From equal pay, to simply inclusion, women in sports have had to fight for equality in a battle that continues to this day. While women have come a long way in sports in the past century, it is in large part due to the groundbreaking work of female athletes before them, who proved they could be competitive, talented athletes. Here are 10 of the many female athletes who paved the way for athletes today.
In 1967, women were still banned from competing in the Boston Marathon, due to long standing beliefs that running was harmful to women. Despite this, Katherine Switzer signed up for the marathon, under the pseudonym of K.V. Switzer. Even though they tried to forcefully eject her from the course, she finished the race. The Boston Marathon would officially allow women to join the race five years later in 1972.
Having been born blind, Trischa Zorn started swimming at the age of 10, and would go on to become the most decorated Paralympian of all time. Since sweeping at her premiere at the 1980 games, she has received 55 medals, 41 of them gold, and became the first American woman to be inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2012. Since retiring, she’s helped US military personnel get involved in Paralympic sports.
Having been a ballerina since the age of 13, Misty Copeland joined the American Ballet Theater in 2001. Fourteen years later, she would be promoted to a principal dancer, making history as the ABT’s first African American woman promoted to the position. In 2014, President Obama appointed her to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, Sports, and & Nutrition, and that same year she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford for her “contributions to classical ballet and helping to diversify the artform.”
Gertrude Ederle didn’t know how to swim properly until she was 15 years old, but that didn’t stop her from winning gold in the 4 x 100 meter relay and a bronze in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle race in the 1924 Paris Olympics only two years later. In 1926, she became the first woman to swim the English Channel, fighting through storms and swells, and finishing two hours earlier than the previous record set.
Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is regarded as one of the most iconic women in tennis, and for good reason. In addition to founding the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, and leading a movement advocating for equal prize money in tournaments, she defeated Bobby Riggs in a “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. As one of the first athletes to be publicly outed, she is known as a longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for her work fighting for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights.
With 25 world championship medals, Simone Biles has the most global competition series medals out of any male or female gymnast ever. The 24-year-old is the first woman to win four gold medals at a single world championship since 1974, and is the first female African American all-around world champion. She’s also made Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world.
Alice Coachman broke barriers in the 1948 Olympics by becoming the first black woman from any country to win Olympic gold for her performance in the high jump. Her success of flying over the 5 foot, 6 ⅛ inch bar led to a parade being held for her in her hometown of Albany, Georgia, and a personal congratulations at the White House from President Truman. Despite this, the mayor of Albany refused to shake her hand because of her race, and the city auditorium where her homecoming celebration was held was segregated. “We had segregation, but it wasn’t any problem for me because I had won,” she said in an interview with The Telegraph. “That was up to them, whether they accepted it or not.”
As a multi-talented athlete, Tara Cunningham made history in the 2000 Olympic games, where women’s weightlifting made its debut and she became the first female Olympic weightlifting champion. At only 106 pounds, she managed to lift over twice her bodyweight to claim the gold. In addition to being a successful weightlifter, she also trained in gymnastics and soccer at US Olympic Training Centers.
Venus Williams started her professional tennis career in 1994, and would go on to win seven Grand Slam titles and Olympic gold, playing both in singles and as a dynamic duo with sister and tennis legend Serena Williams. The pair of them claimed 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. Williams saw success on the court even while battling an autoimmune disease that she was diagnosed with in 2011. Along with her widely successful tennis career, Venus Williams changed the game for women off the court, pressuring Wimbledon in 2007 to offer the same prize money as they do to the men’s division.
Talented rock climber Lynn Hill made history in 1993 by becoming the first person of any gender to free climb The Nose, a steep route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. She repeated the same feat again the next year, completing the climb in under 24 hours. In 1999, she led a team of women in a climb in Madagascar in what turned out to be potentially one of the most difficult first ascents of a big wall ever done by a team of women.