In sports, even women who outperform men often get a fraction of the recognition, pay, and leadership opportunities.
We’re covering a small portion of the countless hard-working women in sports, but women still only get 4% of sports media coverage.
That’s disappointing, but we must acknowledge how far women have come over the years. From amateur atheletes to pros, women in sports have female role models to thank for their successes and opportunities.
Today, so many women carry the torch and push boundaries in the sports world. We want to shout out the most impressive women in sports who’ve exhibited excellence, courage, and character.
These legacies paved the way for future generations to keep making the world a better, fairer place.
Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926, with the fastest time in history despite swimming 14 extra miles due to the water conditions. She put women athletes on the map, setting many records and earning Olympic medals. Her historic swim damaged her hearing, which inspired her to mentor hearing-impaired children.
Overcoming racial inequality, Althea Gibson was the first black tennis player to win at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open Singles, and the French Open. The AP named her Female Athlete of the Year 1957 and 1958 — the first African American to receive the honor.
African American sprinter Wilma Rudolph spent years of her childhood partially paralyzed by life-threatening illnesses, but she didn’t let that stop her. Rudolph continued on to be the fastest woman in the world at the 1960 Olympics, setting the stage for women and girls in track and field. Many groundbreaking athletes have since received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award in her honor.
With 39 Grand Slam titles under her belt, many consider the activist and tennis legend one of the best of all time. King was the first female athlete recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the first with a sports venue named after her. She’s campaigned for women and equal pay since 1968 and still fights for women’s and LGBTQ+ equality through the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Since the Boston Marathon first started in 1897, Switzer was the first registered woman to run in and finish it in 1967 after Roberta Gibb ran in the race without a bib a year earlier. Five years later, The Boston Marathon opened to women. Switzer won the New York Marathon in 1974, started the Avon International Running Circuit, and ran in the Boston Marathon again in 2017.
Summitt started as a basketball player, winning silver as the American women’s co-captain at the 1976 Olympics. She coached the Tennessee Lady Vols for 38 years, won eight NCAA championships, and gathered 1,098 wins, retiring with the record in college basketball history. The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Presidential Medal of Honor are just two of her accolades. Summitt passed at age 64, leaving behind the Pat Summitt Foundation, an Alzheimer’s charity she founded with her son.
At the 1988 Olympics, Florence Griffith Joyner won three gold medals and broke the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter world records in style, even overshadowing several men’s national records. She was a sports and fashion icon that girls looked up to, earning a spot in the USATF Hall of Fame and in TIME's 2020 100 Women of the Year, a list of the most influential women of the past century.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee earned renown as one of the best American track and field athletes for her performance in the heptathlon and long jump despite having asthma. After she won six Olympic medals and four 1987 World Championship gold medals, Sports Illustrated dubbed her ‘Super Woman’ and named her the best female athlete of the 20th century. She co-founded Athletes for Hope, and the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation has helped supply internet access to four million people in low-income communities.
The most successful Paralympian ever, swimmer Trischa Zorn holds 55 medals, 41 of which are gold, has a place in the Paralympic Hall of Fame, and has set three world records. She’s since worked extensively with children with special needs, developed the inclusionary teaching model for special needs education, and works to help injured American service members.
The swimmer made a name for herself with one silver and three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics. She then committed to gender equality by testifying before Congress to fight for policy reform. Hogshead-Makar combats sexual abuse in sports as a leading civil rights lawyer, and she founded Champion Women, a non-profit organization for women in sports.
Notre Dame women’s basketball Head Coach for 33 years, Hall-of-Famer Muffet McGraw recently retired with 936 career victories and two national championships. She has plans for community work and to fight for women in sports leadership.
Another co-founder of Athletes for Hope, Mia Hamm was the international face of women’s soccer for years, achieving four NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championships with UNC, two Olympic gold medals, and two FIFA World Cup Championships. For years, she had the record for most goals in an international competition. The Mia Hamm Foundation raises awareness and funds for families in need of bone marrow and cord blood transplants. The nonprofit also creates sports opportunities for young women.
Serena has 14 Grand Slam doubles wins alongside sister Venus and 23 Grand Slam singles titles. She’s ranked number one for WTA singles eight times. In 2021, she was Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year, number 28 on Forbes World’s Highest-Paid Athletes, and she’s the highest-earning female athlete ever. Since becoming a mom in 2017, Williams has been candid about the challenges of discrimination, motherhood, her life-threatening childbirth complications, and maternal mortality among African American women. She started the Serena Williams Foundation to support underprivileged youth and families affected by violent crime.
Six-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta Vieira da Silva was the first player to score at five FIFA World Cups, with a record-holding 17 goals in the tournament. The remarkable leader has the most international goals of any Brazilian in the sport and might be the best female player ever. In 2018, she was appointed UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for women and girls in sports.
In 2005, sailor Ellen MacArthur completed the fastest solo trip around the world in about 71 days. She held that world record until 2008. Now she has charities for business and education and runs the Ellen MacArthur Trust, teaching young cancer survivors how to sail.
In 2008, Ronda Rousey was the first American woman to win an Olympic bronze in judo. Hers was the first-ever women’s fight in the UFC. The first woman with both UFC and WWE championship wins has defended her UFC title six times. She’s one of the only women to ever headline a pay-per-view card. Rousey has confessed to battling eating disorders, challenges women to defy stereotypes and body insecurities, and has raised money for mental health through martial arts clinics.
Since winning two back-to-back NCAA Championships under coach Pat Summitt, 2020 WNBA Defensive Player of the year and two-time AP Female Athlete of the Year has also won Finals MVP, two regular-season MVPs, two championships, and two Olympic gold medals. Chicago Sky’s Candace Parker was also a TNT NBA analyst while raising a daughter.
General manager and three-time WNBA Coach of the Year, Cheryl Reeve has led the Lynx to four championships. She’s accumulated 267 career wins for an impressive 67.8% winning percentage since 2010. She’s now heading the U.S. women’s national team at the Olympics
Lisa Joseph Metelus is an executive at CAA Sports, which represents 1,700 athletes, broadcasters, coaches, and more. As Co-Head of Basketball Marketing and Servicing, she creates endorsement, licensing, speaking, and philanthropy opportunities for about 50 NBA players. She has a history with Alonzo Mourning Charities, which develops programs for at-risk youth and mentors young girls.
Over her decades-long career as a broadcaster and reporter, Laura Okmin has covered ten Super Bowls, NHL and NBA championships, several World Series, and the Olympics. Okmin started Galvanize, a company that mentors women in sports. Through workshops and boot camps, Galvanize networks and unites 2,000 women in sports business, PR, marketing, and beyond.
Six-time U.S. track and field champ and 2012 Olympian Alysia Montaño challenged all expectations at the 2014 USATF championships. She ran the 800-meter race eight months pregnant and competed five months pregnant in 2017. She called out corporate sponsors for failing to provide maternity protections. She founded &Mother, her non-profit that empowers moms.
Attorney Michele Roberts is Executive director of the NBPA. She’s the first female leader for a major North American professional sports union. Pre-COVID, Roberts had plans to retire, but she stuck around when the sport needed her to help facilitate financial agreements and health & safety arrangements amid the pandemic, including the NBA Bubble.
In 2014, the San Antonio Spurs hired Hammon as assistant coach, making her the first full-time female assistant coach in North American men’s professional sports. Previously a six-time WNBA All-Star, now she’s Las Vegas Aces’ Head Coach. Hammon has praised the progress women have made in sports leadership.
As a 19-year-old rookie, swimmer Simone Manuel made an impression at the 2016 Olympics. She won four medals and became the first Black swimmer to achieve gold in an individual event. A holder of three NCAA relay world records, she’s used her spotlight to talk about racial equality and the need for diversity in swimming.
The former law professor was the director of law, policy, and governance for the NCAA for four years. Now, she’s the WNBPA’s first Executive Director. She recently championed union negotiations for players’ 53% pay increase with fertility benefits and maternity leave. Jackson stood by players through the pandemic and their racial equality advocacy.
Former investment banker Kim Davis has been the highest-ranking Black executive in the NHL since 2017. The Senior Executive Vice President shows initiative in making the league inclusive. Davis calls for women of different races to work together and collaborated with Billie Jean King on a leadership initiative that partners with CEOs to promote diversity and pay equality.
Hegerberg became the leading Women’s Champions League scorer of all time at 25. She was the first female player to receive the Ballon d’Or. With support from Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, she stepped away from the Norwegian national team and opted out of the 2019 World Cup to protest Norway’s treatment of female players and women’s soccer.
At 24, Simone Biles is tied as the most decorated gymnast ever, with 32 total World Championship and Olympic medals. Biles uses her platform to be an example for young girls, and to stand up for fellow survivors against sexual abuse in sports. She’s opened up about being in foster care as a child and has partnered with a program donating necessities to foster kids and families.
Once playing quarterback in the Canadian women’s football league, the NFL’s senior director of football development Samantha Rapoport pushes for girls’ and women’s involvement in football. She’s helped many women land jobs in pro and college football.
The three-time Olympic medalist and nine-time world championship medalist in hockey helped form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.
Shiffrin is the youngest Olympic slalom champion, the youngest skier to win 50 World Cup races, and the first skier of all time to earn $1 million in prizes in one season. She started the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund to help athletes affected by COVID.
USWNT co-captains Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe brought home their second FIFA World Cup in 2019. They made headlines fighting for female athletes’ equal pay.
These are the five women athletic directors out of all 65 colleges in the Power 5 conferences.
As 2020’s eighth overall athlete in endorsement income and highest-earning woman athlete, Naomi Osaka is one of the most marketable athletes in the world. TIME named her one of 100 most influential people in the world in 2019 and 2020. She made statements for racial equality during the US Open Championship.
The National Lacrosse League’s Deputy Commissioner and Executive Vice President of Business Affairs previously spent nine years as deputy general counsel and four years as Vice President of Community Development, Culture, and Growth in the NHL.
2019 Defensive Player of the Year and now a three-time NWHL All-Star, the first Black woman in professional hockey joined the NWHL in 2015. Blake Bolden went on to be the first black female NHL pro scout for the LA Kings, the second woman NHL pro scout. She supports the non-profit Black Girl Hockey Club.
Months after having an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter prematurely, Allyson Felix added to six Olympic gold medals by winning her 12th and 13th track and field World Championship gold, breaking Usain Bolt’s record. She wrote an op-ed about pregnancy discrimination in sports.
NBA and NFL lawyer and sports agent, Lynn is the third woman and first black woman to represent an NFL draft pick.
A George Mallory Award-winning ultramarathon runner and former teacher, Courtney Dauwalter has set numerous long-distance records among female athletes. She won the Moab 240 Mile in 2 days, 9 hours, and 59 minutes, beating second-place by over ten hours.
The two-time Olympian hockey player was the first woman at the NHL All-Star skills competition. She’s worked as a San Jose Sharks commentator and player development coach for the AHL.
Formerly a pro football player, Odessa Jenkins co-founded the Women’s National Football Conference in 2019. She wants to cultivate a women’s tackle football league that women and girls can look up to.
In 2013, Jeanie Buss inherited a role as team president and LA Lakers’ representative on the NBA Board of Governors. In 2020, Buss became the first female controlling owner of an NBA Championship-winning team.
Former college softball player Alyssa Nakken is now the first woman MLB coach for the San Francisco Giants. When the Giants beat the Oakland A’s with her as first base coach, her jersey from the game went to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 2018, Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson was the first overall WNBA draft pick. In 2020, she was the league’s MVP, and she won her first gold at the summer Olympics. She’s an active member of the WNBA’s Social Justice Council.
Keia Clarke’s been the NBA’s Senior Business Development Coordinator, the New York Liberty’s Director of Marketing, Chief Operating Officer, and now CEO. She’s fought to fuel support for the WNBA team by moving their home venue.
Businesswoman Dany Garcia bought the XFL in 2020. With plans to rehabilitate the bankrupt organization in 2022, she’s now the first woman to own a professional sports league.
Not only has LA Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike achieved number one draft pick, Rookie of the Year, MVP, WNBA champion, and All-Star six times, she was also central to negotiating the landmark player salary and benefit increases as President of the players association.
Donaldson was an anchor and reporter for NBC Sports Washington. Now she’s a senior-level media producer for Washington football, the first woman with a regular spot in an NFL team’s radio broadcast. She began the Women’s Initiative Now board to support women working for the franchise.
These influential women in sports have changed the world. The successes at the top are a reflection of work on the ground: More and more young girls are competing at club level — the number of girls grows around 30% annually, while for boys it is 7%.
Did we feature your hero? What qualities do you think it takes to inspire amateur athletes and other sports legends alike? Make your voice heard and join our advocacy for women’s equality in sports.
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