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Godfrey’s Lea Plarski, right, poses with East St. Louis native Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Plarski was an instrumental member of the U.S. Olympic Committee for more than 25 years, while Joyner-Kersee competed in four Summer Olympics and is regarded the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.
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Godfrey resident Lea Plarski, right, poses with former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit. Plarski was deeply involved in the growth of women’s basketball, while Summit is widely considered the greatest women’s basketball coach of all time. Summit passed away at the age of 64 in June after a battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
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Lea Plarski of Godfrey was a staff member on the 1978 United States women’s basketball team that included Lynette Woodard, who went on to become the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Lea Plarski, 82, of Godfrey has experienced it all during a lengthy and legendary career in sports. What she has done borders on the remarkable.
It includes the Olympic Games, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Sports Commission.
That’s the short list.
“I’ve had a very fulfilling life and very rewarding,” Plarski said. “It has been an honor to participate in a lot of national and international activities. I’ve made friendships from people from all over the world.”
Part of that international scene included the Olympics, which Plarski holds close to heart. No wonder. She was involved in decision-making with the U.S. Olympic Committee for more than 25 years, including a prestigious seat on the Board of Directors and House of Delegates.
And with the 2016 Olympics starting this weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it’s easy to see why those Summer Games — held once every four years — are so special.
“I think the Olympic Games are the best (sporting) event,” Plarski said. “There’s nothing more gratifying than representing your country.”
Those Olympic quests and other adventures during her career has carried Plarski across the globe. She’s a world traveler of the utmost degree.
“I’d say I’ve been involved in some kind of activity or event in more than 40 countries,” she said. You can count China, the Soviet Union, South America, Mexico and Canada, among others, in that group.
What caught her attention the most?
“The FIBA World Championships in Seoul, South Korea, was one of the most exciting and rewarding competition that I’ve ever seen,” Plarski said of the 1979 women’s basketball finals.
She added, “The final results were not only based upon wins and losses, but the point spreads. In the final game against Canada, the U.S. team had to win by more than 12 points to win the gold medal and we did that.
“It was such a jubilant scene and the South Korean delegation was so magnificent about it.”
Three years earlier, Plarski was frustrated when the U.S. decided to boycott the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
“That was the greatest disappointment,” she said. “The U.S. women’s basketball team had qualified for the Olympic Games by the way they played in Varna, Bulgaria. But a lot of the athletes were crushed when they weren’t allowed to compete in the Games.”
She later became friends with East St. Louis’ Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who excelled in four Olympics and was regarded as the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century.
Yet the Olympics are just part of Plarski’s portfolio. She was involved in the advent of Title IX that gave females more opportunities, and a key player in the growth of women’s basketball.
Plarski was a founding member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame at Knoxville, Tenn., in 1998. She nurtured it along and became fast friends with Pat Summit, the former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach. Summitt died in June.
“Getting the Hall of Fame going was very pleasurable because it was a mission of mine,” Plarski said. “It’s a place where we can honor and recognize those who have contributed to women’s basketball since its inception.”
Summitt’s work on and off the court had a lasting impression on her. Summitt, 64, died of Alzheimer’s disease.
“We were good friends,” Plarski said. “She was a very loyal person and magnanimous. What she did transcends basketball. She was a tremendous ambassador of the sport and never lost sight of where she came from or who she was. I would say she was the greatest coach of women’s basketball.”
In Plarski’s case, she continues to be a contributor of women’s sports. Athletics Administration, a national publication, called her one of the top 25 individuals for women and events since 1972.
The National Junior College Athletic Association created the Lea Plarski Award in 1995 to a student that best exemplifies athletic ability and academic excellence. She was selected as the NJCAA’s first woman president in 1990, or 15 years after establishing the women’s division of the organization.
Plarski worked at Florissant Valley Community College for 37 years, serving as a teacher, coach, director of athletics and administrator. The St. Louis Sports Commission awarded her the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Four years earlier, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
You can find her fingerprints on the 1994 Olympic Festival that played out in St. Louis and Southwestern Illinois. Plarski also was involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Amateur Softball Association and the American Bowling Congress. For years, she played second base for the Alton Lakers of the Twilight Softball League that included teams from Wood River, Maryville and Collinsville.
Been there, done that might be Plarski’s motto. She followed that trail after growing up in Augusta Kan., near Wichita, and graduating from Emporia State, Kan.
“I didn’t get the opportunity to participate in organized sports, so there was incentive for me to get women’s sports off the ground and get involved in them,” Plarski said.
She did it relentlessly and with a source of pride. Take the NJCAA, for example.
“It’s the first and only national athletic association to form a separate and equal division,” Plarski said.
The same held true when she dealt with others on the USOC and they sought her input.
“I enjoyed being on the committee because I gained a first-hand understanding of how the U.S. Olympic Committee operated,” Plarski said. “We had a say in what was going on and each governing body had fair representation.”