By Alicia Pryzsienak

With International Women’s Day being celebrated this weekend, I was struck by the thought of how far women have come in sport. Over the last 100 years or so women have been impactful, serving as inspirations and role models to those who aspire to do the same. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is ‘an equal world enabled’, and with the likes of these special ladies we are getting there. 

Starting with names like Billie Jean King and Wilma Rudolph, the world of female sport has continued to excel and we have been introduced to various other powerful women along the way. In 2018, Nielsen released a report based on the rise of women’s sport which showed over 84% of general sports fans now have an interest in the female sports industry.

Below, we’ve listed some of the most iconic female athletes who have paved the way for women’s sport to be in the spotlight. These are just a select few of the millions of inspirational women around the world. Every day women are challenging stereotypes and defying odds, proving to be role models for the younger generation. These ladies have encouraged change, and with this, an ‘equal world is enabled’. 

Wilma Rudolph 

Sprinter Wilma Rudolph was the first-ever American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics (Rome, 1960). Suffering from polio at the age of five, Wilma overcame the loss of strength in her left leg and foot to become the fastest woman in the world at the Games in 1960. We should also mention that she held the record for the 100 meters at 11.2 seconds, and 200 meters at 22.9 seconds. Rudolph gained international recognition during the 1960 Games due to its worldwide television coverage. During the peak of the civil rights movement Rudolph was a trailblazer; she fought for the rights of African American’s and women, while also breaking the gender barrier of all-male track events. Rudolph’s legacy lives on today.

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King is regarded as one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, if not the best. With 39 Grand Slam titles to her name, including 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles and 11 in mixed doubles, it is clear that King is an all-time great. Her advocacy for gender equality and social justice still remains, and her continued fight for equal pay allowed her to become the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money in 1971. However, inequalities still continued after this historic feat. Today, King is a primary advocate for women and LGBTQ equality.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Zaharias is known for breaking the boundaries of what it meant to be a female in her time. Her physical strength was criticised widely, yet this is what made her so special. Zaharias won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics and won ten Ladies Professional Golf Association (LGPA) major championships. In total, Zaharias won a total of 82 golf tournaments and broke boundaries in the likes of basketball, softball, diving, roller-skating and bowling. 

Sheryl Swoopes

Sheryl Swoopes was the first-ever player to be signed in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and a three-time WNBA MVP. Swoopes has won three Olympic gold medals, and in 2017, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. She was the first WNBA player to record a triple-double in the regular season and play-offs and was the first-ever female basketball player to have a Nike shoe named after her, the ‘Air Swoopes’. Aside from her widely successful career in basketball, in 2005 Swoopes became one of the highest-profile athletes to publicly announce that she was gay. Since retiring from the sport, Swoopes has endeavoured endless success in various different women’s basketball programmes, thus increasing awareness of the sport.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir

Toorpakai is a Pakistan national squash player with a truly remarkable story. As Toorpakai, now 29, rose to a notable position within her sport, she caught the attention of terrorist groups who continued to send her threats for playing her game. For her own protection, she remained trapped in her home practising squash for four years and during this time, wrote to every famous squash player she could think of. Finally, Jonathon Power responded and she was invited to train with him in Canada. She defied her nations gender stereotypes within the sport and has plans to settle in Pakistan one day, open a hospital and teach boys and girls to play sport. 

Minda Dentler

Polio is a life-threatening disease, yet for Minda Dentler it hasn’t stopped her living an active life and becoming an inspiration. Dentler is a polio survivor and vaccine athlete who has successfully completed an Ironman Triathlon. She swam 2.4 miles and biked over 130 miles in Hawaii in 2012. Dentler states how the proudest moment of her life wasn’t when she finished the Ironman Triathlon, but the day she vaccinated her daughter against the poliovirus. 

Aly Raisman

Aly Raisman is a two-time Olympic gymnast, and in 2012 she won the team gold medal, floor gold medal and bronze medal on balance beam. In 2016 she took home the individual all-around silver medal and floor silver medal, alongside another team gold medal. As decorated as Raisman is on the gymnastics floor, she has also become a powerful advocate in the fight to end sexual abuse. Raisman was one of over 100 gymnasts who came forward to speak against the former and now-disgraced USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Her blistering speech regarding the matter was her first step in using her platform to fix USA Gymnastics and provide justice for all victims of sexual abuse. 

Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova is a professional tennis player and is the only Russian national to have earned a career Grand Slam. At the age of 18, Sharapova was ranked number one in the world and was the first female from Russia to do so. Accumulating 36 singles titles and five Grand Slam titles, she is considered as one of the best tennis players to ever play the game. Alongside a hugely successful career, Sharapova has been involved in various humanitarian endeavours, including being United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador, focussed on the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Programme. In 2018, she also launched a programme to mentor women entrepreneurs around the world.

Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe is co-captain of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) and helped the US to its second consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019. Rapinoe scored six goals along the way to winning the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards. She was also a key part of the successful 2015 side, and 2012 Olympic team which took won the gold medal. Rapinoe is vocal both on and off the field and is an advocate for numerous LGBTQ organisations, often using her platform to speak out against social injustice. Finally, Rapinoe is a powerful advocate for women in sports and equality. 

Trischa Zorn

Trischa Zorn was born blind, however, this hasn’t stopped her from doing anything. She is the most successful athlete in the history of the Paralympic Games, having won 55 medals (41 gold, nine silver and five bronze) leading to her being inducted in the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2012. “I thought with what I have overcome with my disability, that if I could reach these children in the inner city… that I could be a good role model for them and that would satisfy me,” Zorn told the Los Angeles Times in 1995.

Have we missed anyone you think should be on the list? UCFB want to hear your opinions on these inspirational women, or on others who inspire you to be great every day.