Many of the groups involved in the decade-long process that brought the 2018 NCAA Women's Final Four to Columbus — and, this week, the sizable task of hosting the event — have something in common: They're overseen by women.

Among the key players who helped secure and plan the basketball championship: Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission; Kim Jacobs, chief of the Columbus Division of Police; and Elaine Roberts, head of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority (who left the position in December).

Their leadership wasn't lost on Michelle Perry, director of the local organizing committee for the event and a former NCAA administrator.    

"As we were putting together our bid team ... we started to identify all these organizations that were going to be really important in the execution of this event and they were being led by women," said Perry.  She remembered thinking, "We're not only going to get this event, but we're going to use all these same people to widen our circle and execute what we hope is the best Women's Final Four in history — using girl power fueled by girl power."

The annual Women's Final Four, to be sure, serves as a showcase for women in sports, specifically the best college women's basketball teams in the country and their players.

At the same time, it helps raise the profile of the host city, with Columbus expected to reap an estimated $20 million in visitor spending as well as longer-term tourism benefits.

But organizers also emphasize a crucial, if less tangible, mission of the event, one that rings especially important in the country's current political and social climate. The Women's Final Four, they say, aims to champion female empowerment.

Which is why the Final Four festivities — set to kick off Thursday and run through the national championship game on Sunday — will celebrate the feats of women on the hardwood and beyond. As part of the long weekend, organizers will recognize female leaders in the community and reinforce the work that still needs to be done in the battle for gender equality in sports and elsewhere.

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"It's really an opportunity to elevate and shine the spotlight on girls and women in sports and include our community," Logan said.

The event, Perry said, has allowed the sports commission to engage people and organizations that it wouldn't typically target.

For example, the commission has partnered with the Girl Scouts of America, the YWCA and Women for Economic and Leadership Development. As part of the weekend programming, panelists will discuss marketing, health and fitness and professional development while several key national groups host annual meetings (Women's Basketball Coaches Association) and women's summits (National Association of Sports Commissions) in Columbus.

Also in conjunction with the Women's Final Four, the nonprofit Ruling Our Experiences, based in Columbus, will release the findings of a national study involving 11,000 girls.

Logan relishes seeing so many women's groups coming together in support of the event. After all, she wasn't afforded the opportunity to play sports as a girl, having graduated from high school in 1973, just as Title IX, the educational amendment prohibiting discrimination based on sex in school activities, was being implemented.

"I never dreamed that there would be a career in sports," Logan said, "but I'm that perfect example of the threshold of a defining moment when girls and women got so many opportunities to do these things."

It's also what motivated her to spend a decade working to attract the Women's Final Four to the city. "It's our North Star," she said.

Mothers and daughters and grandmothers and grandchildren, she noted, will attend the festivities together. Whole basketball teams — the women's team at Ohio Dominican University, for one, raised the money to buy game tickets — are planning to attend, as are many former female athletes from a range of sports.

Shannon Ginther, wife of Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, can't wait to take their 7-year-old daughter to the games, scheduled for Friday and Sunday at Nationwide Arena.

Mrs. Ginther said she's eager to expose Clara to the joys of what hard work can yield but also looks forward to introducing her to female business leaders and underscoring the power her daughter possesses as a girl. 

As chairwoman of the Columbus Women's Commission — which focuses on the economic empowerment of women through equal pay, housing and other issues — Mrs. Ginther will speak during the panel discussion "The Fierce Urgency of Now."

"I want to empower young women to step up in leadership," she said. "The Final Four will help demonstrate what I already know to be true: that women can do anything — if you work hard, if you ask for the right resources, if you keep going even when there are challenges."

In that spirit, The Dispatch recently caught up with five of the best-ever female athletes with ties to central Ohio — to ask them about their experiences in sports and the ways they seek to inspire younger generations of women and girls.

Stephanie Hightower, 59, track

Hightower's illustrious track-and-field career almost didn't play out at Ohio State University.

The native of Louisville, Kentucky, had planned to attend Tennessee State University in Nashville — until she heard from Woody Hayes.

"He said, 'No, you have to come to Ohio State,'" said Hightower, whose uncle Paul Warfield had played for the legendary football coach. "When Woody Hayes calls you, you come."

From 1977 to 1980, Hightower was a four-time All-American. She easily qualified for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow but never participated because the United States, in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, boycotted those games.

Since graduating from Ohio State in 1981, Hightower has called Columbus home. She is a former president of the Columbus Board of Education and, in 2011, became the first woman to lead the Columbus Urban League, a job she still holds.

"It's such a sports-centric city," said Hightower, a mother of one adult son. "Women in sports are valued. That's why I stayed in Columbus. I had built a reputation as an athlete, and I was able to leverage that."

When she meets young females through her work and other avenues, Hightower said, she often tries to encourage them to consider playing sports.

"Our young girls can't be what they can't see, especially girls in the urban core and girls of color. We have to be out in the community and show them the value of being in sports."

It's also important, she said, to expose young women to sports-related careers and to keep battling to create and maintain leadership roles for females in athletics — as coaches, board executives, team general managers and so on — where the gender gap remains substantial.

Still, she said, she is amazed by the progress of women in sports, especially compared with her time at Ohio State, when women's teams might have had just one uniform and traveled less luxuriously than their male counterparts.

"It's definitely a huge shift from where we were," she said. "I am jealous — I'm not going to lie."

Meg Mallon, 54, golf

In 1981, when she told fellow freshmen at an OSU orientation that she is from the State Up North, Mallon was booed.

"I thought to myself, 'What did I get myself into?'" recalled Mallon, whose family lived in Birmingham, Michigan.

She had arrived at Ohio State as a walk-on to the women's golf team.

Four years later, Mallon left Columbus as one of the university's most decorated golfers, having led the Buckeyes to three Big Ten titles from 1983 to 1985. She then spent the next 23 years on the LPGA Tour — winning 18 titles, including four major championships. In September, she was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Mallon — who with her longtime partner, fellow Hall of Fame golfer Beth Daniel, splits her time between homes in Michigan and Florida — said she’s fortunate to have benefited from Title IX.

"I was part of the first generation of girls who didn’t know what it was like to not have sports," she said.

Her mother, Mallon said, had to give up a tennis scholarship when she was younger to work in the family business — a story that helped Mallon better appreciate her freedom to compete at a high level in golf.

The 13 female founders of the LPGA, she said, would be pleasantly surprised to see how far the organization has come.

"It’s such a global game. We’ve seen the first time that a woman from Israel has qualified for the tour, and someone from Puerto Rico qualified."

Retired from the tour since 2010, Mallon now mentors young players through an LPGA program for rookies. She helps them deal with the strenuous travel schedule, caddie selection, even their swings.

"I might get a call saying, 'Hey I chipped in today,'" she said. "I love that part of it."

Katie Smith, 43, basketball

The Women's Final Four will rekindle plenty of memories for Smith.

As an Ohio State freshman in 1993, she played in the event in Atlanta, leading the Buckeyes to the championship game, which OSU lost by 2 to Texas Tech University.

This weekend, Smith will be a fixture Downtown, where, as the recently named head coach of the WNBA's New York Liberty, she will evaluate talent and promote the sport and, as an Upper Arlington resident, she will serve as ambassador for the Columbus area.

"Home is still Ohio," the Logan native said. "A lot of my friends are coming to Columbus (for the Women's Final Four). ... I'm excited to show off the city."

Smith views her time in Columbus as crucial to her success, not only as a Buckeye but also as a member of the American Basketball League's Columbus Quest in 1996-97 and 1997-98. She helped the Quest win championships each of the first two seasons before the league folded two months into season three. (The 1997-98 champions will be honored with its long-overdue rings during a ceremony Saturday at Nationwide Arena.)

Growing up in Logan, Smith played mainly on boys' teams until high school, thinking little about what it meant to be a girl in sports. Not until she met Phyllis Bailey, Ohio State's first women's basketball coach, did she realize that girls didn't always have the opportunity to play the sport she loves.

The WNBA and ABL were both formed during Smith's senior year at OSU, so she didn't have to travel overseas to play professionally. She played in the WNBA from 1999 to 2013 and won three gold medals (in 2000, 2004 and 2008) as a member of Team USA.

"I was lucky to have the opportunities I did, and they were thanks to a lot of people," said Smith, a two-time graduate of Ohio State (2008 and 2014). "Women, their voices are stronger now — and I do believe female athletes have a platform.

"They can make a difference."

Sarah Fisher, 37, racing

Nearly two decades ago, at age 19, Fisher became the youngest woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

She first got behind the wheel at 5, spending her childhood go-karting and racing quarter-midget cars around tracks at the Circleville Raceway Park, K-C Raceway in Chillicothe and the state fairgrounds, now called the Ohio Expo Center.

These days, as owner of Speedway Indoor Karting, the native of Commerical Point in Pickaway County is inspiring younger generations to do the same

Fisher and her husband, racer Andy O'Gara, opened the business and accompanying restaurant in 2016 in Speedway, Indiana, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"We both got our start in go-karts," said Fisher, who with O'Gara has two young children. "We love the town of Speedway, and there was a push for redevelopment.

"Whether it be basketball, gymnastics or whatever area," she urged the current generation of young girls, "fall in love with it and do whatever you can to support it." 

Fisher needed little time to fall in love with racing.

The daughter of an engineer and a teacher and the niece of high-profile motor builders, she was born into a family of race enthusiasts. Her family's background, she said, eased her ability to break into a sport dominated by men.

"Other people trusted the fact that my dad and my uncles put me in the seat because of my abilities and that they would help me learn," she said.

The former team owner — she stopped operating Sarah Fisher Racing, the first female-owned IndyCar team, in 2015 — said that, even though driving is the most fun aspect of racing, the sport offers many other opportunities for women.

"There's an engineer on (one of the teams), and she's fantastic. It's neat to know girls who are interested in the math and science sectors because it applies so much to racing."

Abby Johnston, 28, diving

As an Olympic silver medalist, Johnston often visits schools to share her story.

She remembers being approached after one such event by a girl who told her: I want to be a doctor and an Olympian.

The girl's mother quickly dismissed the idea, suggesting that her daughter could do one or the other but not both.

"I wanted to turn to the girl and say, 'Yes, you can," Johnston said.

Indeed, the 2008 graduate of Upper Arlington High School has been there and done that.

In May, she will graduate from Duke University Medical School in Durham, North Carolina, the culmination of a journey begun in 2014 while she was  training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. (She won the silver at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.)

Johnston had planned to delay medical school until after the 2016 Games but changed her mind after meeting U.S. rower Gevvie Stone during the London Games. At the time, Stone was studying to become a doctor. 

"I was like, 'Wait, but you're at the Olympics.'" Johnston recalled. "A light bulb went off."

Although she was always encouraged to pursue sports while growing up, the middle of three sisters said she initially felt embarrassed to lift weights.

"Then I began to realize that being strong and being in the weight room helped me be a better diver," she said, adding that she has seen the public perception of physically strong women change for the better.

Johnston found out this month that she will be completing her residency in the emergency room at Duke University Hospital — which keeps her close to husband, Sam McGrath, a graduate assistant for the Blue Devils football team. The couple married during the summer.

As Duke's first women's national champion diver in 2011, Johnston said sports can teach discipline, time-management skills and body positivity.

"The lessons I learned in sports," she said, "are transferable to the rest of my life."

award@dispatch.com

@AllisonAWard