Cal's Mikayla Lyles makes impact on, off the court

JANIE McCAULEY (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press
Cal's Mikayla Lyles makes impact on, off the court
Cal's Mikayla Lyles makes impact on, off the court

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) -- Little did Mikayla Lyles know months ago while planning for a pair of panel discussions held last week on tolerance and inclusion of the LGBT community in athletics that it would become such a timely topic ahead of the Sochi Olympics.

Lyles, a senior guard for No. 23 California, teamed with Stanford's Toni Kokenis to host a session on each of their respective campuses just more than a week before the start of the Sochi Games with Russia's anti-gay laws at the forefront for a world audience.

''Incredibly (timely), definitely we could not have foreseen that one,'' Lyles said Wednesday. ''The way that it all happened to play out, it adds another element to how incredible it turned out to be.''

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Lyles figures 300 people attended in all, and she and Kokenis are committed to continuing their efforts in the Bay Area and beyond.

An added bonus for Lyles: She started for the first time in two games against the rival Cardinal, scoring a career-high 16 points in Sunday's 79-64 home loss.

''From beginning to end, the week was probably one the best I've had in my college experience,'' Lyles said.

Lyles has long been an integral part of the Bears, on and off the court.

She will likely continue to be called upon down the stretch, especially considering Cal announced Wednesday that freshman Hind Ben Abdelkader has left the team and returned to Belgium to be closer to family. The Bears (14-7, 6-4 Pac-12) face an important road weekend at Washington and Washington State.

If people ask her, Lyles says she identifies herself as ''a straight ally,'' but she doesn't offer such information as her mission is to play a role in breaking down all stereotypes in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The intent of facilitating discussion isn't necessarily to get others to acknowledge their sexuality but rather have an environment where all are accepted for who they are and are comfortable discussing the issues.

''Mikayla embodies what it means to truly embrace your experience as a student-athlete,'' Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. ''She embodies the understanding that as a student-athlete you have a wonderful opportunity both to take advantage of everything Cal and the university offer and also the platform that you get. She is very committed to using these opportunities not only to better herself but to make an impact in the community around her, and that's really admirable.''

After Lyles did a public service announcement with ''Br(ache the Silence'' - a campaign for those in women's sports seeking acceptance to have a safe place to share their voice - Kokenis reached out to Lyles over Facebook late last summer with the idea. They spent the next five months planning last week's talks.

Given the success of the two panels and the connections and support received, Lyles said she and Kokenis have a ''vision of guiding'' through ''hands-on consulting'' of other students across the nation to make similar efforts on their own campuses. Kokenis, who attended Stanford basketball camp with Lyles when they were younger, is no longer playing for Stanford after a series of concussions forced her to prematurely end her career.

Upon graduating this May with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, Lyles plans to move to the East Coast for a new perspective given she grew up in the San Francisco area.

''Because rivalry is such a sustainable thing throughout the country, everybody has a rival and everybody has a university they are constantly competing with, the way we can infiltrate that throughout the country is by using the student Gay-Straight Alliance groups within the universities themselves,'' Lyles said. ''We were personally reaching out to people and personally asking them to attend. We're trying to tap into as many people as possible to see how we can expand it more and more.''

And, as Lyles pointed out via Twitter on Wednesday:

''My generation, is so ambitious, so many friends trying to change the world, so awesome,'' she wrote.

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