London, England - In December, 2015, Erin Blankenship and Laura Youngson had a late night phone conversation that would change their lives. “She called me about 3:00 in the morning because she knew I’d be the first person to say yes,” Blankenship continued, laughing, “she called with this project idea to have a football kick-about on Mt. Kilimanjaro.”
That late night phone call between Erin Blankenship and Laura Youngson led to the beginning of an incredibly inspiring movement now called the Equal Playing Field.
The two met in London in 2008 and have built a relationship on a shared passion to make a change in women's football. Blankenship was first friends with Youngson’s boyfriend and now husband. He explained to Blankenship, “oh man, I’m a little bit worried if I introduce the two of you, very similar drive.” Sure enough, he was right! “We’ve always been passionate about the same things particularly in sport. We were both oddballs, playing football, building teams and both being in love with the game and what it does for people all over the place.”
Blankenship moved from London soon after they met and their long-distance friendship and partnership in this journey is maintained by that “similar drive.”. While both working all over the world, they would find overlaps in their travels and make the most of them. “She’d fly in from Abu Dahbi, I would come in from Afghanistan...we’d have 48 hours and go to dinner, play a scrimmage, and drive her husband crazy,” Blankenship remarked.
Roughly a year and a half later in June 2017, Blankenship and Youngson organized and led 64 lady footballers, coaches and referees on the strenuous hike up to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Along the way they lost a few players to altitude sickness, but finished as proudly as ever imagined. The group supported one another from the best moments of success and progress through the worst instances of altitude sickness and exhaustion. They all felt the power of this movement and the teamwork and dedication everyone put into it.
After reaching the highest point of the climb, they descended to a crater with enough room to set up a 90 meter by 45 meter FIFA regulation-sized field for competition. The women on the field represented over 24 countries, 6 continents and ages ranging from 15-55 years old. Blankenship acknowledged that this group was “an amazing global representation.” Despite great diversity of culture, ethnicity and age, every single person involved had the same goal: to challenge gender inequality and promote women’s football around the world.
The idea to recruit a group of female players to break the record for the highest altitude game of football ever played, started as a way to reach a broader audience about the need to improve the game of soccer for women. Today, that effort has transitioned into something far greater.
Following the powerful and successful impact of the altitude football match, the EPF team created the Altitude Football Project with the purpose of supporting women’s soccer programs globally. Thus far, they have committed to hosting clinics in 17 countries, including Tanzania, South Africa, Colombia and Jordan.
The success of the audacious original high altitude goal, and now the growth of the program, reflects Blankenship and Youngson’s consistent desire to push limits within the game. Blankenship reflects, “the momentum continued to grow with every woman who signed on. It was this amazing, bizarre phenomenon...Anyone we spoke to about it was like absolutely, of course we want to do this to prove that women deserve an equal shot at being recognized.” She was encouraged by the fact that they really, “didn’t have to explain it to anybody.”
They have worked vigorously to locate clubs and girls programs across the globe that need support with funding, organization, clinic coaching and/or more reliable access to the game at a competitive level. This has given players from the hike an opportunity to share their love of the game and passion for making women’s soccer players feel empowered and self-confident.
The Equal Playing Field movement strives to give girls across the globe the ability to display their hard work and fearless determination. Blankenship explains, “We try to combine the development of football as a sport with these different bodies that focus on sport for development. If we can find in these sport for development clinics an opportunity for a 12 year old refugee to get invited into an actual training program where she’s getting an opportunity to truly grow, then everybody wins. We really wanted to give them an opportunity to amplify their work.”
This movement started with the mantra of “Opportunity. Equality. Respect. Nothing more, nothing less.” Blankenship, Youngson and the team have continued to push the status quo. As Blankenship put it, “the take-away is two fold: the challenges are there, but they are meant to be overcome.”
In discussions reported after the climb, many of the girls expressed a feeling of elation and a deeper grounding in the beliefs of their ability to break boundaries and make change. They became, as Blankenship shared, “excited about what used to so often isolate them.”
Watch their video here and follow along with this amazing group of women as they move through their inspirational journey.
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