Women’s sports are still fighting an uphill battle. Look no further than the women of the U.S. soccer team having to sue their own soccer federation for equal pay. However, over the years, there have been many memorable, iconic moments in women’s sports. Here is but a slice of the greatest moments and events in women’s sports history.
Sports were weird back in the day, and there are a lot of odd swimming “events” that have taken place over the years. For example, there was a time when swimmers trying to cross the English channel was a thing. A few men had done it by the time Ederle gave it a shot, including her coach, "Bill" Burgess. Ederle left France early one August morning and arrived in England 14 hours and 34 minutes later. It was an intense swim, but she was the first woman to make it happen. Her time would also last as the record until 1950.
There is some dispute about the factual accuracy of the long-standing story that Mitchell, then a teenager, struck out two of the greatest baseball players ever. On its face, it is easy to be dubious, but by this point in time we are in “print the legend” range for this story. So let’s say Mitchell did, in fact, strike out the Babe and the Iron Horse. Even if she faced them and didn’t give up a home run, it’s impressive.
Winning three medals and setting four world records is incredible for any athlete. What makes Zaharias more impressive is that she did it in a variety of events. The all-time great athlete won a gold medal in both the 80-meter hurdles and the javelin and then took home silver in the high jump. Yes, she ran, jumped and threw to glory.
Unlike swimmers or track athletes, figure skaters don’t tend to have more than one opportunity to win gold at the Olympics. The Norwegian Henie basically had only the ladies singles event to participate in. She finished eighth in the 1924 Olympics, which is fair given that she was only 11. It was the last time she would falter, as she would win the next three golds and then proceed to become one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
After her Olympics career, Zaharias turned her attention to golf. Though she took up the sport late, she would become the best golfer of her era. In addition to golfing in PGA events as a woman, Zaharias would win the 1940 Western Open, then a major, for her first major title. She would end up winning 10 majors in her career. Oh, and she also once won a tournament called the “Babe Zaharias Open.”
Gibson faced a great deal of obstacles as a black woman trying to make a go of it as a tennis player in her era. As such, sometimes she is compared to Jackie Robinson for her perseverance in the face of adversity. She let her skills do plenty of the talking on the court. When she won the French Open in 1956, Gibson became the first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam tournament. She would follow that up by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957.
You know you’ve made a big impact in the world of sports when you are put on a postage stamp. Rudolph was an important inspiration both as a female athlete and a black athlete. She did a decent job at the 1956 Olympics, winning a bronze, but in 1960 she was at her peak. Rudolph won three golds, including in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, earning her the label of fastest woman in the world.
Prior to 1972, gymnastics was a little more artistically focused as opposed to being a show of sheer athleticism. Then Olga Korbut came along and changed the game. With her tremendous athletic prowess, the Belarussian gymnast took home three golds and a silver in Munich. Some credit Korbut with not only helping to change women’s gymnastics but also for increasing its popularity.
Yes, the Battle of the Sexes tennis match was a bit silly. Bobby Riggs was 55, King was 29 and in her prime, and Riggs seemed as interested in showboating as in playing tennis. That being said, earlier that year Riggs had beat Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1. So it was certainly notable, and highly watched, when King took down Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
You may have not heard of Tonawanda, but in her time she was known as “the female Ali.” She didn’t box women, though, at least not normally. Instead Tonawanda wanted to fight men, and she sued to earn the right to do so. In 1975 she knocked out Larry Rodania in the second round at Madison Square Garden.
People just loved Dorothy Hamill. She took the country by storm during the 1976 Winter Olympics. Hamill was dubbed “America’s sweetheart,” and her hair style began a fad. Oh, and she was a really good figure skater too, taking home the gold. Nobody wants to copy the haircut of a silver medalist, right?
Perfection in sports is hard to find. Comaneci, a gymnast out of Romania, knew a thing or two about perfection though. She nailed her uneven bars performance so thoroughly that she was awarded the first 10.0 in Olympics history. She then proceeded to notch six more perfect 10s en route to taking home three golds.
Racing in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 is impressive enoughpe, as open-wheel and stock car racing are different beasts. What’s amazing is that Guthrie was the first women to compete in both of these iconic racing events. She finished 12th at Daytona and 29th at the Brickyard, but the fact she did it at all is impressive.
It took a while for the NCAA to give the women their own tournament to compete with the men’s March Madness event. Then finally in 1982, the NCAA had its first women’s basketball tournament. If we gave you a million guesses, you would never land on the two teams that met in the finals. Louisiana Tech took down Cheyney State, 76-62, to give the Lady Techsters the title. (Pictured is Louisiana Tech star Kim Mulkey, who is now best known as head coach of the Baylor Bears.)
Some tennis players just dominate a particular event. For Navratilova, perhaps the best women’s tennis player ever, that tournament was Wimbledon. In the ‘80s, nobody stood a chance against Navratilova on the grass. She won Wimbledon a whopping six times, the last of which came in 1987. Finally, somebody else got a chance to win the event but only for a couple of years, as Navratilova reclaimed the title in 1990 one last time.
With her stylish look — her long, colorful fingernails certainly stood out — Florence Griffith Joyner always turned heads. You had to turn your head awfully fast to keep up with her on the track too. At the 1988 Olympics she won three golds, including in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash. The 100-meter is the No. 1 race anybody pays attention to, and winning that often gets you the label as the fastest in the world. FloJo had set the world record in the 1988 Olympic trials, so she definitely earned that designation.
Eventually there had to be a changing of the guard in women’s tennis. After winning six straight Wimbledons, Navratilova was facing a formidable opponent in the upstart Graf. Navratilova came back from behind 5-3 to win the first set 7-5 and then took a 2-0 lead in the second set. However, Graf took over to win the second set 6-2 and the third set 6-1, winning her first Wimbledon in one of the best finals in the tournament’s history.
The men had been playing World Cups since the '30s, so needless to say a Women’s World Cup was a long time coming. Technically this 1991 tournament wasn’t a World Cup. FIFA was worried about giving that name to the event, so it was known as the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M Cup. Regardless, it was a success. The U.S. won by taking down Norway in the finals, and now, just having the latest one last year, the Women’s World Cup is as strong as ever.
Rheaume made a lot of history in net over her career. She was the first girl to play in a boys junior hockey league in Canada. Her real big splash though was when she got a tryout and then eventually saw preseason action, for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It may have been a bit of a gimmick for an expansion team, but nevertheless Rheaume got to stand between the pipes for an NHL team in game action.
It was the Triple Crown race of the year. Colonial Affair would go on to win the event, which probably didn’t get much of a reaction. Krone was surely happy though, as she became the first, and so far only, female jockey to be the winning rider for a Triple Crown race.
The Tonya Harding-adjacent attack on Kerrigan is one of the biggest sports moments ever, but nobody is going to call it “great.” Fortunately Kerrigan was able to overcome her knee injury and perform in the 1994 Winter Olympics. Though she won only silver — Oksana Baiul won a controversial gold — it was still impressive.
We think of UConn as the premier force in women’s college basketball, but that wasn’t always true. In 1995 the Huskies hadn’t quite taken that leap, but Rebecca Lobo helped make that happen. She led the Huskies to an undefeated season, only the second time a women’s team had done that in the NCAA at the time. Lobo would go on to great success in the WNBA, and women’s college hoops had a new powerhouse program.
Strug’s first vault attempt at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta didn’t go great. She ended up injuring her ankle quite badly. However, the U.S. needed her to vault again to lock up the gold. Strug gutted it out and nailed her landing, earning a 9.7 before collapsing in pain and needing to be carried onto the gold medal podium. Strug ended up on a Wheaties box for her efforts.
In 1996, softball was making its Olympic debut, and after a few Olympics it and baseball were both discontinued. (They are coming back this summer) The United States made it to the gold medal game in its home country and took down China 3-1 to win it all.
The WNBA debuted in 1997 with eight teams, several of which no longer exist. The first two teams to take the court still do, though. Naturally, it was the New York Liberty taking on the Los Angeles Sparks. The Sparks would get the win ,67-57, and a new league was born.
Sometimes an Olympic athlete captures people’s hearts. Lipinski certainly did that in Nagano. It didn’t hurt that she was a figure skater, in one of the most popular winter sports events, and was only 15. She was also a great skater and was able to edge fellow American Michelle Kwan for the title. Lipinski is still charming people alongside Johnny Weir as a figure skating commentator.
Only six women’s teams competed in 1998, the first year that women’s ice hockey was an event. That included host Japan, which scored two goals and allowed 45 in five games. In the end, we all knew it would come down to Canada and the United States. The Americans had overcome a 4-1 deficit to win 7-4 during the Round Robin, but the gold medal game went more smoothly for the U.S., which took home gold with a 3-1 victory.
It took a couple of years, but eventually the WNBA would have its first All-Star Game. The West, which featured three members of the dynastic Houston Comets in the starting lineup, won 79-61. However, it was Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks who won the MVP.
You remember the moment: The United States and China going head-to-head in a penalty shootout. Brandi Chastain stepped up to the spot, scored a goal and ripped off her jersey in celebration. The U.S. won the Women’s World Cup, and it became an indelible sporting moment.
The WNBA began life with a dynasty. Winning the first WNBA title was nice, to be sure, but the Houston Comets didn’t end there. The team, led by Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, decided that a three-peat apparently wasn’t enough, as it ended up winning the first four WNBA titles. In fact the Comets didn’t drop a game in the 2000 playoffs. Despite all that early success, the Comets no longer exist as a team.
Leslie was a member of the WNBA from the beginning, but it took a while for anybody to successfully dunk in a game. Leslie had been dunking since high school, but she hadn’t pulled it off in the WNBA. Then finally, in 2002, the future Hall of Famer got up for a dunk, making WNBA history.
Serena Williams has done just about everything a person can do in a tennis career. That includes holding all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. While she wasn’t able to win them all in the same calendar year, when she won the 2003 Australian Open, she achieved the feat of being the defending champ of all four major tournaments. Only five women have done that, and Williams is the one who got the designation of the “Serena Slam.”
Wickenheiser was recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and with good reason. She’s arguably the greatest women’s hockey player of all time. While most of us know her from her Olympics exploits, she also played for a season with HC Salamat in the third division of Finnish hockey. In her time there, she was able to score two goals, making her the first woman to score a goal in a men’s semi-professional hockey league.
Football is not a sport we often associate with women. That didn’t stop Hnida from trying to make her mark as a placekicker. She was able to do just that for New Mexico. While she was never the regular kicker, Hnida made two extra points against Texas State, making her the first woman to score for an FBS or FCS team.
In 2002 the Detroit Shock lost their first 10 games of the season en route to finishing with a 9-23 record. However, they were 9-13 after hiring Bill Laimbeer as their new head coach. The Shock made some changes in the offseason, which makes sense given how bad they were, and the alterations paid off. The Shock went 25-9 for the best record in the league and then beat the Sparks for the WNBA title. After a couple of more titles, the Shock would leave Detroit for Tulsa.
Summitt and Tennessee were the juggernauts of women’s college basketball for years. In 2005 Summitt and the Volunteers beat Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, giving her win No. 880, which bested Dean Smith’s record. She would add many more, eventually crossing the 1,000-win mark and retiring (prematurely due to illness) with 1,098 victories.
People love dunks. We love them when guys like Zach LaVine stun us with leaps from the free-throw line, and we love them when women, who dunk less often, get up to throw it down. Parker was a beast from the time she was a freshman at Tennessee. She showed that by becoming not just the first woman to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game but also by becoming the first woman to dunk TWICE in the same NCAA Tournament game.
Brazil, led by Marta, had scored 17 goals to lead the tournament. Germany, meanwhile, was the defending champ and hadn’t allowed a goal in the entire World Cup. The Germany defense would hold out, as it won the final game, 2-0, to become the first team to win back-to-back Women’s World Cups.
Patrick certainly made a major impact on people when she became a racing star. It made her a straight-up celebrity, and the face of Go Daddy (for better or worse). While she didn’t get a ton of wins in her career, she did win the Indy Japan 300. And when she pulled that off, she was the first woman to ever win an open-wheel racing event on that level.
Getting into one Olympics is hard. Given that they only happen once every four years, appearing in more than a couple is extremely difficult. Torres swam for the United States in a whopping five Olympics. At the age of 41, she wasn’t just a mascot either. Torres took home three silver medals, setting a record as the oldest swimmer to medal at the Olympics.
Venus was the first of the Williams sisters to make an impact, but then Serena came and, well, she’s maybe the greatest women’s player of all time. The siblings faced off many times over the years, including in many a final. This may have been the best of the bunch, though. It was also one of the times that Venus was able to best her younger sister.
Hey, bowling is a sport! When Kulick won the first ever PBA Women’s World Championship in 2009, she was given a spot in 2010’s PBA Tournament of Champions. That was already her making history. It also wasn’t enough for Kulick. She trounced the competition, winning the event. Now that’s a fun way to make history.
Talk about leaving it late. The U.S. was down 2-1 to Brazil in the quarterfinals when Wambach headed home a goal in the 122nd minute. That moved game to penalties, where the U.S. got the win. For her efforts, Wambach won the ESPY for Play of the Year.
Franklin kind of got lost in the wake of Katie Ledecky (who we will get to later), but she was the star of the 2012 Summer Olympics for the United States. She won a whopping four gold medals in the pool, but the 200-meter backstroke was the one that sticks out. Not only did she set a world record, but she also was the first American woman to win gold in the event since 1972.
Hammon was an excellent player in the WNBA, so clearly she knows a thing or two about basketball. That’s why it certainly seemed fitting, if remarkable, that the Spurs hired her as an assistant under Gregg Popovich. She even served as the head coach during the NBA Summer League. In the wake of Hammon’s hiring, a couple of NFL teams hired women to their coaching staffs, and Kara Lawson was hired by the Boston Celtics. Hammon had another big moment when, after Pop was ejected from a game, she got to take over as the de facto head coach in an actual NBA contest.
If we’re being honest, it’s a little weird that the Little League World Series is on ESPN. Yet sometimes it gives us nice moments. Davis wasn’t the first girl to play in the LLWS. However, she was the first girl to both earn a win as a pitcher and also to pitch a shutout. Davis got herself a Sports Illustrated cover for her efforts and for charming a lot of sports fans.
Rousey was an unstoppable machine. She was the biggest name in MMA, and she was undefeated, having defended the bantamweight title successfully seven times. Then Rousey faced Holm, and Holm took her down. It wasn’t quite Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson, but the shock was similar.
In the 2011 title game, Japan upset the U.S. in a shootout. The two teams faced off again in the 2015 championship game, and the Americans had revenge on their minds. Carli Lloyd made sure they got it. The skilled striker potted two goals in the first five minutes and would add another soon thereafter for a first-half hat trick. The Americans would go on to win, 5-2.
The 800-meter freestyle is a long race, one that Ledecky has dominated. In 2012, she won gold in that event, nearly securing a world record. In 2016, she decided to blow the record, and her competitors, out of the water. Ledecky finished the race in 8:04.79. The swimmer in second was just a bit behind her — like, over 11 seconds behind her.
The five women who made up the United States gymnastics team, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman, knew that this would be their last chance at Olympics glory. They certainly made the most of it, winning the team competition gold. Biles was the real standout, though. Perhaps the greatest American gymnast ever, Biles took home three individual golds plus a bronze.
When the Bulldogs and the Huskies squared off in the Final Four, it had been a while since UConn had lost — as in, it had won 111 games in a row. The Huskies were a juggernaut. Then somehow Mississippi State didn’t just give them a game, but Morgan William, who stood all of 5-foot-5, also hit a buzzer-beater to give the Bulldogs the 66-64 win. Goliath had been felled.
Cambage moves by the beat of her own drum, so when she found the WNBA lacking, financially and otherwise, she left the league and played overseas for year. However, in 2018 the formidable center returned to the States, and she made an immediate impact. The Aussie dropped a whopping 53 points on the New York Liberty, a new WNBA record. Perhaps unsurprisingly she led the league in scoring, at 23 points per game.
After the United States pulled off the upset at the first Olympics for women’s hockey, Canada took over. The Canadian squad proceeded to win four golds in a row, beating the U.S. team three times in the process. Then came 2018. The Americans and the Canadians were tied 2-2 heading into the shootout. There, Maddie Rooney came up huge in net, and the U.S. reclaimed gold.
Nunes isn’t just the last woman to beat Rousey in a match, effectively retiring Rousey to the world of pro wrestling. She’s now held the bantamweight title longer than Rousey, setting a new record. If that wasn’t enough, in 2018 she took down Cris Cyborg in a mere 51 seconds to win the flyweight belt, making her the first woman to hold two titles at the same time.
Snowboarding is still a relatively new sport at the Olympics, and it took a while for a female snowboarder to really grab some attention. Then Kim, who was all of 17, showed up. She may have been the most popular athlete at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. When Kim took home the halfpipe gold with a score of 98.25, she became the youngest female snowboarder to win the medal.
Brazil isn’t the powerhouse on the women’s side that it is on the men’s side despite the best efforts of Marta. The dynamic scorer has been potting goals at World Cups since 2003. Last year, she notched her 17th goal in World Cup play. That means she now has scored more goals at a World Cup than any woman or man, besting Miroslav Klose’s 16 goals for Germany. Despite her heroics, Brazil did not win the Cup. Instead, the United States took home yet another title, and used it as a jumping-off point for a conversation about equal pay.
We could put Sabrina Ionescu of the Oregon Ducks on her for the fact she became the only NCAA player, male or female, to put up 2,000 points, 1,000 assists, and 1,000 rebounds in her career. However, she arguably did something even more impressive during her time at Oregon: She and her teammates faced the U.S. women's national team in an exhibition game in 2019. The Ducks got the win, 93-86, behind Ionescu's 30 points. It was the first time the Team USA women had lost to anybody in 20 years.
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