYGRIT foundation by donating 1% of all women's apparel sales to help fund the scholarships awarded to collegiate female athletes. In 2021, they are introducing a new Mentorship Program that provides a place for female athletes to support one another on their athletic and academic journey. 2021 will also see two $5,000 scholarships awarded to collegiate female athletes who have demonstrated GRIT by overcoming obstacles and adversity in their personal lives.

With scholarship applications opening up soon, we sat down with the 2020 GRACEDBYGRITfoundation scholarship winner, Mariana Akins. Find out why she is a true example of what it means to be GRACEDBYGRIT.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your athletic career? What sport do youplay?

My name is Mariana Akins, a nineteen-year-old first-year at TCU. I am a loyal, die-hard soccer player and have been playing since I was five years old. I got into soccer only because my older sister played, and my competitive adolescent spirit wanted to copy everything she did. I started out in recreational soccer until they asked me to play competitively at San Diego Soccer Club.Eventually, I moved up to San Diego Surf Soccer Club and now I'm playing Division I collegiate soccer. I couldn't be happier playing the same sport I grew up with that adapted and changed, just like I did.

What do you love most about being an athlete?

Being an athlete comes with hard times such as injury, limited playing time, and loss. Sometimes I hate losing more than I love winning. However, being an athlete also introduced me into a community of people I'll know for the rest of my life. I didn't make friends; I made a family, and being able to share every bruise, goal, and triumph with my family makes the whole athlete experience insurmountable.

How would you define Grit?

Grit is using what some may call obstacles or unpleasant experiences as fuel to put your whole foot on the gas and keep driving to the person you know in your heart you want to be. Grit isunderstanding where you're going is more important than where you've been and doing everything in your power to get there.

What have been some of your "Gritty" moments? How did you overcome them?

My gritty moments came from uncertainties I faced in my single-parent household and struggling with my mental health and body dysmorphia. I overworked in every aspect of my life to make up for the parts of me that were still tainted, and it took me a long time to realize the faults of my parents were not my own and to be confident in my own skin. Maintaining happiness is easier said than done, and for a long time, I masked my depression. Soccer was an outlet for me to regain parts of me I had lost, and I am proud to say I am proud of the person I have become.

What did winning the 2020 GRACEDBYGRIT Scholarship mean to you?

I got emotional when the GRACEDBYGRIT Foundation announced I was their scholarship recipient. I'm not one to be acknowledged for my past difficulties, and I'm not used to expressing everything I've gone through. When I received the scholarship, it meant that there were people who understand how hard I've worked and my determined mindset to make something great out of myself. It was a heartwarming and empowering moment.

How did participating in sports growing up play an important role in your life?

My sport has been the most stable variable in my life. Soccer has been with me through everything. Teams may grow and change, family may come and go, but soccer has always been there. Running with the ball between my feet has been my self-induced therapy, per se, and I've poured every ounce of my being into my sport because being on the field makes me proud of who I am.

How have sports played an important role in who you've become today?

Soccer has taught me compassion, leadership, and respect. It has taught me compassion by putting myself in situations where I choose to be the bigger person and cooperate well with others. It has taught me leadership by being the voice for an entire group of people. I've had to listen to constructive criticism and lead by example. Respect came with the understanding that even though I want to win, so do the girls I play against. They also work hard and put blood, sweat, and tears into soccer. Despite being on opposing teams, we are the same people who love the same sport.

How has your involvement in sports translated to other aspects of your life?

My involvement in sports has taught me hard work and cooperation, which I brought into the classroom. Because of my good grades and my athletics, I can be in a private Division I university that will help set me up to have a fruitful career. Soccer has made me bold in my actions and decisions because I've experienced the downsides of the game. You never know how much you love winning until you lose a game or two, but I've learned more in games I've lost than the ones I've won. I can say the same about the failures I've experienced in day-to-day life: they only make me stronger.

Have you had female mentors in sports?

My sister is four years older than me, so I could watch her play soccer before she inspired me to play. Once she hit high school, she ventured into track and cross-country, and the rest is history. She set records running at UPenn and now runs professionally at Brooks. Her work ethic, drive, and mentality motivates me to give my all when I'm on the pitch and she has and always will be my female mentor in sports.

What does mentorship mean to you?

Personally, I believe mentorship is helping someone become a better athlete by giving advice, encouragement, and inspiration to perform well for long periods of time. Mentors last many seasons and make you a better athlete. Mentors help you evolve and can be someone you can always reach out to. They can be a family member, coach, counselor, sibling, or teammate. To me, the best mentors are the ones with the most experiences and the ones you can relate to. I was lucky enough to grow up with my mentor… and constantly borrow her clothes.

What does mental health mean to you?

Mental health is the most important health aspect for an athlete because if it compromises the cerebral with anxiety or depression, motivation to do anything else dwindles. I've had coaches, teachers, peers, and family negatively affect my mental health, and it was up to me to figure out what motivates me and what makes me happy so I can continue to excel in the sport I love. Good mental health breeds outstanding athletes.

What advice do you have for other collegiate female athletes who are pursuing sports?

My advice for other collegiate female athletes is to work hard now and give your sport everything you have because one day you won't be able to play your sport as well as you can now. If you put in the work, success will come. The last thing you want to do is look back and regret not trying your best.

How can involvement in sports help female athletes realize their full potential?

Involvement in sports can help females find their voice and inspire others. By being part of the team and playing in front of an audience, players will gain confidence and leadership skills they can carry to other avenues in their life. Once female athletes put in the work and see the results on the field or court, it'll inspire them to see how hard work can translate in other endeavors.

How have the events of this year impacted your training?

The events of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the global civil rights movement have directly affected my first year as a collegiate athlete. The team got tested three times a week, we must wear masks whenever we leave our dorms, we cannot congregate as a team or with friends, we can't go to class in person, and we also have to go into the locker room in separate groups. We also had to cope with national race crises that still plague our country and have done our part as a team to further educate ourselves and advocate for racial equity and justice. Last year wasn't easy for anyone, but I'm glad I could still be on campus and play soccer.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

In five years, I hope to see myself graduating or still continuing my education at law school. I would love to still be playing soccer on the side with some of my old teammates. I would like to start a nonprofit for young female athletes who struggle to pay for competitive or collegiate sports that also provides free counselors to help with the mental side of their sport as well. Additionally, it has always been a goal of mine to be an author and even dwell in screenwriting in the future. God-willing, I will have a footstone set in place to appeal to my creative endeavors and give back to the community and sport that has blessed me so much.

To learn more about the GRACEDBYGRIT foundation, the Mentorship Program, and Scholarship Fund visitGRACEDBYGRITFoundation.org.