These Powerful Women Changed The Game For Female Athletes

Athletes | 1/28/21

Over time, sports have been increasingly gender-neutral, and that’s all thanks to the powerful women who laid the foundation for female athletes to come. From outdoing male competitors to advocating for equality, these athletes display perseverance both on and off the court. Whether they’re swimming across the English Channel, climbing Mount Everest, setting Olympic records, or defying gender restrictions, these women don’t back down. Read on to learn about the female athletes who have been literal and metaphorical game-changers over the past century.

Lynn Hill Was The First To Free Climb The Nose

Lynn Hill climbs a rock in Yosemite.
Tony Duffy/Getty Images
Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Lynn Hill became a forerunner for competitive sports climbing in the ’80s and won more than 30 international titles by 1992. The following year, she became the first person to free climb The Nose in Yosemite. It took Hill four days to accomplish the incredible feat, but the next year she demolished her own record by doing it in less than 24 hours.

As one of the first successful female rock climbers, Hill became an advocate for equality within the sport and inspired other women to follow her lead. She is regarded as one of the best climbers of all time.

Kathrine Switzer Enabled Women To Run The Boston Marathon

Katherine Switzer runs The Boston Marathon.
Paul J. Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Paul J. Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The famous Boston marathon wasn’t always open to female runners. In fact, for the first several decades it existed, men were the only ones allowed to participate. That all changed as a result of Kathrine Switzer forcing herself into the race. She registered under her initials to be gender ambiguous.

Around mile two, race manager Jock Semple tried to pull Switzer out of the race. The photos of him pulling at her bib made news headlines, but it would be another five years before women were allowed to run alongside men. In the end, Semple changed his mind about female runners, and he and Switzer became friends.

Gertrude Ederle Was The First Female To Swim Across The English Channel

Gertrude Ederle swimming.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Half a century before Junko Tabei became the first female to climb Mount Everest, another athlete proved what women can do in the water. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel. To top it off, she did it two hours faster than any of her male predecessors!

Considering she did all that at the age of 21, it’s no surprise that Ederle went on to earn three Olympic medals. Even more amazing is that she did it all with impaired hearing caused by the English Channel swim. The experience inspired her to become a swimming coach for deaf children.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias Broke Gender Barriers In Four Sports!

Babe Didrikson Zaharias swings a golf club.
Getty Images
Getty Images

Born in 1911, Babe Didrikson Zaharias laid the feminist groundwork for thousands of athletes to come, making a name for herself in track and field, baseball, basketball, and golf! Though Zaharias led her basketball team to the AAU basketball championship in 1931, her claim to fame came in 1932, when she brought home two Olympic gold medals in track and field.

From there, she earned 10 LPGA championship wins as a pro golfer. Afterward, she nabbed the record for the furthest baseball thrown by a female, which has yet to be beaten. Today, Zaharias is regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Billie Jean King Won 39 Grand Slam Championships

Billie Jean King at Wimbledon, 1983.
Manchester Daily Express/SSPL/Getty Images
Manchester Daily Express/SSPL/Getty Images

Billie Jean King is famously known for winning the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs. But her athletic career far exceeds that one victory. The tennis star won an astounding 39 Grand Slam Championships in her career.

To top it off, she made a huge difference in women’s equality. King created the Women’s Tennis Association and got the US Open to pay equal prize money to male and female winners. Her powerful impact continues today and in 2014, the tennis champion founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative to promote inclusivity.

Wilma Rudolph Won Three Gold Medals At The 1960 Olympics

Wilma Rudolph runs at the 1960 Olympics.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph’s story of overcoming is inspirational to all athletes. When she was four-years-old, she contracted double pneumonia and was so sick that her left leg became paralyzed. It took her years to become strong enough to walk again, and when she could, she took off running.

Fast forward a decade and Rudolph made history by becoming the first American female to win three gold medals at a single Olympic game. Her performance was so impactful that the New York Times deemed her “America’s greatest female sports hero since Babe Didrikson Zaharias.” Rudolph went on to create a foundation to provide kids in underserved communities with sports and academic opportunities.

Junko Tabei Was The First Woman To Summit Mount Everest

Junko Tabei poses in front of mountains.
John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images
John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images

Junko Tabei was the first woman to ever reach the summit of Mount Everest, doing so in 1975. Even more astounding is that an avalanche struck her and her group, leaving Junko injured for the rest of her climb. Still, she made history despite widespread doubt.

Prior to the historic climb, Tabei began the first women’s climbing club in Japan. Thanks to her lead, in 2019, a fifth of Mount Everest climbers were female. Tabei would go on to become the first woman to summit the tallest peaks on all seven continents. She conquered chart-topping mountains in more than 70 countries over her lifetime.

Mia Hamm Held The Record For Most International Goals Scored

Mia Hamm plays at the 2003 World Cup quarterfinals.
A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images
A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Mia Hamm made a name for herself worldwide by netting an astounding 158 goals at international competitions, for which she held the record until 2013. The achievement garnered media attention toward female soccer, and Hamm became the face of the Women’s United Soccer Association.

In her almost two decades as the national team’s forward, Hamm led them to win two FIFA Women’s World Cup championships and two Olympic Gold Medals. She was the first woman inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame and has a foundation that seeks to increase opportunities for female athletes.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee Won The Olympic Heptathlon… Twice

Jackie Joyner jumping hurdles.
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Getty Images

Track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee is regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time for her record-breaking successes. Not only did she win six Olympic gold medals, but she also became the first to ever score more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon.

Joyner-Kersee scored another heptathlon world record when she won it at two consecutive Olympic Games, one in 1988 and the other in 1992. Even more amazing is that she did all this with asthma! Joyner-Kersee also created a foundation for at-risk youth, she co-founded Athletes For Hope, and she partnered with Comcast to provide internet and laptops to low-income Americans.

Dara Torres Broke Records For Competing In 5 Olympic Games

Dara Torres celebrates at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

In 2008, Dara Torres became the first US swimmer to ever compete in five Olympic games, which spanned from 1984 to 2008. At her final Olympic Game, Torres was 41-years-old, making her the oldest swimmer to land a spot on the Olympic team.

Of her 12 total Olympic medals, three of them came from her 2008 competition, where she earned the silver medal in three events. Torres told Glamour that her perseverance over the years has to do with a desire to break age barriers for other athletes.

Martina Navratilova Was World #1 In Singles For 332 Weeks

Martina Navratilova stretches to make a backhand.
Bob Martin/Getty Images
Bob Martin/Getty Images

For 30 years, Martina Navratilova was named the best female tennis player of all time by Tennis magazine, and for good reason. She currently holds the records for being the only player to be number one in singles and doubles for more than 200 weeks.

She held the singles top spot for a staggering 332 weeks, and the doubles spot for 237 weeks. She also holds the record for being number one in singles for five years in a row and for having 31 major women’s doubles titles. Her long list of record-setting achievements earned her a spot on the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Lindsey Vonn Holds The Female Record For World Cup Wins

Lindsey Vonn skiing at the 2010 Olympics.
Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

With a whopping 82 World Cup wins, Lindsey Vonn holds the record among American female skiers internationally and is second only to Ingemar Stenmark. Her achievements are even more admirable given her numerous critical injuries, which include nerve damage and a torn ligament.

Though her injuries eventually led to her retiring in 2019, Vonn told Glamour that they never made her afraid to keep skiing. Vonn’s determination made her one of only two female skiers to win four World Cup championships. She is also the first American female to bring home the Olympic gold medal in the downhill competition.

Hilary Knight Led Her Team To An Olympic Gold Medal

Hilary Knight celebrates after scoring a powerplay goal against Canada.
Harry How/Getty Images
Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Hilary Knight has won three Olympic medals, including the US women’s hockey team’s first gold medal in 20 years. Knight also has nine world championship titles and a victory at the inaugural Isobel Cup.

Along with her teammates, Knight formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. The professional league offers higher pay for players. The New York Times reports that the highest salary of the National Women’s Hockey League is $15,000, and they’re currently the only women’s professional league in North America.

Trischa Zorn Has Had The Most Wins Of Any Paralympian

Trischa Zorn swims at the 2000 Paralympic Games.
Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

Over the course of her paralympic career, Trischa Zorn has accumulated an astounding 55 medals, 41 of which were gold. Having been blind since birth, the star swimmer became the most successful Paralympian of all time.

In 2012, she became the first American female to be inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame. Zorn is not only an inspiration to women and disabled athletes but to injured military service members. She mentors those permanently impacted by military tours by helping them appreciate what they have and become determined to accomplish whatever they strive for.

Serena Williams Has Won Four Olympic Gold Medals

serena-williams
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Serena Williams is one of the most well-known tennis players of today, and there’s a reason for that. She’s broken through barriers and risen to the top, winning 23 Grand Slam singles titles and four Olympic gold medals. Even more impressive is that Williams landed her 23rd win while pregnant!

Despite the achievement, Williams faced some complications following her daughter’s birth, which brought awareness to the pressures faced by professional athletes who are also mothers. The tennis star has also found success playing alongside her talented sister, Venus. The two won a jaw-dropping 14 Grand Slam doubles titles as a power pair.

Diana Nyad Swam From Cuba To Florida At Age 64

Diana Nyad smiles in a swimming pool.
D Dipasupil/FilmMagic/Getty Images
D Dipasupil/FilmMagic/Getty Images

In 2013, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida, which is a 100-mile venture. And she did it without a shark cage! It took her five attempts to make it, sending an inspirational message to fans about not giving up.

Nyad first rose to fame decades prior when she swam around Manhattan. She then swam from North Bimini to The Bahamas, to Florida. In addition to making astounding trips across the ocean, Nyad is ranked 13th among American squash players. She is also a successful author, journalist, and motivational speaker.

Simone Biles Is America’s Most Decorated Gymnast

simone-biles
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

With a total of 30 medals, Simone Biles holds the record for the most Olympic and World Championship wins of any American gymnast. She is coming up on being the best in the world, as she currently holds third place for the most decorated gymnast internationally.

She is also the first female American gymnast to win a World medal at every event. Biles’ unbelievable skills led to four moves that carry her namesake, all of which she landed before turning 24-years-old.

Lisa Leslie Was The First Female To Slam Dunk

Lisa Leslie dribbles down the court.
Todd Warshaw/Allsport/Getty Images
Todd Warshaw/Allsport/Getty Images

Though there have been many groundbreaking female basketball players, Lisa Leslie was the first of them to perform a slam-dunk during a WNBA game. The power move encapsulated how far women’s basketball has come, but it was minor compared to Lisa’s long list of accomplishments.

The basketball star also won three Olympic gold medals, two FIBA World Cup gold medals, and was the Most Valuable Player in the WNBA three times. Leslie is now the head coach for BIG3’s Triplets and a studio analyst for Orlando Magic. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

Allyson Felix Won Six Olympic Gold Medals

Allyson Felix wins the gold at the 2016 Olympics.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Allyson Felix is the first female track and field athlete to attain six Olympic gold medals and a is a three-time world champion. Felix’s 18 career medals make her the most decorated athlete in World Athletics Championships history, a record she broke less than a year after giving birth.

While Felix’s incredible accomplishments were inspiring to athletes who are also mothers, she took it a step further by advocating for individuals like herself. Felix teamed up with fellow Olympian mothers to fight for contractual safeguards surrounding pregnancy. Thanks to their efforts, Nike now has a maternity policy that better supports expecting athletes.

Elana Meyers Taylor Is One Of The Most Decorated Bobsledders

Elana Meyers competes in the 2013 Olympia Bob Run.
Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images
Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

Elana Meyers Taylor started her bobsledding career in 2007 and just two years later, she took home the silver medal at the FIBT World Championships. In 2010, she joined the Olympic team and won the bronze medal. In 2014 Taylor outdid her previous Olympic win by bringing home the silver medal.

The same year, Taylor and Kaillie Humphries became the first females to compete alongside men in an international four-man bobsled competition at the North American Cup race. After landing her second Olympian silver medal in 2018, Taylor won the women’s drivers division at the USA Bobsled Championships while pregnant.