How a ping-pong game helped end the Cold War.
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The beginning of the end of Cold War tensions between the United States and China came from the unlikeliest of places: a game of table tennis.

The 1971 event would come to be known as "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" and is credited with starting the process of thawing the long-frozen relations between the two countries.

Photo by White House Photo Office/Wikimedia Commons.


Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China had been chilly since 1949, when communist leader Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China. After all, the Red Scare was in full swing back home, so this communist revolution was considered by the U.S. to be the "fall" of mainland China to communism. Over the years, Cold War propaganda and trade embargoes had only made things worse.

The estrangement took its toll on both countries, but by the 1970s, the stage had been set for someone to extend the first hand. The Chinese alliance with Russia was also strained by then, so President Richard Nixon considered it one of his top priorities to mend the U.S. relationship with the Asian giant.

That’s when, at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, the Chinese national team invited the U.S. team to play some games of ping-pong in Beijing.

And when the U.S. accepted, those 15 Americans became the first Americans to visit the People’s Republic of China in 22 years, doing what even politicians and diplomats had failed to do.

While the invitation to play table tennis appeared seemingly random, it was anything but.

Chinese and U.S. teams prepare to play table tennis in 1971. Photo via U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

It was actually orchestrated by the Chinese government. At the time, an invitation from the Chinese team to American table tennis player Glenn Cowan to board their bus was interpreted as a gesture of goodwill, but the offer to catch a ride to the tournament was a deliberate action.

The Chinese team’s star player, Zhuang Zedong, gave Cowan a gift — a silk-screened picture of the Huangshan mountain range. Cowan returned the favor the following day, giving Zhuang a shirt bearing a peace sign and the Beatles’ lyrics "Let it be."

The Chinese government had decided to use ping-pong as the "perfect instrument of Communist propaganda," writes historian Nicholas Griffin in his book, "Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World."

This image — countries who had long been enemies coming together over a game of ping-pong — was the first sign that the tide might be turning.

Along with the Americans, the Chinese also invited select press to cover the table tennis games.

For Nixon, who wanted to end the war in Vietnam and was shortly up for re-election, it was the perfect opportunity to build on the Chinese government’s gesture and try to reframe the relationship between the two countries.

"I was as surprised as I was pleased," Nixon later wrote in his memoirs. "I had never expected that the China initiative would come to fruition in the form of a ping-pong team."

Cartoon of Nixon and Mao Zedong playing ping-pong. Photo via dbking/Flickr.

The U.S. players were not actually all that great at table tennis. The Chinese team, on the other hand, was one of the best in the world. But instead of crushing their competition during the exhibition games played during the trip, the Chinese team embodied the stated slogan of the tournament: "Friendship First, Competition Second."

In line with that theme, the Chinese players even let the Americans win a few games. You know, for sportsmanship.

Those games of table tennis helped change U.S. perceptions of the Chinese and made Nixon's historic visit to China the following year possible.

Even before the American table tennis players had finished their China trip, Nixon announced he planned to ease travel bans and trade embargoes with the country. And when he flew to China in February of 1972, Nixon became the first U.S. president in history to step foot on the Chinese mainland. While there, he met with Zhou Enlai, premier of the People's Republic, and Chairman Mao.

Years later, Nixon recalled the meeting, writing that the Chinese leaders "took particular delight in reminding me that an exchange of ping-pong teams had initiated a breakthrough in our relations. They seemed to enjoy the method used to achieve the result almost as much as the result itself."

US and China ping-pong players mark the 30th anniversary of the 1971 Beijing match. Photo via U.S. Department of State Archive.

Sometimes an olive branch can come from the unlikeliest of places.

No one could have predicted that something as simple as ping-pong would play a role in ending a decades-long war. But sports have the power to connect people and help them overcome rifts that are seemingly impossible to breach.

That’s evident during this year’s Winter Olympics, too. North Korea and South Korea, two countries with a very strained relationship, have agreed to march united under one flag during the Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 9, as well as field a joint women’s hockey team.

It’s still a delicate balance and time will only tell how this cooperation will affect the overall relations between the countries. But it’s yet another example of the way sports can help people connect when nothing else can.

This story was produced as part of a campaign called "17 Days" with DICK'S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

It's one thing to see a little kid skateboarding. It's another to see a stereotype-defying little girl skateboarding. And it's entirely another to see Paige Tobin.

Paige is a 6-year-old skateboarding wonder from Australia. A recent video of her dropping into a 12-foot bowl on her has gone viral, both for the feat itself and for the style with which she does it. Decked out in a pink party dress, a leopard-print helmet, and rainbow socks, she looks nothing like you'd expect a skater dropping into a 12-foot bowl to look. And yet, here she is, blowing people's minds all over the place.

For those who may not fully appreciate the impressiveness of this feat, here's some perspective. My adrenaline junkie brother, who has been skateboarding since childhood and who races down rugged mountain faces on a bike for fun, shared this video and commented, "If I dropped in to a bowl twice as deep as my age it would be my first and last time doing so...this fearless kid has a bright future!"

It's scarier than it looks, and it looks pretty darn scary.

Paige doesn't always dress like a princess when she skates, not that it matters. Her talent and skill with the board are what gets people's attention. (The rainbow socks are kind of her signature, however.)

Her Instagram feed is filled with photos and videos of her skateboarding and surfing, and the body coordination she's gained at such a young age is truly something.

Here she was at three years old:

And here she is at age four:


So, if she dropped into a 6-foot bowl at age three and a 12-foot bowl at age six—is there such a thing as an 18-foot bowl for her to tackle when she's nine?

Paige clearly enjoys skating and has high ambitions in the skating world. "I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to be a pro skater," she told Power of Positivity when she was five. She already seems to be well on her way toward that goal.

How did she get so good? Well, Paige's mom gave her a skateboard when she wasn't even preschool age yet, and she loved it. Her mom got her lessons, and she's spent the past three years skating almost daily. She practices at local skate parks and competes in local competitions.

She also naturally has her fair share of spills, some of which you can see on her Instagram channel. Falling is part of the sport—you can't learn if you don't fall. Conquering the fear of falling is the key, and the thing that's hardest for most people to get over.

Perhaps Paige started too young to let fear override her desire to skate. Perhaps she's been taught to manage her fears, or maybe she's just naturally less afraid than other people. Or maybe there's something magical about the rainbow socks. Whatever it is, it's clear that this girl doesn't let fear get in the way of her doing what she wants to do. An admirable quality in anyone, but particularly striking to see in someone so young.

Way to go, Paige. Your perseverance and courage are inspiring, as is your unique fashion sense. Can't wait to see what you do next.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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