The Alumni Interview: Paola Boivin

“I’m drawn to the human stories—the underdog, the long shot, the forgotten person,” says sportswriter Paola Boivin ’82 LAS. (Photo by David Wallace)

Arizona Republic sports columnist and UI alumna Paola Boivin ’82 LAS talks about transgender athletes, evangelical quarterbacks and doing an interview with a baby on her lap.

As told to Jamie Malanowski

I was drawn to sports because of my father. He would take us to White Sox games—we lived in Park Forest, a suburb of Chicago—and we never had a bad time. He was always at his best when we went to those games, and I suppose I connected sports with fun and good feelings. I played sports in high school—I was a gymnast and ran track—but I was better at writing, and I began covering sports for the school paper. None of my peers thought that was weird, and by the time I left for college, I had a serious interest in sports writing.

U of I was the obvious choice for me; the school had such a great reputation. When a representative from the recruitment office visited [our high school] and spoke about The Daily Illini’s great reputation, I was hooked. And as it turned out, my fondest memories of college involve the paper.

I walked into the editorial offices during my first week on campus, and from the start, I met incredible people who welcomed me and challenged me. My first assignment was to cover intramural water polo—a very minor event. That was how they tested you, not only to see if you could cover a story, but to see if you cared. By my junior year, I was covering football and basketball, assignments that were as important as any. That’s when my real education began. We would go to all the games, including all the away games, and sit in the press box with the reporters from Chicago and St. Louis. I studied them, saw how they operated, paid attention to the questions they asked and the angles they took. Between them, and the people I worked with on The Daily Illini, I learned how to be a professional.

After graduation, I worked as a stringer covering high school sports for the Chicago Tribune. They thought I had promise, but I had to get more experience, and they recommended that I get a job at a small daily. Soon I was living in California, in a town near Oxnard, working at the Camarillo Daily News, a paper with a circulation of 13,000 and a sports staff of three. Needless to say, I got to do a lot. It was a great time to cover sports in that area: The Olympian Marion Jones came from that community, as did the baseball player Dmitri Young, who went on to have a 13-year major league career.

It was while I had that job that I first encountered a sexist reaction to me being a female sportswriter. The St. Louis Cardinals had a player named Terry Pendleton who came from Oxnard, and I was assigned to interview him when the team came to Los Angeles. While I was waiting for him in the Cardinal clubhouse, somebody threw a jockstrap at my head. Then somebody asked, “Are you here to do an interview, or look at guys’ penises?” only they phrased the question more vulgarly. I left, terribly upset—I really was on the verge of quitting—when another journalist came out and consoled me. He went and got Pendleton, who apologized and made sure I got what I needed.

I’m very fortunate to be a columnist—basically, I can cover whatever I want. I’m drawn to the human stories—the underdog, the long shot, the forgotten person. One of the best stories I’ve covered was Kurt Warner’s years with the Arizona Cardinals. He’s a man of strong personal beliefs, but he’s very tolerant of others who disagree with him, and to see how he revived that team and took it to the Super Bowl was very exciting. I do think that being a woman has allowed me to see promise in stories that male writers have overlooked. One of my best stories was about Bobbi Lancaster, a transgender golfer who hopes to play on the LPGA Tour, and I was happy I could help readers understand her issues. As sports become more welcoming to women, our idea of a good sports story will continue to broaden.

I have two kids: my daughter, Jesse, who is 19, and my son, Shane, who is 17. I would be lying if I said it was easy to be a working mom in this business. Once I had to interview a hockey player and had to take the baby because I couldn’t find a sitter, and the baby spit up on me while we were talking. Often I felt I wasn’t giving my children, or my husband, or my job the proper attention. But it also helped me look at stories through a variety of prisms. And my children have been able to see a woman thrive in a field considered nontraditional for her gender. That’s valuable, too.