Sarah Spain, Lake Forest High School Class of 1998, took the stage in the Raymond Moore Auditorium last Friday with fellow Wall of Fame recipient, Matt Grevers. Grevers, an Olympian swimmer, clearly excels in one specified area that has brought him to prominence–swimming. Sarah, on the other hand, is not nuanced specifically in one skill, but rather has an eclectic, wide-ranging skill set that has been omnipresent her entire life. She referenced the superlative she was voted as her senior year at LFHS- “Senior Superlative”– which means she was voted for the most superlatives, but didn’t receive enough votes in any particular category in order to win one. This breadth of talent was also present in her track career: she didn’t specialize in one event, but was talented at multiple, so she decided to participate in the heptathlon.
Spain left Lake Forest High School behind to study and be a heptathlete at Cornell University in New York. She chose to major in English at the prestigious Ivy League institution, where she also graduated in the top 15% of her class. After college, she moved to Los Angeles to and do improv and stand-up comedy and pursue her then dream of being a comedian on Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t until was her mid-twenties when she went to an audition in which she had to read the part of a sportscaster that the casting agent told her she had a natural knack for the duty. Spain then began to put the pieces together. She used her English degree from Cornell alongside her comedy and improv background coalesced with her love of sports to create her dream job–the one she has excelled at for 11 years and counting.
Since that fateful, serendipitous audition, Spain has become a trailblazer for women in sports journalism. “When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of women in sports writing or reporting, so I watched and read about sports but never thought that’s what I wanted to do because I wasn’t exposed to it. There used to be an occasional anchor who was hot and bubbly, but that’s not me,” she explained. LFHS also didn’t offer a journalism class when Spain attended the school, so when she came to speak to one of the journalism classes, she gushed, “They didn’t have this when I was here… I’m jealous!” In fact, Cornell didn’t even offer sports journalism classes when she was studying there, either. Because of this, Spain admits that she may have discovered her path earlier had she had the same journalistic opportunities students have today.
At the precipice of her sports journalism career, Sarah had moved back to Chicago to work at ESPN and was mostly covering local teams, such as the Bulls, Cubs, and Blackhawks. Nowadays, she is “national”, meaning she covers all sports. “I have to know all the teams, the seventh player off the bench–pretty much everything,” she explained. “It’s interesting because when I did local [news] I was scared of national [coverage] because you have to know everything about everything, but now that I’m national it’s harder to know the details about the local teams. It’s funny how that changes.” Spain has a radio show she hosts with another journalist weeknights for three hours, so it’s at that time when they get to choose what they discuss and, perhaps most importantly in today’s journalism world, how they discuss it. On the other hand, she also makes appearances on Around the Horn, an ESPN afternoon program where she is told beforehand what topics she will be discussing and prepares her opinions accordingly. Throughout the years, Spain has acquired a great deal of knowledge that she steadily employs to her advantage in the myriad unique situations in which she now finds herself as a sports reporter. “I’m not caught off guard as much anymore,” she explained, in reference to questions about certain players or coaches that she may have been unfamiliar with at the beginning of her career.
As far as being a female in sports journalism during the #MeToo and #TimesUp eras goes, Spain acknowledged that it was tough at the beginning, but has since grown better as she made a name for herself through her relentless work ethic and drive. “When I first moved here I didn’t really know anybody, so unfortunately I was not treated well early on,” Spain admitted. “I think in sports women are assumed to not know their stuff until they prove otherwise, and it’s the opposite for men.” Once, early on in her career, she was in the Blackhawks locker room when she heard an older, male reporter say to a colleague that she was, “probably sleeping with the players because [Spain] was getting better stories.” She also was once told that her “boobs were distracting,” but laughed it off as she told the story further, explicating, “Well, what did they want me to do, hang them up at the door and grab them on my way out?” She believes that her presence was mostly a problem for the older, male reporters that thought, “it was their male space” she was invading. But Sarah has a perfect retaliation: “There are always going to be guys that don’t give me the same respect as a male, but all I can do is be the best I can be so they have no choice but to respect me.” Throughout the entirety of her career, she has done just that and will continue to. “A lot of my success in life is because I’m extremely competitive; I want to be the best at everything,” she told me. Spain also firmly believes that the prevalence of women in sports journalism has helped the sexism problem in the industry. “Nowadays, you walk into a clubhouse and there are way more women than there used to be,” Sarah told me.
As a professional, Spain understands that with her status comes responsibility, and she has used her title for good by starting a charity called Hear the Cheers, which raises money for the Chicago Hearing Society to provide hearing aids to those who can’t afford them. “Hearing aids aren’t typically covered by insurance, and they can be $3,000 to $4,000,” she explained. “We do a month-long campaign every year to raise money and provide hearing aids for the kids whose families can’t pay for them on their own.”
When asked how much LFHS has changed since she graced the hallways twenty years ago, she responded with her dry sense of humor, “Well the weirdest part is that when people ask me that, I’m like, ‘Twenty years ago? I’m old.’” Jokes aside, Spain is mostly intrigued by how we learn now with the internet and its multitude of resources at our fingertips. “We had the internet, but not the way you guys do.” She advises our generation to take advantage of it, but still relish the relationship building that happens in high school. “The Parkland students and the way they have utilized social media… it’s so amazing that you guys can do that now and people your age are already doing pretty big things.”
As for her own ‘big’ things, Spain currently sits on the threshold of being one of the sports world’s foremost reporters and female influencers, which is a title that carries a significant amount of weight. But Spain is ready for the responsibility, perhaps because of her past–both as an accomplished athlete and a diligent student. “I’m hard-working and educated,” Spain added, which more than rationalizes her ascent in the cutthroat world of mass media. And with those habits–and perhaps because of them–she continues to make LFHS proud as they now boast her on their fabled Wall of Fame.