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Medford photographer celebrates girls in She Plays We Win

The pictures are striking.

Young, sports-minded girls all, chronicled in a new book celebrating their ilk. They show pixieish playfulness, they show a spectrum of skill and, most vividly, they show grit and determination.

There’s Lilly Biagini. She smiles broadly, standing triumphantly on two legs. Two prosthetic legs. At age 6, she chose to rid herself of the real ones because a rare disorder made them inoperable and would confine her to a wheelchair.

She wanted to be active. She wanted to do sports.

There’s Maya Rush, a California duathlete who stars in track and basketball. She notes, rather matter-of-factly, there hasn’t been an Olympian who competed in both those sports. She infers that it’s a possibility, a goal to which she can aspire.

These are the kinds of kids Christin Rose shoots. Confident, resilient.

Rose is a professional photographer who graduated from South Medford High in 2004. She went by Christin Palazzolo then and was part of a sports-driven family. She played volleyball, basketball and softball for the Panthers. Her dad was a football coach and her brother a quarterback.

The virtues of sports were not merely sampled, but ingrained throughout Rose’s active adolescence.

A graduate of the University of Oregon with a photography bent, she brainstormed nearly five years ago to come up with a project dear to her, one she would disseminate on social media.

The result was, “She Plays We Win.”

It was a collection of photos and stories showcasing girls in their element. It caught on rapidly and within six months earned her national acclaim and a three-year contract with Under Armour photographing its youth campaign.

From the start, Rose envisioned “She Plays We Win” as a book. That came to fruition in July, when it was published under that title.

“I think the concept was clean and concise and people could wrap their heads around it,” says Rose, who lived in Los Angeles when she began the project and has since moved to Austin, Texas, with her husband, River Jordan. “Since then, it has just kept building. It’s been the coolest ride. I never would have imagined how awesome this has become and how big of a part of my life, my career it is. It’s everything that I stand for and care about.”

The book is representative of Rose’s youth. She adores seeing confident young kids. Tough little girls with, as she once put it, chipped nail polish and scrapes on their knees, a spirit of fearlessness.

Some girls in the book will continue to shine in athletic arenas for years to come. Most will take the ancillary rewards of sports and channel them into life pursuits.

Telling their stories is as if Rose is telling her own.

“That’s the ultimate point of the whole thing, and to be very real, the biggest connection to me,” she says. “Yes, some of these girls are incredible and they will go on to be Olympians. But a lot of them will do something else really incredible and use the fields that they’ve learned and confidence they’ve gained from these communities that support women’s athletics, just like we do in Medford, and take that with them.”

Feeling blessed for her opportunities in athletics and photography, it was important to Rose that she pay her good fortune forward. She found a perfect partner in the Women’s Sports Foundation, which will receive proceeds from book sales.

ESPN personality Sarah Spain and Rose have a mutual friend. Through that connection, Rose sent Spain the project, and Spain relayed it, along with her endorsement, to the foundation.

Patty Bifulco is vice president of communications for the Women’s Sports Foundation. Based in New York City, it was founded by tennis great Billie Jean King in 1974, and its mission is to advance the lives of women and girls through sports and activity.

Bifulco, who has worked closely with Rose, had a confession. Isolating a favorite girl or two in the book, a favorite image, a favorite story, was like trying to choose a favorite child.

“Honestly, there are so many, it would be hard,” she says.

Still, Bifulco was drawn to a couple:

The girl born with spina bifida who was told she might never walk. Two major surgeries later, she walks, dances, swims and plays golf. Her first hole-in-one came at age 9.

The girl with a club foot who had surgery to repair it but still must wear a brace so her foot “will move up and down,” she says. Inspired by South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, she has become a champion paralympian.

There are varying amounts of text on each subject. At its core, “She Plays We Win” is a coffee table photo book. But the text that is included, whether it’s a detailed story or simply a quote, comes straight from the girls.

“I just love that she picked up the girls’ words themselves,” says Bifulco, “and how many times I kept seeing them feeling fearless, feeling powerful, feeling happy by playing a sport, and the freedom it gave them, and the confidence.”

The girls are in the moment now. Someday, that will change, and transitioning away from the playing field can be difficult. Rose found that when she went off to college and before she got her sports fix as a photographer for the school newspaper.

Her father, Jim, often talked about how it feels to run onto the football field on Friday nights, and how that euphoric wave cannot be replicated.

“Anybody who plays sports can understand that sentiment,” says Rose. “That’s the whole connection I’m trying to make.”

She adeptly addresses it in the forward, writing that some, like her, “will stop playing. They will find other passions, and go on to chase new dreams but they won’t ever forget what it feels like to play.”

To hit in the winning run. To have all hands in a huddle. To have a stomach full of butterflies or take a last-second shot or spill gallons of sweat in practice.

“No,” Rose writes. “None of that ever goes away. It stays in your HEART for the rest of your life.”

What follows are depictions of lots and lots of girls, each with a unique story and all still in the participatory phase of sports.

Biagini and Rush are two of them. Sky Brown is another.

When Rose began the project, she found her subjects at skate parks, fields, courts and gyms all over the Los Angeles area. Traveling for Under Armour and her own private business allowed her to include other reaches of the country.

One of the first girls she photographed was Brown, a skateboarder at Venice Beach Skate Park. Rose got the recommendation to shoot her from Cindy Whitehead, a pioneer in the sport.

“I go there and, like, Sky is completely tearing it up,” says Rose. “There are people surrounding the bowl just watching, at the time, an 8-year-old completely dominate. She’s amazing. She’s incredible.”

Brown, now 12, is the youngest professional skateboarder in the world and was a favorite to make Great Britain’s Olympic team before the Tokyo Games were postponed.

She and Biagini set the bar as “She Plays We Win” got off the ground.

“I’m like, what’s going on here,” says Rose, floored by their remarkable stories.

Biagini is a bundle of energy, and it’s evident when she tells her tale. Even the breath the 12-year-old manages to take during a phone interview hustles out of the way of her next sentence. Nothing would seem to slow her, certainly not two uncooperative legs.

Her family lives in Mansfield, Texas, now, having moved from Sonoma, California, where her shoot took place. She was born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita. She is practiced at the formal usage of AMC, pronouncing the dozen syllables flawlessly, quickly, the words whizzing by like a bullet train.

“It just means my hips were backwards when I was born and I can’t walk,” she says. “I only basically crawled with my legs behind me.”

Doctors told Biagini she’d be wheelchair-bound. She did not agree with them.

“I was very demanding when I was 6 years old,” she says. “They didn’t ask me, I kind of told them, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in six months. You’re going to amputate my legs. They told me, ‘You are different.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’”

With her prosthetics, among the sports she’s done are gymnastics, swimming, horseback riding and snowboarding. She tried skiing but doesn’t have the necessary knee flexibility.

She hadn’t been in a photo shoot before and was scared. Rose immediately put her at ease and a friendship formed.

“It was different, in an uplifting way,” Biagini says of the shoot.

Her appearance in “She Plays We Win” enables her to “inspire others not to be afraid to show themselves.”

She told of a friend without legs who always wore pants, never shorts, because she was afraid others would make fun of her.

“I said, ‘You need to be proud of yourself,” says Biagini. “‘If somebody looks at you and tells you you’re doing a good job, you have to take that opportunity to tell them your story, how you lost your legs, how you grew from then to now.”

Biagini used to always wear pants until an older woman missing her legs — she called Biagini her “mini me” — imparted the same advice Biagini now shares.

“I’m absolutely proud of myself,” says Biagini. “I would wear shorts even if it’s winter.”

Rush, meanwhile, is 17 and just began her senior year at Covina High in the Los Angeles area. She favors basketball — a forward, she averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds last season — but is better known for her sprint, javelin and heptathlon skills in track.

She’s being wooed by college coaches in both sports.

As with Biagini, Rush and Rose hit it off from the get-go. Their shoot four years ago was at Azusa Pacific University.

“I’m just going, ‘This girl is so awesome,’” recalls Rose. “Just a pure athlete.”

And smart, strong and passionate, the “embodiment of what I wanted this project to be about,” says Rose.

She asked Rush to pen the forward to future young female athletes.

Rush obliged.

“I just basically wanted to let girls know that no matter your age, height, no matter what, you can do anything when you put your mind to it,” says Rush. “And if you work hard and you dream, it’s going to be there. There are a lot of obstacles along the way, but you just have to keep believing in yourself and trust in yourself and trust in your training.”

The book does not lack for diversity. Extreme sports are as plentiful as traditional sports.

Rose cited Hailee Deegan, a stock car racer now competing full time on the ARCA Series, and a group of mountain biking girls in Seattle.

“Hopefully, when people look through the pages of this book, they seen an incredible amount of variety,” says Rose.

Her hometown was not left out. Among the first girls she photographed were Kamryn Ford and Kaylee Wu, golfers on the St. Mary’s High team who were available when Rose visited family during Easter in 2016.

The pictures of them at Rogue Valley Country Club are accompanied by their thoughts on what it takes to succeed in the sport.

“She Plays We Win” isn’t only about those in the pages, it’s about those flipping through them, too.

Rose included an innovative interactive section at the back. As much as the book is about the girls within, she writes, “... it’s just as much about you! And our story is bigger than this book!”

She encourages the reader to get a pen, tape, scissors and pictures so they can “write the rest of this story together!”

She ends the book with a simple sentence: “This is just the beginning.”

Thus far, the book has been well received.

Bifulco, with the Women’s Sports Foundation, believes there’s reason to champion it.

“Christin’s love for the work she does and the girls she’s highlighting come across so powerfully,” says Bifulco. “We could tell right away, there’s a kindred spirit. She gets it like we get it. It’s all about giving girls an opportunity and access to discover all that they can do and all that they can be.”

And everyone wins.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-447 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

“She Plays We Win” sells for $35. It can be purchased at sheplayswewin.com.

Lilly Biagini is shown flexing for the camera.
Christin Rose