For centuries, women have been barred from sports, told that they cannot meet certain physical demands or that it is improper for them to compete on the same levels as men. For centuries, women have been proving men wrong. Below are some of the most notable female icons within sports and games, who have challenged gender norms whilst paving the way for other ambitious women.
10 – Gertrude Ederle – Swimming
In 1929, at just nineteen years of age, American swimmer Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the 21 miles between Dover, England and Cape Griz-Nez, France. The press called her Queen of the Waves for her achievement. She’d set a different world record seven years earlier at the age of twelve when she became the youngest ever person to win a medal in the 880-yard freestyle. Ederle went on to win 29 US and international medals in swimming, including an Olympic gold medal.
9 – Wilma Rudolph – Sprinting
Known as ‘the fastest woman in the world’ in the 1960s, Rudolph helped not just to challenge gender stereotypes, but to break racial barriers. When she won three gold medals at the 1960 summer Olympics, she became an international sensation and elevated interests in women’s field and track sprinting. What makes the story of this young athlete particularly inspiring is how she suffered from polio as a child, and was told by doctors that she might not ever walk, let alone run, in her adulthood.
8 – Charlotte Cooper – Tennis
Charlotte Cooper was not just the first woman to become an Olympic champion in tennis – she is the first woman to have become an Olympic champion of any kind. She was awarded this title in 1900, after having already won five singles titles in Wimbledon Championships.
7 – Judit Polgár – Chess
At ten years old, Polgár won her first game against an International Master. She found herself listed at 55 of FIDE’s Top 100 Players two years later. It was at fifteen years of age that the Hungarian child prodigy became an official grandmaster. Polgár is the first and only woman to have qualified for a World Chess Championship Tournament.
6 – Vanessa Selbst – Poker
The first and only woman to reach number one on the World Poker Index, Selbst is also the highest-earning female poker player, with over $10.5 million cashed from live tournaments alone. The multi award-winning American law-graduate challenges gender stereotypes not just by succeeding in a strongly male-dominated game, but by drawing attention to why so few other women feel welcome in poker.
5 – Junko Tabei – Climbing
Junko Tabei was already a well-respected climber in the Japan by the time she decided to tackle Mount Everest. She climbed both Mount Fuji, and Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. In 1975, she organized an all-female expedition to tackle Everest. Overcoming great obstacles, including a dramatic avalanche, Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the Everest Summit.
4 – Naomi James – Sailing
Having only learnt to swim a few years earlier, and with only six weeks sailing experience, Naomi James decided in 1975 that she wanted to sail the world – single-handedly. She became the first ever woman to do so after a 272-day voyage, during which she had at one point almost capsized, and gone several weeks without radio transmission.
3 – Mildred Burke – Wrestling
For almost twenty years, Mildred Burke held the Women’s World Championship in wrestling. Burke started her career wrestling men at carnivals in 1935. During this decade she wrestled over 200 men, only losing to one of them. She married her coach and promoter, Billy Wolfe.
2 – Jennifer Welter – American Football
Though Jennifer Welter isn’t an American football player herself, she is the first ever female NFL coach. She has a Masters in Sports Psychology and considerable experience in coaching female professional and semi-professional football teams too.
1 – Sara Christian – Racing
The first ever driver in NASCAR history, Sara Christian defied expectation by consistently finishing races in the top ten. Though her career was short-lived (she did most of her racing in 1949 and finished her last in 1950), Christian won recognition and awards for paving the way for other women in NASCAR.