The Greatest Female Athletes in History

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The Beijing Winter Olympics are over, and the latest athletic chapter has been written by newly minted female champions. Eileen Gu of China became the youngest Olympic champion in freestyle skiing after winning gold medals in big air and halfpipe. U.S. speed skater Erin Jackson made history by becoming the first Black American woman ever to win an Olympic speed skating medal by taking gold in the 500-meter race.  

Gu and Jackson might one day be considered among the greatest women athletes. In celebration of women’s history month, 24/7 Tempo has compiled a list of the greatest women athletes of the past, using sources such as the official Olympics website, Britannica, CBS News, and 24/7sports, among others.

Most of the women on this list gained distinction in either tennis or track and field, suggesting those sports were among the only athletic outlets for women for most of the last century. Some of those distinguished athletes included Suzanne Leglen (tennis), Fanny Blankers-Koen (track and field), and Babe Didrikson Zaharias (golf, track and field). 

For many female athletes, it has been an arduous struggle to face down the naysayers throughout their careers. Danica Patrick faced skepticism from all-male rivals and Althea Gibson encountered racial bigotry from the white establishment as each tried to make their way in their chosen sports – auto racing and tennis, respectively. (For pioneers in other fields, see the coolest women’s firsts in history.)

Tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova faced hostility of a different sort. King and Navratilova flouted conventions of what female athletes should look like and were outspoken advocates for gay rights. Despite her astounding success on the tennis court, Serena Williams felt the need to publicly address body-shamers in 2017 when she was honored as Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsperson of the Year.” (They are all among the greatest female tennis players of all time.)

For female athletes, the battle to be seen on the same plane as their male counterparts is ongoing. 

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