- Interest and investment in women’s sports have been on the rise in recent years.
- Countless female athletes have helped usher women’s sports into the mainstream.
- From Babe Didrikson Zaharias to the Williams sisters, here are 36 iconic athletes who’ve put women’s sports in the spotlight.
Women’s sports are on the rise.
Recent breakthroughs have helped usher female athletes and their organizations closer to the mainstream than they’ve ever been. According to a 2018 Nielsen report on the rise of women’s sports, 84% of general sports fans now have an interest in women’s sports.
But for decades, pioneering women in sports have worked to foster progress and inspire others hoping to accomplish history-defining athletic feats of their own.
The push to bring women’s sports to the masses started with names like Wilma Rudolph and Billie Jean King but has grown to include women like Serena and Venus Williams, Megan Rapinoe, and Katie Ledecky.
Below, we take you through the 36 most iconic female athletes that have helped put women’s sports in the spotlight.
Alexandra Licata contributed to an earlier version of this story.
Sprinter Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics. She overcame the loss of strength in her left leg and foot, caused by polio at five years old, to become the fastest woman in the world at the 1960 Olympics. She held the records for the 100 meters at 11.2 seconds and 200 meters at 22.9 seconds.
Because of worldwide television coverage throughout the 1960 Olympics, Rudolph gained international recognition and became an iconic figure for black and female athletes.
During the peak of the civil rights movement, Rudolph was a trailblazer for the rights of Black women. She broke the gender barrier of all-male events in track and field, and her legacy lives on today.
Billie Jean King
Former World No. 1 professional tennis player Billie Jean King is regarded as one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time. She won 39 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, 16 in women’s doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles.
King is an advocate for gender equality and social justice. She campaigned for equal pay when the Open Era began in 1968 and became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money in 1971. Two years later, she beat tennis superstar Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” and helped found the Women’s Tennis Association, both of which contributed to her legacy of making tennis among the most equitable professional sports on the planet.
Her fight for gender equity in sports has continued ever since. Today, King remains a primary advocate for women as the founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
She’s also a firm proponent of LGBTQ+ equality. In 1981, she was outed as having been in a long-term relationship with a woman. King and Ilana Kloss, her partner of 40-plus years, got married in 2018.
Lindsey Vonn is one of only two female skiers to win four World Cup overall championships. She won three consecutive titles from 2008-10 and another in 2012. She was also the first American woman to win a gold medal in the downhill, which she did at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Vonn won her 20th World Cup crystal globe title in 2016 to surpass Ingemar Stenmark for the overall record for men or women. She is also one of six women to win a World Cup race in all five disciplines of alpine skiing.
With three Olympic medals, four World Cup titles, 82 World Cup victories, and two World Championship gold medals to her name, Vonn is widely considered one of the greatest skiers of all time.
After missing parts of several seasons as a result of injuries, Vonn ultimately retired from the sport in 2019.
Aly Raisman is a two-time Olympic gymnast. In 2012, she won the team gold medal, floor gold medal, and bronze medal on balance beam with Team USA. She took home the individual all-around silver medal and floor silver medal in 2016, as well as another team gold medal.
As accomplished as she is in the gym, Raisman may be even better known for her work in the fight to end sexual abuse. She was among hundreds of gymnasts who came forward to speak out against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
Alex Morgan is a United States Women’s Soccer Team legend who won her second consecutive FIFA World Cup championship in 2019. She debuted in the World Cup in 2011, where the team won silver.
In 2012, Morgan recorded 28 goals and 21 assists to become the second American woman to score 20 goals and 20 assists in the same calendar year, alongside Mia Hamm. She was also the sixth and youngest US player to score 20 goals in a single year.
Morgan has accumulated more than 200 caps and 119 goals. She was also one of the first women’s soccer players to appear on the cover of a FIFA video game.
Off the field, Morgan was crucial to the US women’s national team’s successful fight for equal pay, which involved a contentious lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation. She was instrumental in the National Women’s Soccer League’s reckoning over pervasive emotional, mental, and sexual abuse.
Nastia Liukin was a pivotal member of the US gymnastics team during three World Championships and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. She won the 2008 Olympic all-around, as well as five Olympic medals, which tied the record for most medals won by an American gymnast in a single non-boycotted Olympic Games. Simone Biles later also tied the record.
A four-time all-around US national champion, Liukin’s strongest events were the uneven bars and balance beam. She attempted a comeback in 2011 with hopes of making the 2012 Olympic team, but fell several times during the Olympic Trials and retired in 2012.
She is now a gymnastics analyst for NBC Sports and hosts an annual Nastia Liukin Cup to support the growth of gymnastics.
Serena Williams is widely regarded as the best female tennis player of the Open Era. Her victories have shaped her into an inspirational figure in the sport.
She holds the Open Era record of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which sits just one shy of Margaret Court’s all-time record.
She and her sister, fellow tennis legend Venus Williams, are considered pioneers of a new era in women’s tennis that focuses on power. And throughout her career, Serena was often among the only women on the list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, according to Forbes.
She announced her decision to pivot away from tennis in 2022, and her improbable run through the US Open later that year was widely believed to be her final professional competition.
Danica Patrick is the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing. She accomplished multiple firsts for women in the sport, including being the first woman to win an IndyCar Series race at the 2008 Indy Japan 300.
Patrick also had the highest finish by a woman in the Indianapolis 500 (third) and Daytona 500 (eighth). She did not endure as much success as many expected, but she had an undeniable impact on the sport.
In a predominately male industry, Patrick is often credited for inspiring more women to take part in auto racing and motorsports.
Ronda Rousey is a professional wrestler and former mixed martial artist. She is considered to be one of the greatest female athletes ever as the only woman to win both a UFC and WWE championship. She is also one of the only women to headline a pay-per-view event.
At the 2008 Olympics, Rousey won a bronze medal in judo, becoming the first American woman ever to do so. She took part in the first UFC women’s fight, successfully defending her title against Liza Carmouche.
Rousey was the first female fighter to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2018. That same year, she signed a contract with WWE and began professional wrestling.
Outside the ring, Rousey has written an autobiography and starred in several films, including “Furious 7” and “Mile 22.”
Maria Sharapova is a professional tennis player and the only Russian to have a career Grand Slam. When she was 18 years old, Sharapova became the first Russian woman to reach No. 1 in the world rankings.
Sharapova accumulated 36 singles titles, including five Grand Slams. She is considered one of the best tennis players to play the game.
She has also been involved in various humanitarian endeavors, including being a United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador focused on the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Programme. She also launched a program in 2018 to mentor women entrepreneurs.
American swimmer Katie Ledecky has won seven Olympic gold medals and 19 world championship gold medals, both of which are records among female swimmers. She currently holds the world record in women’s 800-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle, short- and long-course races.
Ledecky made her international debut at the 2012 London Olympics at 15 years old and surprised everyone when she won the gold medal in women’s 800-meter freestyle, becoming the youngest ever to win.
Four years later, she became the most decorated female athlete of the 2016 Olympics with four gold medals, one silver medal, and two world records. In 2020, she added two more golds and two silvers at the Tokyo Olympics.
She has broken more than a dozen world records throughout her career and is widely considered one of the most dominant swimmers alive.
American gymnast Simone Biles won the individual all-around, vault, and floor gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is a five-time all-around world champion, with three consecutive victories from 2013-15 and two more in 2018 and 2019.
Biles is the most decorated American gymnast with seven Olympic and 25 World Championship medals. She set the US record for most gold medals in women’s gymnastics at a single Olympics with four.
Dominant on nearly every event, Biles is considered one of the greatest gymnasts of all-time. She famously struggled with “the twisties” — a phenomenon that throws off a gymnast’s balance — during the Tokyo Olympics and catalyzed a larger conversation around self-advocacy and mental health in athletics.
At just 17 years old, Missy Franklin became the first American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympics in any sport during the 2012 London Olympics. She quickly captivated America’s attention and went on to win six gold medals at the 2013 World Aquatics Championship.
Franklin had previously held the record at the World Aquatics Championships with 11 gold medals, but Katie Ledecky broke it in 2017 with 14.
If not for chronic pain cutting Franklin’s career short, many believed she would go on to dominate women’s swimming the way Michael Phelps dominated men’s. In December 2018, Franklin announced her retirement due to shoulder issues, but she will always be remembered as one of the greats in women’s swimming.
Megan Rapinoe has been one of the most recognizable faces on the US Women’s National Soccer Team for more than a decade.
She put on a dominant performance to lead the Stars and Stripes to a second consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup championship in 2019, scoring six goals to earn the Golden Boot and Golden Ball Awards. All the while, she was publicly feuding with then-US President Donald Trump.
Rapinoe was also on the 2015 team that won the Cup, as well as the 2012 Olympic team, which took home gold.
Rapinoe has made noise both on and off the field. She is an advocate for numerous LGBTQ organizations and often uses her platform to speak out against social injustice. She is also an advocate for women in sports and equality.
Former German tennis player Steffi Graf is the only tennis player to win each Grand Slam tournament at least four times and achieve the Golden Slam by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year. She won 22 Grand Slam singles titles overall.
She was ranked world No. 1 for 377 weeks by the Women’s Tennis Association, which is the longest for any player, male or female, since rankings began being issued.
Graf and Margaret Court are the only players to win three Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year five times, among male and female players.
Her aggressive game has been noted as the starting point for today’s modern style of play. She is regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time by many, including the court icon Billie Jean King. Graf is credited with helping to increase the sport’s popularity in Germany, where it has remained popular since.
Graf retired in 1999 and was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004.
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings are considered the greatest beach volleyball team of all-time. They won three consecutive Olympic gold medals from 2004-12. They also won 21 consecutive Olympic matches and only lost one set during their 11-year run.
May-Treanor announced her retirement following the 2012 London Olympics, where she and Walsh Jennings captured their third gold medal. May-Treanor was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2016.
Walsh Jennings began playing with former teammate April Ross in 2013 after May-Treanor’s retirement. The two won the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, making her the most decorated beach volleyball player, male or female, in history.
Diana Taurasi is the all-time leading scorer in the WNBA. Since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Phoenix Mercury, she has won the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award, three WNBA championships, and five Olympic gold medals from 2004-20. She also won the WNBA MVP Award in 2009 and two WNBA Finals MVP Awards in 2009 and 2014.
Over her illustrious career, Taurasi has been selected to 10 WNBA All-Star teams. She is one of just a handful of women who have won an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA championship, and a WNBA championship.
She is considered one of the greatest women to play basketball, with late legend Kobe Bryant dubbing her the “White Mamba.”
Larisa Latynina holds the record for most Olympic gold medals by any gymnast, male or female, with nine. Her 18 medals for the Soviet Union was a record for 48 years.
Latynina retired in 1966 but went on to coach the Soviet’s women’s gymnastics team during the 1966-76 Olympics. She is often regarded as establishing the Soviet Union’s dominance in gymnastics.
One of the greatest American track and field athletes of all time, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was known for the heptathlon (where athletes compete in seven different track and field events in two days) and long jump. Over four Olympic Games, she took home three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals in the two events.
Joyner-Kersee established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation in 1988, which is dedicated to providing youth, adults, and families with athletic lessons and resources to improve their quality of life. She also is one of 11 athletes who founded Athletes for Hope, which helps professional athletes take part in charity events and volunteering.
She is also an activist for children’s education, racial equality, and women’s rights.
Candace Parker was the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game. Drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks No. 1 overall in 2008, she became the second player to dunk in a WNBA game in June 2008 and went on to become the league’s only player to earn Rookie of the Year and WNBA MVP honors in the same season.
Parker was named WNBA Finals MVP after leading the Sparks to the 2016 WNBA championship alongside Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike. She was named league MVP again in 2013 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2020.
But after more than a decade in Los Angeles, Parker made a blockbuster free agency move to join her hometown Chicago Sky in 2021. She led the franchise to its first-ever WNBA title that very same year.
Off the court, Parker is an analyst for CBS Sports’ NCAA tournament coverage and “NBA on TNT.”
Nadia Comaneci competed during the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics in gymnastics and is credited with bringing attention to the sport worldwide. Hailing from Romania, she won five gold medals in individual events and was the first to be awarded a perfect 10 score.
In two Olympics, Comaneci had nine perfect 10s. She won nine Olympic medals and four World Artistic Gymnastics Championship medals.
Now retired, Comaneci has remained a prominent figure in gymnastics. She also is involved in fundraising for various charities.
Marta Vieira da Silva
Marta Vieira da Silva, more commonly known as Marta, was the first soccer player, male or female, to score at five FIFA World Cups. Her 17 total goals set the all-time record for most scored at the tournament by any player — man or woman.
Marta has been named FIFA World Player of the Year six times, including five consecutive years from 2006-10, and is regarded as one of the best female players of all-time. She won a silver medal at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, as well as the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the 2007 Women’s World Cup.
South Korean World Golf Hall of Famer Se-ri Pak is unequivocally one of the greatest players in the history of women’s golf. In her 20 years as a professional golfer, Pak won 39 total events across the LPGA of Korea Tour and the LPGA Tour in America.
She earned four major championship titles in a five-year span, including two Women’s PGA Championships, one US Women’s Open, and one Women’s British Open. Then, upon winning a third Women’s PGA Championship in 2006, she became one of just 16 women in the sport’s history to win five or more major championships.
But perhaps more impactful than Pak’s dominance alone has been her enduring legacy on women’s golf. As one of the first players of Asian descent to break through on the American tour in a massive way, Pak changed the face of the sport and inspired a new generation of athletes to take up — and ultimately dominate — women’s golf.
Regarded as one of the greatest figures in American women’s basketball, Nancy Lieberman played for several different teams and leagues before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Dallas Diamonds.
She was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. Lieberman played for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA’s inaugural year in 1997, when she was the oldest player at 39.
In 1998, Lieberman became the general manager and head coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, where she coached for three seasons. She broke her own record as the oldest player in WNBA history when she signed a seven-day contract in 2008 at 50 years old with the Shock, playing in one game.
She has moved on to become a broadcaster for the New Orleans Pelicans and head coach of the Power in the BIG3.
Soccer icon Mia Hamm was a member of the USWNT from 1987-2004, which won two Olympic gold medals and two FIFA Women’s World Cups in that span. During her college years, she led the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to four consecutive NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championships.
Hamm was a member of the USWNT during the 1991 inaugural Women’s World Cup in China and remained on the team for the three tournaments that followed. She was also a member of the US team during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which was the first Games that held women’s soccer as an event.
Hamm ranks third in USWNT history with 276 international caps and first in career assists with 144. She was the first woman inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame.
She retired in 2004 but has inspired many in the sport, including 2019 World Cup Champion Rose Lavelle.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach is the most prolific goal scorer of all time for the US women’s national soccer team. Upon retiring, she held the record for most international goals among male and female players with 184.
Wambach was a member of USWNT from 2001 to 2015, winning the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup title. She is known for her skillful play and diving headers to score goals.
Her equalizing header against Brazil in 2011 in the 122nd minute off a cross from Megan Rapinoe is often called one of the greatest goals in the history of the women’s World Cup. It also set a record for the latest goal ever scored.
She was awarded the Bronze Boot and Silver Ball after the tournament. That same year, she also became the first soccer player — male or female — to be named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
Wambach retired in 2015 and is regarded as one of the best to play US soccer. She’s now a partial owner of the National Women’s Soccer League club Angel City FC.
Mary Lou Retton
At the boycotted 1984 Summer Olympics, Mary Lou Retton became the first-ever American woman to win the all-around gold medal in gymnastics. She won by .05 points, beating Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo. It marked the first time a female gymnast outside of Eastern Europe won the individual all-around gold.
She also took home two silver medals and two bronze medals, helping her rise to popularity in the United States.
Retton coined her move on the uneven bars “The Retton Flip,” consisting of a transition from low-bar to high-bar that ends with the gymnast sitting on top of the high bar. It was removed from the Code of Points because it was a “belly beat” move, which is when the gymnast hits their hips into the low bar to gain momentum.
Retired American figure skater Michelle Kwan is a five-time World Champion and nine-time US champion, which ties her for the all-time National Championship record. She is a two-time Olympic medalist, winning a silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002.
She is the most decorated figure skater in US history and is considered one of the greatest figure skaters of all time. Kwan stole the hearts of the American people to become one of the country’s most popular female athletes.
Along with her sister Serena, Venus Williams is widely regarded as one of tennis’ all-time greats. She was the first African American woman to be ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association in the Open Era, and second all-time.
She has seven Grand Slam singles titles, which is tied for eighth in the Open Era and 12th on the all-time list. She also has 14 Grand Slam Women’s doubles titles, with Serena.
Venus has four Olympic gold medals, one in singles and three in women’s doubles. She also has a silver medal in mixed doubles, which ties her with Kathleen McKane Godfree for the most Olympic medals won by a male or female tennis player. She is the only tennis player to win a medal at four Olympic Games.
Following in the footsteps of Billie Jean King, Williams fought for equal prize money at Wimbledon, gaining the backing of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and winning the fight.
WNBA star Maya Moore was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft by the Minnesota Lynx after leading the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team to back-to-back national championships. Her standout career with the Huskies included an unbeaten streak of 90 games, which is an NCAA record among men’s and women’s teams.
Moore won four WNBA titles with the Minnesota Lynx, as well as the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award. She also won MVP in 2014. She won titles in the Spanish league, EuroLeague, and Chinese League.
In February 2019, Moore penned an article on The Player’s Tribune saying that she would take a sabbatical for the 2019 season to focus on family and ministry dreams. She has since fought for social justice reform, specifically in the realm of wrongful convictions. Moore helped free her now-husband, Jonathan Irons, after 23 years of wrongful imprisonment.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Multi-sport American athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics and won 10 LGPA major championships, among her total of 82 golf tournament victories. Zaharias also participated in basketball, baseball, softball, diving, roller-skating, and bowling.
Zaharias was known for breaking the boundaries of what it meant to be female in her time. She was physically strong and criticized for it.
She was inducted into the LGPA Hall of Fame in 1951 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1976.
Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953. In her later years, she also became known as an advocate for cancer awareness, using her popularity to raise money for her cancer fund. At the time, many Americans refused to seek treatment for cancer.
She died three years later in 1956 at age 45.
Sheryl Swoopes was the first player to sign a WNBA contract, and for good reason; she was a generational talent who went on to win three WNBA MVP awards. She won three Olympic gold medals with Team USA and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.
Swoopes was the first WNBA player to have a triple-double in the regular season and playoffs. She was the first women’s basketball player to have a Nike shoe named after her, called the Air Swoopes.
She became one of the highest-profile athletes to publicly announce she is gay in 2005. Since retiring from the sport, Swoopes has coached at various women’s basketball programs.
Gold medalist and University of Southern California women’s basketball star Cheryl Miller is one of the most well-known collegiate players to ever play the game. Miller never played in the WNBA but led the US basketball team to a gold medal during the 1984 Olympics.
Her jersey was the first retired number at USC from either basketball team. She scored 3,018 career points and had 1,534 career rebounds, which is third all-time in NCAA history. She helped the Trojans to two NCAA titles, winning NCAA Tournament MVP both seasons.
Miller still holds multiple records at USC, including points, rebounds, games played, steals, field goals, and free throws. She has been a coach and sportscaster in her years after playing.
Golf great Nancy Lopez left college during her sophomore year to turn professional in 1977. She won nine tournaments during her first full season on the LGPA Tour in 1978.
She was named LPGA Rookie of the Year and LPGA Player of the Year, and won the Vare trophy, which is given to the player with the lowest-scoring average for the season. She was the only woman to achieve all three in the same season.
From the late 1970s to late 1980s, Lopez was the game’s best player, winning three majors, all at the LGPA Championship. She never won the US Women’s Open, but finished second four times.
In 1997, Lopez became the first woman to score under 70 for all four rounds but finished second to Alison Nicholas. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1987.
Lisa Leslie is a three-time WNBA MVP and a four-time Olympic gold medalist. She was drafted No. 7 overall in the 1997 inaugural WNBA draft and went on to win two WNBA championships with the Los Angeles Sparks. She was also selected as a WNBA All-Star eight times.
Leslie was the first player to dunk in a WNBA game and is widely considered one of the greatest in the league’s history. Since her retirement in 2009, she has served as a sports commentator in several sports networks and in 2018 joined Fox Sports Florida as a studio analyst on Orlando Magic broadcasts.
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