Say the word “athlete” and most people will conjure up an image of a male athlete normally in their favorite sport, but there are hundreds of amazing women in the athletics world as well.
Below are 18 of the most inspirational female athletes and how they made a difference.
1. Billie Jean King
Women’s tennis used to be considered somewhat of a joke before Billie Jean King came along.
In 1973 she played a match against Bobby Riggs, an older but highly accomplished player at the time, which was dubbed the battle of the sexes.
Against all bets, Billie Jean King won the match that helped dispelled some of the myth that men are biologically more athletic than women making her an inspirational athlete.
Inspirational quotes by Billie Jean King:
“Champions keep playing until they get it right.”
“Sports teaches you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose-it teaches you about life.”
“Women get the attention when we get into the men’s arena, and that’s sad.”
“I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion.”
“Be bold. If you’re going to make an error, make a doozy, and don’t be afraid to hit the ball.”
2. Dara Torres
An Olympic swimmer over 40 years old was unheard of until Dana Torres made it to the Olympic games at age 41 and won 3 silver medals.
She became the oldest swimmer to ever compete in the games and her come back to the sport is still incredibly inspirational.
Dara Torres proved that age is just a number and that dreams can be attained at any age. She is a 12-time Olympic medalist and former world record-holder in three events. She was named one of the “Top Female Athletes of the Decade” by Sports Illustrated.
Dana is the author of the book, ‘Age is just a number’.
Inspirational quotes by Dara Torres:
“The water doesn’t know how old you are.”
“Never put an age limit on your dreams.”
“Time doesn’t change a person, it just helps you get a handle on who you are. Even at age 41, I still hate losing–I’m just more gracious about it. I’m also aware that setbacks have an upside; they fuel new dreams.”
3. Gertrude Ederle
In 1926 only five men had swam across the English Channel, when Gertrude Ederle decided to swim it as well.
She not only became the first woman to complete the channel, but she did it faster than all the men who are crossed before her.
President Calvin Coolidge called her ‘America’s best girl‘ after she completed the feat. Her record stood till 1950.
Inspirational quotes by Gertrude Ederle
“I just knew if it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it.”
“To me, the sea is like a person- like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea, I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.”
4. Pamela Reed
For long distance runners, Pamela Reed is quite the inspiration. She was the first woman to be declared the overall winner of the Badlands Ultramarathon in 2002 (which is one of the world’s hardest ultra-marathons).
She is also the first person, male or female to run 300 miles without sleep, which she completed in a little less than eighty hours.
Inspirational quotes from Pam Reed:
“Placing limits on what I think I can accomplish is something I tend not to do.”
“I am always ready to run. I wear running shorts and shoes wherever I go. I just don’t care what I look like. Changing my clothes is a waste of time.”
5. Dawn Fraser
Many people like to use asthma as an excuse as to why they cannot do as well in sports.
Try telling that that to Dawn Fraser who was the first woman swimmer to break 60 sec for 100-meter Freestyle. She was also the first woman to win four Olympic gold medals, and the first swimmer to win the same event (100-meter freestyle) in three consecutive Olympics.
Inspirational quotes by Dawn Fraser:
“We only have two things that we share in his life; we are born and we die. And what we do in between those times, we’ve got to be happy. I don’t let the outside world deter me.”
“Make yourself an example, achieve it, but don’t hurt anyone on the way up.”
6. Nadia Comaneci
A perfect 10 is a rare score in Gymnastics and is reserved for the truly flawless athletes.
In 1976 a 14 year old Romanian girl by the name of Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 at Olympic Games.
She scored seven more perfect 10s and won 3 gold medals.
Inspirational quotes by Nadia Comaneci:
“I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.”
“You should also appreciate the goodness around you, and surround yourself with positive people.”
“I believe that you should gravitate to people who are doing productive and positive things with their lives.”
7. Cathy Freeman
As an Aboriginal Australia Cathy Freeman was no stranger to racial prejudice as she grew up. She easily recalls races where she would receive no acknowledgment while white Australia girls who she had beat received trophies.
Despite this discrimination Cathy Freeman rose quickly in the ranks of Australia runners and was the first Aboriginal Australia to represent Australia in the Olympic Games.
She was also the first Aboriginal person to win gold in an individual event (400 meters) at the Olympic Games. She continues to be an inspiration to all Australians to this day.
Inspirational quotes by Cathy:
“You got to try and reach for the stars or try to achieve the unreachable.”
8. Ann Meyers
Basketball is thought of predominantly as a man’s sport, but in the mid 1970s Ann Meyers took the basketball world by storm. This inspirational female athlete was the first high school student to make the U.S. national team.
She was a member of the first women’s Olympic Games team. She was the first four time All-American basketball player, male or female. Ann Meyers was also the first and only woman to sign a (50,000 dollar) contract with the Men’s NBA (Indiana Pacers).
She didn’t set out to be the first of so many things, but through her hard work that’s exactly how things turned out.
Inspirational quotes by Ann Meyers:
“It was never about being remembered, it was about just doing what I love.”
“Somebody gives you an opportunity, say yes to it. So what if you fail? you won’t know if you fail or succeed unless you try.”
9. Wilma Rudolph
Imagine fighting polio as a child and doctors telling you that you would never walk again.
Then combine that with a mother’s disbelief in the impossible and the fighting spirit of a little girl who works for years to overcome her weakness until she is considered the fastest runner in the world in the 1960s and you have Wilma Rudolph.
Her determination, dedication and healthy disregard for what others thought led he to become the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals in track and field during the 1960 summer Olympics.
Inspirational quotes by Wilma Rudolph:
“The triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”
“I loved the feeling of freedom in running, the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I’m competing with is me.”
“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: the potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose.”
“When the sun is shining I can do anything: no mountain is too high, no trouble too difficult to overcome.”
10. Larisa Latyanina
Larisa Latyanina (former Soviet artistic gymnast) holds the record for winning the most Olympic gold medals (9 medals) by a gymnast (male or female).
She also held the record for the holding the highest number of Olympic medals (by any male or female) for over 48 years. She has a total of 18 medals (9 Gold, 5 Silver and 4 Bronze).
The only one to break her record was former competitive swimmer Michael Phelps who currently has a total of 28 medals.
Inspirational quotes by Larisa Latyanina:
“I’m quite happy there is a man in the world who can overcome my record finally.”
“Forty-eight years is almost enough time to hold a record.”
11. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Didrikson Zaharias is regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time and for a good reason.
For one, she excelled in not one, not two but four different types of sports including Golf, Basketball, Baseball and Track and Field making her a multi-sport star. Secondly, she helped break accepted modes of female athleticism by showing exceptional physical strength, brash confidence, competitiveness and straightforwardness.
Zaharias was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1951. She even has a museum dedicated to her in Beaumont, Texas.
Inspirational quotes by Zaharias:
“If you win through bad sportsmanship, that’s no real victory.”
“The formula for success is simple: practice and concentration, then more practice and more concentration.”
12. P.T. Usha
P.T. Usha is called the “Queen of Indian Track and Field”. Despite coming for a small village in India, and having to train with limited facilities she went on to win many medals in international competitions.
As of now, she runs the ‘USHA School of Athletics‘ that offers free training to young and aspiring athletes who come from remote parts of India and have limited access to quality training.
Inspirational quotes from Usha:
“I never wanted to be an Olympian. All I wanted was to keep breaking my own record. I never competed to defeat anybody.”
13. Vivien Vajda
Vivien got introduced to jump roping at the age of 10 and fell in love with it since. Her dedication to the sport led her to win 26 World Champion titles, break 2 world records and 1 European record. She was invited to perform at the London and Rio Olympic games, and was also one of the one of the torch carriers at the Rio Olympic torch relay.
Vivien also participated in America’s Got Talent where she made it to judge cuts. In the show Vivien revealed with teary eyes how she was bullied as a kid and even called the ‘class clown’. Despite all that, her journey toward achieving so much in life is really inspirational.
14. Elise Bickley
Elise Bickley is probably the youngest athlete on this list. But she deserves a mention as she is an amazing Parkour and Free-running athlete from Sheffield in the United Kingdom. At the tender age of 14, she competed at an international level at the 2017 Airwipp Challenge in Sweden, where she managed to secure the 1st place in the Women’s finals.
15. Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson was the first African American to win a Grand Slam Title (1956, The French Championships). This was at a time when it was extremely difficult for a person of color to play tennis. She also won both Wimbledon and the US Nationals twice (once in 1957 and again in 1958).
It was Althea who set the stage for others like Venus and Serena Williams to follow.
Inspirational quotes by Althea Gibson:
“Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina.”
“No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you.”
“In the field of sports you are more or less accepted for what you do rather than what you are.”
16. Olga Korbut
Olga Korbut is a former gymnast from Soviet Union who can be credited almost entirely for transforming and popularizing gymnastics from being a ballet and elegance to one that involves acrobatics.
When she entered the sport, gymnastics was more about ballet and elegance. She brought in the element of athleticism and acrobatics into the sort through her spirited performances. And by doing so, redefined gymnastics.
Nicknamed “Sparrow from Minsk”, Olga was also the first inductee into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1988.
Inspirational quotes from Olga:
“Don’t be afraid if things seem difficult in the beginning. That’s only the initial impression. The important thing is not to retreat; you have to master yourself.”
“This ability to conquer oneself is no doubt the most precious of all things sports bestows.”
17. Danica Patrick
Open-wheel racing was a male dominated sport until Danica broke the gender barrier and became the first and only woman to win an IndyCar series race in 2008 (at Indy Japan 300) in which she competed against 17 other male drivers.
Since then she has inspired many more women to take up auto racing and motor sports.
“I think you have to feel comfortable with your car. You have to go into turn one, every lap, with confidence. You have to be sure of yourself and your equipment.”
“Give yourself permission to shoot for something that seems totally beyond your grasp. You many be surprised at your capabilities.”
“Take those chances and you can achieve greatness, whereas if you go convervative, you’ll never know. I truely believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Even if you fail, learning and moving on is sometimes the best thing.”
18. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is the first woman to cross over 7000 points in Heptathlon. She owns the current record of 7291 points (both male and female) for which she won gold in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
In-fact, she owns the top six heptathlon scores of all-time.
What’s inspirational about Jackie is that she suffered from severe asthma and is one of the most famous athletes to have overcome it to achieve her dreams.
She is also the founder of ‘Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation’, which encourages young people in East St. Louis to pursue athletics and academics.
Inspirational quotes by Jackie Joyner-Kersee:
“It is better to look ahead and prepare than to look back and regret.”
“Age is no barrier. It’s a limitation you put on your mind.”
“If I stop to kick every barking dog, I am not going to get where I’m going.”