Today, female athletes are more celebrated than they’ve ever been, however, it’s taken a lot to get to this point. Where women once weren’t allowed to compete, the last century has seen female athletes reach incredible feats and even outperform their male counterparts in male-dominated sports.
At Popular Everything, we’ve compiled a list of women who broke the gender barrier and made sports history, bearing testament to what dedication, focus, and strength of character can achieve. Their significance can’t be underestimated, as the extraordinary accomplishments of these female athletes have opened the gates for women in sports.
Danica Patrick’s Major Success in a Male-Dominated Sport
Hailing from a working-class family in the dairy state, Danica Patrick turned her favorite childhood hobby into a career that made her the most famous woman in NASCAR racing. She set new standards in her history as a racing driver, including winning the pole position at the Daytona 500 and becoming the first woman to take the lead in the Indianapolis 500.
In 2008 she won the Indy Japan 300, becoming the first woman to have won in IndyCar racing history. Her legacy lies in having brought female racing to the forefront in a sport overwhelming dominated by and marketed to men. However, her achievements are substantial regardless of gender. As she put it, “I was trained to be the best driver, not the best girl.”
The Youngest Woman to Win an Olympic Snowboarding Gold Medal, Chloe Kim
Chloe Kim was only 17 years old when she won the gold medal for the Olympic snowboard halfpipe in 2018, making her the youngest woman ever to do so. The California-born snowboarding sensation appears to have unlimited ambition, with language fluency in French, English, and Korean, and the intention to begin her science major at Princeton this year.
The first-generation Korean-American is trying to live her life to the fullest, having even declared she may retire early from her sports career to pursue her education goals. Whatever she chooses, she has already accomplished an extraordinary achievement, furthering women’s impact in sports history.
Misty Copeland is the first African American
Female Principal Dancer at ABT
Misty Copeland earned her way to the top in her promotion as the Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), becoming the first African American woman in the company’s 75-year history to do so. A wonderful feat in the classical ballet world, which as Copeland described it is “a field where diversity is not really there or celebrated.”
Copeland faced many criticisms of her body and appearance in her profession. “There are so many restrictions and things people think you have to be. You have to be tall. You have to be thin and not have a lot of muscle. And white… I’m 5’2″ and, having a very muscular build, a larger chest, not starting out dancing until I was 13… I was told it’s not possible.” Her incredible achievement in the face of so much adversity has made her one of the most inspiring sportswomen in recent history.
Flo-Jo Is the Fastest Woman of All Time
Florence Griffith Joyner still holds the world records for the 100 and 200- meter sprint races that she won in 1988. One of 11 children raised in Los Angeles’ housing projects, she didn’t let the challenges of her upbringing deter her on her road to greatness.
It was not just her sporting achievement that Joyner became known for, as she also exhibited outlandish style on and off the track. A particularly memorable outfit she sported was the pink, one-legged unitard she wore during her 100-meter sprint win in ’88, accompanied by a four-inch-long manicure. Truly iconic.
Serena Williams Raised the Bar
Tennis legend Serena Williams has achieved incredible feats. She has ranked as top of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) eight times over a 15-year span, as well as holding the most Grand Slam titles among active players. She is expected to have earned near to $30m in 2016 when she was the highest-paid female sportswoman, retaining the position the following year. This year, she was 63rd in Forbes‘ list of the World’s Highest-Paid Athletes.
Like her earnings, her legacy has been growing year by year. She is now recognized, along with her accomplished sister Venus, as having changed the face of women’s tennis – pushing the “power game” concept to the forefront. As Ja Allen wrote, it “raised the bar in women’s tennis. Women playing today are stronger, fitter and more able to blast winners from the back of the court.” Serena’s impact can’t be overlooked.
Billie Jean King Stands for Social Change
A strong advocate for women’s equality in sports, Billie Jean King puts her money where her mouth is. Winning 39 Grand Slam titles over her career, she held the title of No. 1 female tennis player in the world in ’66. She also became the first prominent woman in sport to come out, unashamedly embracing her sexuality in the public eye.
The infamous “Battle of the Sexes” tournament took place in ’73 between King and men’s tennis champion Bobby Rigg’s, in which she came out victorious on national television. Of the burden she carried before the competition she admitted, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.” Instead, she achieved new heights in women’s sports history.
Six-Time Olympic Gold Medal Winner Allyson Felix
The most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history, Allyson Felix has won a total of nine Olympic medals (six of which are gold) and 11 world championships, all by the age of 32. She has cemented her name in history for her numerous accolades, becoming one of the most marketable athletes in the world.
Having given birth to her first child in 2018, Felix has bravely spoken out about the challenges women face in sports. “If we have children, we risk pay cuts from our sponsors during pregnancy and afterward. It’s one example of a sports industry where the rules are still mostly made for and by men.” Her sponsor Nike decided not to renew her contract after news of her own pregnancy came to light, and she continues to campaign for protection during maternity for athletes.
The Golden Girl of Tennis, Maria Sharapova
Russian tennis superstar Maria Sharapova won her first Grand Slam title at the young age of 17. She has held the No. 1 position in singles in the WTA a total of five times and continues to play professionally to this day, upholding an unusually long career for a competing tennis player.
Having once been the “golden girl” of tennis, she has suffered through some controversy in recent years when she failed her routine drug test in 2016. Despite arousing public suspicions, her impact on the sport has been more than significant, bringing a glamorous appeal to women’s tennis.
Clara Hughes Is the Only Athlete to Win Multiple Medals in the Summer and Winter Olympics
Canadian Clara Hughes is an accomplished athlete, competing in winter and summer sports alike as a cyclist and speed skater. She has won six Olympic medals and stands alone as the only athlete of either gender to have won several medals in both summer and winter Olympic games.
As Canada’s most decorated Olympian, her greatest success has been in Speed Skating at the 2006 Winter Olympics for the women’s 5000 meters, where she took home the gold medal. Hughes didn’t initially see herself as an athlete, and only started to skate and cycle from the age 16 and 17 years old. Her story is a testament to what you can achieve with enough determination.
Claressa Shields Is the Only American Boxer to Win Gold in Back-To-Back Olympic Games
Claressa Shields is the only American woman to take home a gold medal in boxing, and the only boxer from the US, male or female, to achieve gold in back-to-back Olympic games. Inspired by the accomplishments of Serena Williams, she overcame her problematic and poverty-ridden childhood and made it to the top of women’s boxing through determination and hard work.
She won her first gold medal in the London 2012 Olympic games, proceeding to follow her success with another gold in Rio 2016. Her achievements will go down in history, and at 24 years old she’s showing no signs of throwing in the towel any time soon. “You all told me I couldn’t do it. Right now, I’m the undisputed champion of the world,” she told the BBC earlier this year. It’s hard to argue with that.
Dara Torres Won Olympic Medals After Her Premature Retirement
Dara Torres has numerous distinctions to her name. She is the first Olympic swimmer to have represented the US five times and has won four gold, four silver, and four bronze medals for her efforts – one of only three women to have acquired as much in the sport. She was also the oldest US Olympic team swimmer in 2000, at the age of 33, despite having initially retired at 25 because of her age.
Torres has spoken about her determination to succeed after her youth, having once stated, “I think about the end goal. When I feel like my body is exhausted, I focus on making my fifth Olympic team so I can push through it. They may become harder to achieve, but your dreams can’t stop because you’ve hit a certain age or you’ve had a child.”
Althea Gibson, the First African American to Win a Grand Slam
The first African American to win a Grand Slam – the French Open in ’56 – was Althea Gibson. She has been celebrated as truly inspirational, not least of all because of the difficulties she faced as a woman of color. “To anyone, she was an inspiration,” said former Mayor of New York City David Dinkins, “because of what she was able to do at a time when it was enormously difficult to play tennis at all if you were black.”
Former tennis player and coach to the Williams sisters, Robert Ryland, has said of her that “she is one of the greatest players who ever lived,” even going so far as to say “Martina couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.” She even went on to become a professional golfer at 37 years old, breaking records there too.
Gretchen Bleiler Was Inducted into the Action Sports Hall of Fame
Former halfpipe snowboarding sensation Gretchen Bleiler had a 13-year long career, in which she won a silver Olympic medal, having competed twice in the Olympic games. She has also achieved the World Superpipe Champion title and is a four-time X Games gold medalist. For these achievements, she was inducted into The Action Sports Hall of Fame.
While not necessarily the most accomplished female snowboarder, her impact on sports was far-reaching as (similarly to Sharapova) Bleiler’s marketing appeal was considerable. She was able to capitalize on her advantages and make a name for herself through various business opportunities.
Lisa Leslie Has Helped Create a Platform for Female Athletes
Lisa Leslie is a three-time Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Most Valuable Player and a four-time Olympic gold medal winner. In 2002, Leslie also became known as the first woman in WNBA history to dunk in a game. She is modest of her achievement, giving a speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame that she titled, “I Didn’t Get Here Alone.”
Despite retiring from the court, she still managed to make history, becoming the first former player to invest in the WNBA when she became an investor in 2011. But as Tara Jones put it, “Leslie has done more than find her way to the record books. She has shattered glass ceilings set for any female interested in playing sports and helped create a platform for them to do so professionally.”
Janet Guthrie Paves the Way for Women in Motorsports
American race car driver, Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, back in 1977, having also been the first woman to compete in NASCAR the year prior. She paved the way for women in motorsports, becoming inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Gender-defying Guthrie had five top-ten finishes in her time as a professional racer, having only driven in 33 races during her career. She admitted, “It was a great surprise to me, the commotion at the time. I had no idea that there were so many men in the world who believed women couldn’t do this,” upholding that “If I had the chance to run a full season with a team in stock cars NASCAR cup racing, I’m sure I would’ve won races.”
Mia Hamm Is a Soccer Icon
Mia Hamm was renown for her 158 goal scores by 2004, out-performing any male player at the time. Playing forward and midfielder positions, she was part of the U.S. national team that won the World Cup championships (1991 and 1999) and Olympic gold medals. For five years in a row, she
was named the U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year.
The first woman inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame, she was surprisingly born with a club foot, meaning her early years were spent in corrective shoes. Now in her retirement, she is a tireless campaigner for closing the wage gap between genders, working with Ladies Get Paid and Johnnie Walker’s equal pay initiative.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias Achieves the Unachievable
Celebrated for being “one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century,” Babe Didrikson Zaharias broke records in several different sports, with particular success in golf, basketball, baseball, and track and field athletics. She broke world records in javelin throwing, 80-meter hurdling, and high jumping.
Winning 83 golf tournaments between 1933-53, her sporting skills were infinite. But she wasn’t handed any of her achievements, as writer Paul Gallico said, “not enough has been said about the patience and strength of character expressed in her willingness to practice endlessly and her recognition that she could reach the top and stay there only by incessant hard work.”
Simone Biles Is the Greatest Gymnast of Her Generation
Five-time Olympic medalist and Artistic gymnast Simone Biles became the most decorated female athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympics. But she didn’t stop there. At the 2018 World Artistic Gymnastic Championships, Biles became the gymnast with the most World gold medals, male or female. “I was built this way for a reason,” she told Teen Vogue in 2016, “so I’m going to use it.”
Described as the greatest gymnast of her generation, she made history once again in August this year, becoming the first gymnast in history to attempt a double-twisting, double somersault dismount from the balance beam. Despite breaking a new record, Simone was disappointed with her performance on the night before her achievement. “I’m still really upset about floor,” she admitted to reporters. Biles is a true perfectionist and it shows.
Nancy Lieberman Broke the Gender Barrier in Basketball
Affectionately nicknamed “Lady Magic”, Nancy Lieberman was a pioneer in women’s basketball, setting many precedents in a male-dominated sport. She was the first woman to play in a men’s professional basketball league in ’86, as well as the first woman to participate in a Globetrotters world tour two years later. She even joined the Phoenix Mercury of the new WNBA near the age of 40.
Lieberman is regarded as one of the greatest women in American basketball and has been honored in numerous halls of fame, including the Nassau County Sports Hall of Fame, the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Today she coaches teams, having also become the first woman to coach a professional men’s basketball team.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee Overcame Severe Asthma to Become One of the Greatest Female Athletes
Named the “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century” by Sports Illustrated, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is regarded as one of the best athletes to participate in the heptathlon and long jump. She won three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals during a career in sports that spanned four Olympic events. She still holds the World Heptathlon Record that she set at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Amazingly, she even overcame her severe asthma diagnosis as a professional athlete, having also suffered from allergies that triggered her asthma attacks. “It’s frustrating,” she admitted in ’91, “I can control so much of what I do and I can’t control this asthma. Sometimes, I don’t want to accept that I have asthma.” With the help of coaches, she managed to control her affliction and continue her career as one of the best female athletes.
Alice Coachman Paved the Way for Women of Color in Track and Field
Specializing in the high jump, Alice Coachman became the first African American woman to win a gold Olympic medal in 1948. She was also the only American woman to have won an Olympic gold medal in athletics that year in London. She became a celebrity upon her return to the U.S., also becoming the first black woman to endorse an international product when Coca-Cola acquired her as a spokesperson.
Featured in the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, Coachman acknowledged the doors she opened for future female athletes of color in track and field, stating “I think I opened the gate for all of them.” After her sports career, she went on to establish the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to help support young athletes and retired Olympians.
Sakshi Malik Is the First Indian Female Wrestler to Win a Medal at the Olympics
Sakshi Malik reached a new height for India when she won a bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics for wrestling. The first Indian female to do so, it also makes her the fourth female Olympic medallist of India. She is one of India’s few female sports icons at the moment and uses her notoriety to spread positive messages about body image and the necessity for fitness at every age.
Malik has also spoken openly about the often overlooked subject of mental health for athletes: “In a lot of sports, it’s important to be mentally fit. You can be super fit, but if your mind isn’t working at its ideal, then you can’t perform.” She recognizes that “in every sportsperson’s life there are lots of ups and downs,” shedding light on the realities of reaching the top.
Nadia Comăneci Achieves “Perfect 10” with No Olympic Precedent
At just 14 years old, Nadia Comăneci achieved what had never been achieved before; a perfect score of 10.0 for her gymnastic performance on uneven bars. Weighing a slight 39kg, the following five days saw her complete six more perfect ten routines, where she became the youngest ever all-around Olympic gold medallist.
The unprecedented achievement came as a surprise to the young Romanian gymnast, who reflected that in 1976, “I was putting that routine away and not paying attention to the scoreboard until I heard the noise in the arena.” Despite her faultless score, she insists that “We [gymnasts] don’t think about scores at all. It is not important,” she said. “You don’t compete to get a score, you compete with yourself to do a good job.”
Throw Like a Girl, Specifically 13-Year Old Mo’ne Davis
In 2014, 13-year old Mo’ne Davis became the first African American girl in history to play in the Little League World Series (LLWS). She then proceeded to achieve the first game shutout ever pitched by a girl and the first win for a female pitcher in the history of LLWS. She struck out eight of her opponents.
The Philadelphian teenager achieved huge praise for her record-breaking performance. In 2014, she was the first Little Leaguer in history to be featured on a Sports Illustrated cover. If that was not enough, she also earned an ESPY Award for Best Breakthrough Athlete. She is truly an inspiration for other teenage girl athletes.
Li Na Is the First Asian-Born Athlete Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame
In 2011, Li Na became the first Asian-born player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament in history. She has since been recognized as one of the most influential women in sports in 2013, achieving a No. 2 ranking in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 2014. This year, she became the first Asian-born athlete to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Impressively, Li Na has achieved her sporting peak a lot later in life than most tennis players. She earned her WTA ranking in the same year she turned 32 years old, rivaling Serena Williams’ reputation as one of the more mature female tennis players at the top of their game.
Lindsey Vonn Has Earned the Highest Number of World Cup Crystal Globe Titles Ever
Alpine ski racer Lindsey Vonn was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in downhill after competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics. She has also won 20 World Cup crystal globe titles, the highest on record for men or women. She even surpassed legendary Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark and his 19 globes.
She is hailed as one of the most decorated female athletes in history, despite her significant knee injury which has impeded the latter years of her career and forced her to make an early retirement this year. Despite her setbacks, she was given the Laureus Sportswoman of the Year award in 2010 and leaves behind a lasting legacy.
Rosie Napravnik Didn’t Pay Attention to Chauvinist Teasing
Having ranked as the highest-ranked woman jockey in North America in 2014, Rosie Napravnik is the first female jockey to win more than one Breeders’ Cup race. She continues to uphold the record for being the only woman to compete in all three Triple Crown races in the same year.
Napravnik has acknowledged the difficulty for women to succeed in such a male-dominated sport as horse-racing, where only 10% of all jockeys are female. She recalls hecklers yelling at her to “go home and have a baby,” but refused to let that deter her, simply continuing to focus on being the best jockey she could regardless of her gender.
Brittney Griner Has Changed the Cultural Landscape of Basketball
6’8″ Basketballer Brittney Griner came to dominate NCAA women’s basketball, having helped lead the USA Olympic women’s basketball team to victory in 2016 and achieve her first Olympic medal. She has achieved a lot considering her young age, often competing alongside much older players.
Griner has also spoken out about her sexuality and her refusal to hide it, as is usually encouraged for professional athletes when they publicly acknowledge their homosexuality. She also signed a deal with Nike, making it the first time a gay person had been publicly endorsed by the company. She has said about coming out as a lesbian, “I’m just trying to help out, I’m just trying to make it not as tough for the next generation.”
Ellen Macarthur Broke the World Record for Sailing Around the World Solo
In 2005, female sailor Ellen Macarthur received international recognition when she beat the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, doing all woman-kind proud. She accomplished this feat in 71 days and 14 hours, not having allowed herself more than 20 minutes sleep at a time in order to be on the lookout.
Now retired from sailing, she launched two charities and focuses her time there. After managing to beat the previous record by more than a day and eight hours, she left us with this inspiring quote: “Courage is not having the energy to go on, it’s going on when you do not have the energy.”
Shanshan Feng Is the First Chinese Golfer to Make Number One, Ever
Shanshan Feng proudly earned the title of the first Chinese golfer, male or female, to make the number one ranking, just last year. “I’m really, really excited,” she admitted about her victory, adding “I hope there will be more world number ones coming up from China.”
Having turned 30 only last month, she is young by professional golfing standards and encourages other young Chinese women to pick up the club. She became the first golfer from mainland China to win a major championship in 2013, holding the fourth position in the Women’s World Golf Rankings.
Manon Rhéaume Is the First Woman to Play in an NHL Game
Canadian ice hockey goaltender Manon Rhéaume broke a record by becoming the first woman to play in any of the major North American pro sports leagues. Before signing the NHL contract, she was the first woman in history to even sign with a top junior division team, that being the Trios-Rivieres Draveurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
She is an accomplished athlete, winning an Olympic silver medal in ’98 and IIHF Women’s World Championship gold medals in the ’92 and ’94. Rhéaume truly is an example for all women, not least of all for having turned down the offer to pose for Playboy Magazine.
Jessie Graff Keeps Raising the Bar on American Ninja Warrior
Athletic television personality Jessie Graff was the first woman to represent the U.S. in Stage two (Las Vegas) of the American Sports Entertainment competition, American Ninja Warrior. She was also the first woman to complete Stage one of the Las Vegas Finals course and conquer the Stage one of the Sasuke franchise worldwide.
Nicknamed “Tumbleweed”, she is also an accomplished martial arts athlete and professional stuntwoman. This year, she has managed to finish third in the overall city finals and made it farther into the ninth obstacle than anyone before. Graff is paving the way for future athletics-based females in mainstream media by continuing to achieve firsts on behalf of all women.
Megan Rapinoe Achieves a First at the Olympic Games
Soccer player Megan Rapinoe helped the U.S. win the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments as a player of the tournament and as a top scorer. She scored six goals, retaining the U.S. in their top position. Rapinoe also led the U.S. to a gold medal during the 2012 London Olympic games where she became the first player, regardless of gender, to score a goal directly from a corner at the Olympics.
Despite her unquestionable talents, she is the subject of dividing opinion and controversy. She is outspoken about social issues regarding the gender pay gap, the LGBT community, U.S. politics, and police brutality. This outspoken athlete was one of the first prominent U.S. athletes to kneel in protest during the National Anthem in 2016. Despite her polarizing activism, she continues to dominate the soccer scene with her accomplishments.
Ronda Rousey Did More Than Trash-Talk Her Way Into History
Former judo Olympic bronze medallist Ronda Rousey has been the face of female wrestling for years. Nicknamed “Rowdy”, Jonathan Snowden wrote that she “all but single-handedly thrust women’s MMA into the American mainstream.” She retired from the sport at 29 years of age, leaving behind a huge legacy.
Described by Fox Sports as “one of the defining athletes of the 21st century,” Rousey is the only woman to have ever won a championship in the UFC and WWE. She is also the first female wrestler to enter the UFC Hall of Fame, and the first woman in history to grace the cover of Australia’s Men’s Fitness magazine. Having achieved so many firsts as a female fighter, she leaves behind an unrivaled legacy.