Game-Changing Women in Sports

By Rosunnara R.Last Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:27:16 PM ET
Serena Williams
Photo Courtesy: TPN/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The face of sports continues to change every day, thanks to successful and strong women dominating everything from tennis to soccer. Legends like Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe and Maya Moore have crushed records and made history in what remains a male-dominated industry.

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These influential and victorious women have redefined what it means to be an athlete. Check out the stories of 30 game-changing women in sports who have inspired the world.

Ronda Rousey

American professional wrestler Ronda Rousey is a trailblazer for women's mixed martial arts (MMA). All eyes were on Rousey when she debuted in the male-dominated sport in 2011. She became an unstoppable force, even gaining the Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) attention.

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Photo Courtesy: Sabre Blade/Flickr

In 2012, the UFC announced that Rousey joined the league as its first female fighting superstar. She also became the first female fighter to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. Now, she's one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Track and field, basketball, golf? Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed and excelled in all three. The multi-sport athlete won two gold medals in track and field and 10 Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) major championships. Speaking of the LPGA, Zaharias was one of the founders of the organization.

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Photo Courtesy: @HISTORY/Twitter

The legendary athlete was a pioneer in women's golf, becoming the first woman to play in an all-male Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) tournament. With the longest winning streak in golf history, she won 14 golf tournaments in a row from 1946 to 1947. Zaharias is often labeled one of the greatest athletes of all time.

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Naomi Osaka

Ever wonder what it’s like to beat your childhood idol? For tennis player Naomi Osaka, it wasn't exactly what she was expecting. Osaka defeated Serena Williams in the 2018 Grand Slam final, but at the trophy ceremony, the crowd booed her for winning.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter Menzel/Flickr

Despite the public outcry, Osaka continues to conquer the tennis world as an aggressive and powerful athlete. She became the first Japanese player to hold top rankings in professional tennis. Time magazine listed Osaka as one of the most influential people in the world in 2019.

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Mia Hamm

Mia Hamm is one of the most influential women in the history of soccer. She led the U.S. soccer team to victory at the Women’s World Cup in 1999, and that win became a huge moment in history that paved the way for more women to participate in the sport.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The soccer legend once held the record for the most international goals scored by any man or woman. Although Hamm has retired from the sport, she continues to inspire young female athletes to follow their dreams and reach their goals.

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Ibtihaj Muhammad

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history as the first American athlete to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics. The strong, fast fencer finished with a medal, becoming the first Muslim-American woman to do so at the Olympics.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Embassy London/Flickr

Muhammad stays true to her faith and also breaks some cultural norms. Many people don't believe Muslim women can play sports, but Muhammad influences Muslim-American teens to become athletes and compete in the Olympics. Her story focuses on the importance of inclusiveness and representation.

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Ester Ledecká

Ester Ledecká was told she had to choose between skiing and snowboarding. Apparently, her coaches assumed she couldn't succeed in both sports. Regardless of their advice, Ledecká stunned the world by winning two gold medals in alpine skiing and snowboarding at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

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Photo Courtesy: @ESPNStatsInfo/Twitter

Thankfully, Ledecká didn't listen to the doubters because she achieved the "impossible" and became a champion. The historic win inspired many skiers and snowboarders, making them believe there could be more than one path to success. Coaches also learned a lesson about empowering their athletes by supporting their choices.

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Chloe Kim

Chloe Kim became the youngest female snowboarder to win an Olympic gold medal. At the young age of 17, she tore past the competition and won the women's snowboard halfpipe in 2018. Hitting back-to-back 1080s and three-revolution spins, Kim executes tricks that are hard for her competitors to match.

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Photo Courtesy: @ChloeKim/Twitter

The Korean American athlete is one of the most influential teens in the world. Kim's incredible record-breaking skills are inspirational, and her public thoughts about food are relatable. (If you don’t know what that means, just check out her hilarious tweets). Watch out because Kim is just getting started.

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Simone Biles

There's no doubt Simone Biles is one of the greatest gymnasts of all time — and she knows it. Every year, she keeps on winning. In 2019, she received her 25th World Championship gold medal, breaking records and making gymnastics history.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Biles is now the most decorated gymnast in the world, beating Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo's record of 23 world medals. In honor of Biles achievements, two gymnastic moves were named after her. She also has another major achievement — inspiring young gymnasts and athletes around the world to go for the gold.

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Misty Copeland

Both instructors and dancers told Misty Copeland that she didn't belong in ballet. Many people in the industry believe black women don't have the right physique to be ballet dancers. Despite all the hate and doubt, Copeland shattered stereotypes and changed the future of ballet.

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Photo Courtesy: @Forbes/Twitter

In 2015, the American Ballet Theatre promoted Copeland to principal dancer, making her the first African-American female at the top of the ballet world. Her success proves that the industry should welcome girls of color and girls of all body types. She also inspires many people of color to work on fulfilling their dreams, no matter what anyone tells them.

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Allyson Felix

In 2019, Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix took the track and field world by storm. The Olympian broke Usain Bolt's record just 10 months after having an emergency C-section. Bolt, the fastest man on the planet, held the world medal-count record until Felix beat him with 12 world titles.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Felix's major inspirations are her daughter and other mothers, and we certainly believe mothers and daughters from all over the world are inspired by her as well. The champion sprinter proves motherhood doesn’t prevent female athletes from being world champions. Felix notes the historic win was even more special because her daughter was in the stadium to witness it.

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Megan Rapinoe

World Cup champion Megan Anna Rapinoe is a U.S. professional soccer player and the captain of Reign FC in the National Women's Soccer League. In 2019, she earned the honor of Best FIFA Women’s Player and delivered a thought-provoking speech on dreaming big.

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Photo Courtesy: Jamie Smed/Flickr

Rapinoe is no stranger to the spotlight. In fact, she's famous for both her incredible soccer skills and her activism. The soccer star is leading the team's fight for equal pay, and she also uses her platform to speak out against racism and homophobia.

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Billie Jean King

In the late 1960s, Billie Jean King helped women's professional tennis explode. The retired U.S. tennis player is a former World No. 1 ranked player, winning 39 major titles in her career. She competed in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

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Photo Courtesy: Mitchell Weinstock/Flickr

With many achievements to her name, King is often called one of the greatest tennis players of all time. In other words, she is a legitimate legend. She made history as the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in one season. King is also the founder of the Women's Tennis Association and the Women's Sports Foundation.

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Maya Moore

One of the greatest winners in women's basketball history is Maya April Moore, who played for the Minnesota Lynx in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) from 2011 to 2018. Throughout her career, Moore earned many titles and won plenty of awards, including four WNBA championships.

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Photo Courtesy: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

The basketball superstar is a huge inspiration to the youth, especially girls. Moore's Nike billboard — a replica of the iconic Michael Jordan "Wings" poster — broke the internet (not really, but it was huge) after a young girl took a photo in front of it. Moore happily met with her young fan and hopes the encounter will help the young girl feel excited and enthusiastic about women in sports.

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Danica Patrick

Danica Sue Patrick began racing at age 10 and never looked back. The retired professional racing driver is the most influential and successful woman in the sports history. After crushing the 2008 Indy Japan 300, she became the only woman to win an IndyCar Series race.

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Photo Courtesy: @DanicaPatrick/Twitter

Her most famous sponsor was GoDaddy, which made her a Super Bowl advertising regular and one of the world’s highest-paid female athletes. There's no doubt Patrick inspired girls to join a male-dominated sport, and more young girls are also visiting race tracks now to enjoy the fun.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Sports Illustrated crowns Jackie Joyner-Kersee as the "Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century." The highly decorated female athlete is a six-time Olympic medalist with three golds, one silver and two bronzes. She dominated heptathlon and long-jump competitions.

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Photo Courtesy: David Madison/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Although Joyner-Kersee is a retired athlete, she still sits at the top of the heptathlon world. The legend holds the World Heptathlon record with an extraordinary 7,291 points. There's no question that her achievements inspire young female athletes in sports to become champions.

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Paige Spiranac

Golfing sensation and social media star Paige Spiranac will never forget the pain she felt after other players mocked her appearance at Dubai’s Ladies European Tour event. She also received a flood of insults online. The event was supposed to be her pro debut, but no one took her seriously.

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Photo Courtesy: @PaigeSpiranac/Twitter

As a result, Spiranac took a break from golf to focus on changing the world. The athlete fights to end bullying, especially cyberbullying and online hate. She's challenging misconceptions about what a pro golf player looks like. Spiranac also has a message to all women: Don't change yourself to please other people.

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Saina Nehwal

Saina Nehwal is a badminton champ from India. A knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics almost ended her career, but she refused to quit. Following multiple surgeries, Nehwal returned with a vengeance and won a medal at the 2017 World Championship.

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Photo Courtesy: @NSaina/Twitter

Previously a World No. 1 ranked player, Nehwal has nabbed more than 24 international titles. She's also the first Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal. Many fans regard her as one of the most successful Indian athletes of all time. Thanks to Nehwal, badminton has grown more popular in India.

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Alex Morgan

U.S. soccer co-captain Alex Morgan is an Olympic gold medalist and World Cup winner. Not only is she a champion, but she's also an influencer. Every time Morgan steps on the field, young girls watch her and get excited to play soccer and other sports as well.

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Photo Courtesy: Jamie Smed/Wikimedia Commons

Morgan's growing empire is all about girl power. She inspires young girls to change the face of soccer and be proud of "playing like a girl." Morgan and her team also advocate for respect and equal pay. The women's soccer team outperforms the men's team, yet still faces gender-based income equality.

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Serena Williams

Getting to the top isn't easy in any career. Tennis champion Serena Williams has certainly experienced plenty of hate throughout her career. On the court, crowds have booed and yelled racial slurs at her, but despite the negative reactions at times, Williams slammed her way to the top with multiple Grand Slam tournament wins.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In the current era of professional tennis, Williams has won 23 major singles titles — more than any man or woman. The Women's Tennis Association ranked her No. 1 in the world eight times. The legend continues to knock down the competition and inspire diversity in tennis.

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Leona Chin

Racecar driver Leona Chin is burning rubber and smoking the competition. Also known as the "Queen of Drift, " she was voted the "Most Inspiring Female Motorsports Athlete" by the Motorsports Association of Malaysia.

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Photo Courtesy: @leonachin/Twitter

As one of the world’s top female drivers, Chin proves she has excellent car control and that women belong in the sport. She surpasses the skills of some of the male drivers, and she feels great about it too. The drifting queen is also the brains behind viral prank videos, posing as a car sales agent or student driver to surprise unsuspecting passengers with her supreme motor skills.

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Jennifer Welter

Jennifer Welter is the NFL's first female coach, but she doesn't intend to be the last. This isn't the first time she paved the way for more women in a male-dominated sport. In fact, she previously played in professional football leagues for both women's and men's teams.

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Photo Courtesy: @jwelter47/Twitter

In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals hired Welter as the assistant coaching intern, which made NFL history. Coaching isn't easy, and Welter didn't feel welcome as a coach until linebacker Lorenzo Alexander told a rookie to listen to her because she's an expert. Welter is definitely redefining the rules for becoming an NFL coach.

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Fu Yuanhui

Chinese professional swimmer Fu Yuanhui broke the internet during the 2016 Rio Olympics. The mega-viral swimmer won third place in the finals of the 100-meter backstroke, but her real prize was winning something even better: the world's heart.

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Photo Courtesy: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Fans admired her excited reaction and energy after nabbing the bronze medal. She taught the world an important lesson on honoring achievements — no matter how big or small. "Even though I didn't win first place today, I've already surpassed myself, and I am happy with that," Yuanhui said with a big smile.

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Annika Sörenstam

Retired Swedish professional golfer Annika Sörenstam is widely considered one of the greatest female golfers in history. Throughout her career, she has won 90 international tournaments — the most wins for any female golfer. She's also a nine-time LPGA Player of the Year.

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Photo Courtesy: @ANNIKA59/Twitter

In 2003, the PGA Tour invited Sörenstam to compete, which made her the first woman to play in the all-male tournament since Babe Zaharias in 1945. Fans sat with their eyes glued to their TV sets as Sörenstam competed. Her passion continues to excite young female players as they prepare to dominate the game.

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Michelle Kwan

As the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, Michelle Kwan has won five world championships and nine U.S. championships. She's also a two-time Olympic medalist. With so many accomplishments, it's no surprise that she ranks as one of the nation's most popular athletes.

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Photo Courtesy: Kevin Rushforth/Flickr

Every time Kwan skated, all eyes were on her. The figure skating legend is famous for her amazing control and dramatic artistry on ice. The incredible role model has inspired many young girls over the years to take up the sport and go for their skating dreams.

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Katie Ledecky

American swimmer Katie Ledecky keeps making history. The swimming sensation has already won 15 world championship gold medals, the most for any female swimmer in the world. She's also a five-time Olympic gold medalist and is on her way to dominating freestyle swimming.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, Ledecky holds the world record for the women’s 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle. The bright young athlete has already accomplished a lot, but she wants more. The ambitious swimmer is known for setting unreasonable goals and then beating her own personal bests. Will she break her own world record?

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Julie Krone

In 1993, Julie Krone rode her way into history on the back of a horse. She became the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown Race — the Belmont Stakes — and she's still the only one to do so. She's also the first woman inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

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Photo Courtesy: John Giles/PA Images/Getty Images

The retired American athlete continues to inspire girls to become jockeys. In fact, she opened the Julie Krone Junior Jockey Camp in 2019 to share her passion and expertise. Girls often run up to Krone and say, "You inspired me so much. You let me know a girl could do it."

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Eri Yoshida

Dubbed the Knuckle Princess, Eri Yoshida is a Japanese professional baseball player. After watching Major League Baseball pitcher Tim Wakefield on television, she was inspired to learn how to throw a knuckleball. At age 14, she perfected the pitch by teaching herself.

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Photo Courtesy: Douglas Keister/Corbis Sport/Getty Images

By age 16, she became the first female drafted by a Japanese men's professional baseball team. Eventually, she went on to play in several men’s professional baseball leagues in the U.S. She also had the opportunity to pitch in games in Canada. Even better, Yoshida trained with her baseball idol, Tim Wakefield, at the Boston Red Sox minor league training facility in 2010.

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Cammi Granato

Cammi Granato is a retired American ice hockey player, who fiercely brought girl power to the sport. As the captain of the gold medal-winning team in 1998, Granato is a legendary and influential athlete. Leading the U.S. women's hockey team to the top of the Olympics inspired a whole new generation of girls to sign up for the sport.

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Photo Courtesy: Chris Trotman/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

In 2008, the hockey superstar was inducted into the International Hockey Hall of Fame, followed by her induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. Although she no longer plays hockey, her legacy as a powerhouse female athlete will live on forever.

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Nancy Lopez

Nancy Marie Lopez has an impressive resume as a retired professional golfer. In 1977, she became a member of the LPGA Tour, and she proceeded to set the golfing world on fire from that point on. Her confidence, strength and drive to win it all mesmerized fans.

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Photo Courtesy: David Cannon/David Cannon Collection/Getty Images

The Hispanic athlete won 48 LPGA Tour events, including three major championships. Lopez has earned many highly respected titles, such as LPGA Tour Player of the Year and GWAA Female Player of the Year. Other golfers and fans widely regard her as one of the key reasons the LPGA boomed.

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Bethany Hamilton

One of the most famous surfers in the world, Bethany Hamilton is widely known for her impressive comeback story. At the age of eight, Hamilton entered surfing competitions, but her rise to the top almost ended after a shark attack in 2003.

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Photo Courtesy: troy_williams/Flickr

Hamilton lost her left arm as a result of the attack, but that didn't stop her from returning to the water. In fact, she courageously went back to professional surfing. With a lot of determination and strength, she has won eight competitions. Her story has inspired books and films, but most importantly, the world.

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Bonnie Blair

American retired speed skater Bonnie Kathleen Blair is a legend. As one of the top skaters of her era, Blair captivated everyone with her extraordinary skills and her smooth strides. She's also one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history, winning five gold medals and one bronze.

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Photo Courtesy: Bob Martin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The speed skating champ has already been inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. After retirement, Blair continues to wow the world as a motivational speaker.

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