Illustration by Abigail LeForge.

Women in sports history


Gertrude Ederle, swimming

Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926 after just five men had completed the feat. The 19 year old finished the 35-mile swim through frigid waters in 14 and a half hours, which topped the men’s record by almost two hours. She also won a gold medal and two bronze medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Janet Guthrie, race car driving

You’ve probably heard of NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, but do you know who Janet Guthrie is? In 1977, Guthrie became the first woman to earn a starting spot in both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. Her ninth place finish in the 1978 Indy 500 was the best performance by a woman until 2005.

Billie Jean King, tennis

King won a record 20 Wimbledon titles over her 18-year career. She scored a major victory for women when she battled her male counterpart, Bobby Riggs, in 1973 in a match deemed “Battle of the Sexes.” Riggs claimed that the women’s game was inferior to the men’s. King fought for equal prize money for women and became the first woman to win more than $100,000 for a match.

Surya Bonaly, figure skating

In the 1998 Nagano Olympics, French figure skater Surya Bonaly performed her signature backflip where she landed on one foot. In 1976, the International Skating Union banned the backflip, but she became the only person to complete the move at the Games in 1998. Bonaly went ahead with the flip after a poor start, but will go down in history for landing the only backflip in Olympic competition.

Nancy Lieberman, basketball

Lieberman was a baller. She became the first woman to play in a men’s professional basketball game as a member of the United States Basketball League in 1986. After a hall-of-fame WNBA career, Lieberman made her stamp on the men’s game once again in 2010 by becoming the first woman to coach a men’s professional team with the Texas Legends of the D-League, now known as the G-League.

Ibtihaj Muhammad, fencing

Muhammad became the first U.S. Olympian to compete in a hijab at the 2016 Rio Games. Her father said fencing was a sport that was uniquely accommodating to her religion, which requires her body to be fully covered. She helped the U.S. win bronze in saber fencing with a 45-30 rout of Italy.

Serena Wiliams, tennis

Williams has become a household name in the tennis world. She has dominated the court since she stepped onto the professional scene. Her total of 23 Grand Slam titles sets the record for the most Grand Slam wins by a singles player in the open era of tennis history. Williams has won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, all with her sister Venus. The pair are unbeaten in Grand Slam doubles finals. Serena’s record of 39 total Grand Slam titles puts her third on the all-time list, and second in the open era. She is highly regarded as the most dominant athlete of this millennium.

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