Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
When Renata Wanamaker Simril was 18, she found out the man she’d always assumed to be her father was, in fact, not.
“My older brother and sister’s last name was Smith, so I thought mine was too,” Simril says.
No one had explained that she was born from a relationship her mom had after leaving her siblings’ dad. The truth finally surfaced when Simril needed her birth certificate to enlist in the military, and she saw that her last name was really Wanamaker. It was a shock, maybe even a bit of betrayal, but it also explained why she felt so different, she says.
“I always felt out of place at home,” Simril says. “We had a great life growing up with parks, picnics, parties and families. I knew they loved me, but I was this shy, awkward girl from the city of Carson that didn’t feel like she fit into her family.”
Her older brother, whom she was closest with because of their shared love of sports, walked away from the family to join a gang. Her older sister was deaf and had schizophrenia. Money was always tight, and Carson, Calif., wasn’t the safest place to live. As a child, Simril says she’d often retreat into herself. She didn’t talk much, but she was always watchful and concerned about the people and the things happening in her community.
After Simril’s mom remarried and had another child, she says her younger sister became the apple of her stepdad’s eye, leaving Simril to exist as the quintessential middle child. For Simril, life seemed to cycle through a kaleidoscope of independence, anxiety, accomplishment and insecurity. Sports, the one constant in her life, gave her a way to cope with those feelings and the spark needed to find her confidence.
“It was the tennis court, and basketball and football on the street with the guys, that was my safe space, my haven,” Simril says. “Sports gave me courage, and really helped me speak up and not be afraid. I don’t think I’d have become the CEO of a foundation, or stepped into any of my other leadership positions, without the benefit of the lessons I learned playing sports.”
By almost any metric, Simril is a titan in sports philanthropy. As president and CEO of the LA84 Foundation—a legacy of the 1984 Summer Olympics that has become the leading funder of youth sports programs in Southern California—she might be one of the most influential leaders in youth sports.
In her almost seven-year tenure, she’s worked to expand access to sports and play for nearly one million children across the Los Angeles region, no matter what they look like, where they live, how much their parents make or how good they are at the game. She’s increased corporate and professional attendance at the foundation’s annual youth summit by nearly 300%. And under her leadership, LA84 has supported over 2,000 Southern California youth sports organizations by providing grants for outreach and opportunity, as well as training and developing coaches to better lead young people beyond the X’s and O’s of a particular game.
In 2016, Simril was part of a committee that pitched the NFL to bring the Super Bowl LVI to L.A., with the hope of amplifying the role that sports plays in helping youth get life ready, she says.
“I believe sports has a transformational power, that teaches young people important social and emotional competencies like self-regulation, anger management, resilience, and relationship building,” she says. “Players learn they have to show up on time. They have to play for their team members. If they miss a shot and lose the game, they learn how to pick themselves up and work on their weaknesses to be stronger next time. Those are the types of life skills that can transfer to any situation.”
In her NFL pitch, Simril pointed out that the added visibility of a Super Bowl could attract more children to play football and help coaches develop young players. Once the decision was made to return the game to L.A. after a 28-year absence, both the Rams and Chargers relocated to the city and began financially supporting youth leagues, and hosting camps and clinics for players and coaches.
Simril also serves as president of the Play Equity Fund, the charitable partner of the LA84 Foundation. She believes the fight for play equity is a fight against systemic racism, and the health and well-being disparities between, she says, “the haves and the have nots.”
“I remember being that kid whose tennis racket was on layaway for a year. My family couldn’t afford to buy me all the equipment that other players on my high school teams had,” Simril says.
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This lack of resources led to her giving up any dream of playing after graduation, but the years she spent in structured competition nonetheless laid the groundwork for a promising future outside of sports.
Simril is a third-generation Angeleno who’s worked as a senior vice president with both the Los Angeles Times and The Dodgers Foundation. She has also worked as a real estate developer and became Deputy Mayor of the country’s second-largest city at just 35 years old. Most recently, she’s been a key member of the city’s Olympic Bid Committee, which successfully landed the 2028 Summer Games.
Through all her work, she has created lasting change for local communities and children, and left an indelible imprint of service and philanthropy.
“I just love helping people. That’s what drives me. People think philanthropy is always high-net-worth individuals writing large checks, but really, philanthropy is just small random acts of kindness,” Simril says.
Simril remembers her mom, who was also in the philanthropy business, as a beloved, community-minded nurturer.
“We’d come home for Thanksgiving and there’d be a family of strangers sitting in the living room,” Simril says. “My mom would befriend people who didn’t have anywhere else to go for the holiday, and just invite them in.”
Being very self-aware, Simril admits that, however much she admired her mom, she is truly a reflection of both her parents. After learning her father’s name, she tried to track him down but was too late—he’d died three years before she started searching. She was only able to learn about him through talking to his wife. Simril says the photos and memories his wife shared gave her a fuller sense of who she is, and how she came to be herself.
“My dad was a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ kind of guy. He loved sports and he loved education. He earned his master’s degree and worked in public relations, and published several articles in Rolling Stone magazine,” Simril says. “He was a strong runner. A solid athlete, but his one Achilles’ heel was a heroin addiction he couldn’t beat. That’s why my mom left him all those years ago.”
Even after his passing, Simril says she feels a connection to her dad and believes he is her guardian angel.
For Simril, family and connection are ultra important. It’s something she felt was missing for her as a child, but something she refused to compromise on as an adult—so it only makes sense that she would marry a man who grew up much like she did. Both Simril and her husband, Ken, come from humble beginnings in Carson, and both are very focused on success and giving back.
“We met when I was 15, dated for the summer, and then reconnected romantically when I was a sophomore in college, three years after I left the service,” Simril says. “He’s my best friend, and one of the smartest guys I know.”
Simril earned a bachelor’s in urban studies from Loyola Marymount University and a master’s in real estate development from USC. Meanwhile, her husband earned a bachelor’s in engineering at USC, followed by aHarvard MBA, paving the way for a career in venture capital and private equity.
Fast forward 24 wedding anniversaries, and the two are raising 20-year-old Carson and 14-year-old Sebastian as kind, happy and successful Black men.
“My husband and I built this family unit together as partners. We both came from very little, and have had just unimaginable opportunity and success,” Simril says. “We are very aligned in how we parent, even down to the dinner conversations we expose them to. We have very adult conversations in front of our boys and they fit into that, and I couldn’t be more grateful and proud.”
Madelyne Woods is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.