Special Report

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.)

Click here to see the greatest female athletes in history

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

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Michelle Akers
> Sport: Soccer

Michelle Akers was the standard-carrier for the U.S. women’s national soccer team that won its first two Women’s World Cups in 1991 and 1999. Akers distinguished herself as a midfielder and forward. She was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame and was named FIFA Female Player of the Century jointly with China’s Sun Wen.

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Bonnie Blair
> Sport: Speed skating

When it comes to speed skating, speed thrills – and no one thrilled people more than Bonnie Blair. She set the ice ablaze by winning five gold medals over three Olympic Games. The American won gold in the 500 meters and bronze in the 1,000 meters at the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988. She swept both events in 1992 in Albertville, France, and 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.

Fanny Blankers-Koen
> Sport: Track and field

Nicknamed “The Flying Housewife,” Francina Blankers-Koen made her Olympic debut for the Netherlands as a high jumper in Berlin in 1936. World War II deprived her of the chance to compete during her peak years. Even so, she still became the star of the 1948 London Olympic Games, at age 30, as the mother of two. She won both sprint events, the 80-meter hurdles, and ran a leg of the gold-medal winning 4×100 meter relay.

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Marit Bjørgen
> Sport: Cross-country skiing

Cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen has won more Winter Olympics medals than any athlete, male or female. She won 15 medals in five Winter Games – including eight gold medals – starting in Salt Lake City in 2002. She is first in the all-time Cross-Country World Cup rankings with 114 individual victories. Bjørgen retired at 38 years old after the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

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Tracy Caulkins
> Sport: Swimming

Tracy Caulkins of the United States was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion. She won 48 national championships and set American records in all four major competitive swimming events – butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle.

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Nadia Comăneci
> Sport: Gymnastics

Nadia Comăneci of Romania is the first gymnast to ever achieve a perfect score in competition. She did so as a 14-year-old at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal on the uneven bars. When her perfect 10 was posted, it was displayed as a 1.00, because the scoreboard manufacturer was told before the Games that four digits wouldn’t be necessary since a perfect score could not be achieved. Comăneci went on to win three gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics, and two more at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

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Margaret Court
> Sport: Tennis

Margaret Court dominated women’s tennis in the 1960s. The Australian native won 66 Grand Slam championships, the most of any woman. In 1970, she became the second woman to win the Grand Slam of tennis singles capturing Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and the French Open titles all in the same year. Court also is the only player to have achieved the Grand Slam in doubles as well as singles.

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Chris Evert
> Sport: Tennis

Chris Evert dominated women’s tennis in the mid- and late 1970s. Nicknamed “The Ice Maiden” for her coolness under pressure, she won 18 Grand Slam singles championships and three doubles titles. She was the No. 1 female singles player for seven years. In 1976, Evert became the first tennis player to reach the $1 million mark in career prize money. Evert also is famous for her rivalry with Martina Navratilova, who would eventually overtake her as the world’s top female tennis player.

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Dawn Fraser
> Sport: Swimming

Australia has turned out some of the world’s greatest swimmers, and Dawn Fraser is one of them. She became the first woman swimmer to win gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games – 1956, 1960, and 1964. From 1956 to 1964, Fraser broke the women’s world record for the 100-meter freestyle race nine straight times.

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Althea Gibson
> Sport: Tennis

Althea Gibson overcame racial prejudice to become a tennis champion in the 1950s. In 1950, Gibson became the first African-American to compete in the U.S. National Championships. Six years later, she won the French Open, and she added Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in both 1957 and 1958. After her women’s singles and double triumphs at Wimbledon, she was honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

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Steffi Graf
> Sport: Tennis

In 1988, Steffi Graf accomplished a feat unequaled in tennis. She won the four Grand Slam titles and the women’s singles gold medal at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, all in the same calendar year. The West German athlete lost only one match in all of 1988. Gifted with a powerful forehand, Graf occupied the No. 1 ranking in the world for a record 377 total weeks before she retired in 1999.

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Mia Hamm
> Sport: Soccer

Mia Hamm was an early superstar in American women’s soccer. She joined the United States Women’s National Team at age 15 and was on the national squad for 17 seasons. Hamm scored 158 goals, which was an American women’s soccer record until it was surpassed by Abby Wambach, and also had 144 assists. She was a member of two World Cup championship teams in 1991 and 1999. Hamm was Women’s FIFA World Player of the Year twice. She was the first woman inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame.

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Sonja Henie
> Sport: Figure skating

Sonja Henie is the most famous female skater of all time. The Norwegian skater won three Olympic women’s figure gold medals in 1928, 1932, and 1936, 10 straight world championships, and was a six-time European Champion. Henie became a professional skater whose tours were very successful and she also became a film star, one of the first female Olympic athletes able to capitalize on her fame.

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Florence Griffith Joyner
> Sport: Track and field

Also known as Flo-Jo, and the sister-in-law of fellow track athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner earned a silver medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Four years later, the spotlight was hers as she won three golds and one silver at the 1988 Olympics, capturing the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay, while taking second in the 4×400 relay. She came under suspicion for using performance-enhancing drugs after the 1988 Olympics. Joyner always claimed her innocence and she never failed a drug test.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee
> Sport: Track and field

Jackie Joyner-Kersee was one of the most dominant women athletes in track and field in the 1980s. After earning a silver in the heptathlon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, she hit her stride in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, winning gold at both the heptathlon and the long jump. She repeated her gold in the heptathlon at the Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992, and earned the bronze that year in the long jump. At age 34, she completed her Olympics career with a gold in the long jump in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics. Joyner-Kersee also captured four golds in the World Championships and one in the Pan American Games.

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Billie Jean King
> Sport: Tennis

Billie Jean King elevated women’s tennis in the 1960s and 1970s. Over a career from 1959 to 1983, she won 39 Grand Slam titles – 12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, and 11 mixed doubles. An outspoken figure in the fight for women’s rights, as well as an advocate for gay rights, King won her most celebrated match in 1973 by defeating Bobby Riggs, shattering negative stereotypes of women athletes in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” match in the Houston Astrodome.

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Olga Korbut
> Sport: Gymnastics

Olga Korbut was a gymnast from the Soviet Union who pushed the envelope on what could be possible in her sport. She won three gold medals at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, then a team gold medal and an individual silver medal for the balance beam In the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal. She became the first gymnast to perform a backward aerial somersault on the balance beam and the first to do a backward release on the uneven parallel bars.

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Julie Krone
> Sport: Horseracing

Julie Krone broke barriers by becoming the first female jockey to win the Belmont Stakes in 1993. She won six races in one day at Monmouth Park and five at the Meadowlands racetrack, tying records at both tracks. In 2000, she became the first woman inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

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Suzanne Lenglen
> Sport: Tennis

The 1920s featured some of sport’s most famous athletes, such as Babe Ruth, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey. Tennis had its colorful celebrities also, among them the flamboyant Suzanne Lenglen. She was unconventional, cutting her hair short, wearing her tennis dresses above her calf, and often drinking liquor from a flask between sets. The French star won a combined 34 major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at the French and Wimbledon Championships.

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Lisa Leslie
> Sport: Basketball

Lisa Leslie was instrumental in boosting the visibility of the fledgling WNBA. She was a three-time league MVP in the WNBA, and as center for the U.S. national women’s team, led the United States to four Olympic consecutive gold medals, starting at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. In the WNBA, she led the Los Angeles Sparks to back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002. She was the first female to dunk a basketball during a game and once scored 101 points in a high school game.

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Nancy Lopez
> Sport: Golf

Photogenic and accomplished, Nancy Lopez was the poster woman for the LPGA Tour in the 1970s. She won 48 LPGA Tour events, including three Women’s PGA Championships. Lopez was the LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1978, a four-time LPGA Tour Player of the Year, and a two-time Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. Lopez competed from 1977 to 2003.

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Mary T. Meagher
> Sport: Swimming

The United States has had many female swimmers distinguish themselves at the Olympics, and Mary T. Meagher was one of them. She was a triple gold medal-winner at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, and held the world records in 100m and 200m butterfly for almost two decades, earning her the nickname “Madame Butterfly.”

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Cheryl Miller
> Sport: Basketball

Cheryl Miller was one of the greatest female basketball players of all time and is credited with popularizing women’s basketball. She led USC to back-to-back national championships. Miller was a three-time NCAA player of the year and the first basketball player to have her jersey retired at USC. She helmed the U.S. national women’s team to the gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. It was her misfortune to have competed before the formation of the WNBA.

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Martina Navratilova
> Sport: Tennis

Martina Navratilova, who defected to the United States in 1975 from Czechoslovakia, took women’s tennis to a higher level with an unprecedented demonstration of power and physical conditioning to become one of the greatest women tennis players ever. She won 59 Grand Slam titles – 18 singles championships, 31 women’s doubles victories, and 10 mixed doubles titles. Navratilova triumphed at Wimbledon a record nine times. She won her final Grand Slam event at age 49 in 2006, a mixed doubles win at the U.S. Open. Navratilova was the World Tennis Association’s “Tour Player of the Year” seven times

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Danica Patrick
> Sport: Auto racing

Danica Patrick, barrier-breaker and auto-racing pioneer, is one of only two women to ever complete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. When she won the 2008 Indy Japan 300, it was the first time a woman had ever won an IndyCar Series Race. In 2013, Patrick became the first female NASCAR driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole. She holds the record for most top-10 finishes for any female in the NASCAR Cup Series with seven.

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Wilma Rudolph
> Sport: Track and field

Few people have overcome greater odds to reach the summit of their sport than Wilma Rudolph. She was born prematurely and then was afflicted with polio, scarlet fever, and pneumonia as a child. She walked with a brace when she was 6, discarding it at age 9. After earning a bronze in the 4×100-meter relay race in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Rudolph won gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome in the 200 meters, 100 meters and 4×100-meter relay race.

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Joan Benoit Samuelson
> Sport: Track and field

Wearing her trademark hat, Joan Benoit Samuelson won the gold medal in the women’s marathon at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984, the year the event was introduced. Samuelson also holds the records for fastest times ever recorded by an American woman at the Chicago Marathon and the Olympic Marathon. For 28 years, she held the record for the fastest time by an American woman at the Boston Marathon.

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Raisa Smetanina
> Sport: Cross-country skiing

Cross-country skier Raisa Smetanina of the Soviet Union was the first woman to win 10 career medals at the Olympic Winter Games. She competed in five Winter Olympiads, the first in 1976 in Innsbruck, Austria, and her last in 1992 in Albertville, France, and won a medal in each one. At her final Olympiad, the 39-year-old won a team gold medal in the 4x 5-kilometer relay, making her the oldest female gold medalist in Winter Olympics history.

Source: Nick Laham / Getty Images

Annika Sorenstam
> Sport: Golf

The Swedish athlete, who is now 51 years old, has won 90 international tournaments, the most ever for a woman. She’s won 72 LPGA events and 10 majors. Sorenstam was named LPGA Tour Player of the Year eight times between 1995 and 2005 before retiring in 2008. The three-time U.S. Women’s Open winner said earlier this month that she will play in that tournament in June. Sorenstam also committed to making her debut in the Senior LPGA Championship.

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Lindsey Vonn
> Sport: Skiing

Lindsey Vonn is the most decorated skier in American history. Besides earning three Olympic medals (a gold and two bronzes), she has 67 World Cup victories. Vonn is one of just two female skiers to have won four World Cup championships. She retired from competitive skiing after the 2018-2019 season.

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Grete Waitz
> Sport: Track and field

Grete Waitz was a Norwegian marathoner who dominated women’s long-distance running for more than a decade. She won the New York City Marathon nine times between 1978 and 1988. She also won the London Marathon in 1983 and 1986. Waitz took the gold medal in the first women’s marathon at the 1983 IAAF track-and-field world championships and won the silver medal in the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles.

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Abby Wambach
> Sport: Soccer

The striker for the U.S. national women’s team has scored 184 goals, the world record for most international goals scored by any female soccer player in history. As a member of Team USA from 2001 to 2015, Wambach led the American squad to two Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2012, and a Women’s World Cup victory in 2015.

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Serena Williams
> Sport: Tennis

Once she established herself as the best tennis player in her family, besting sister Venus, Serena Williams claimed the mantle of best female tennis player in the world, and one of the greatest of all time. Combining power and athleticism, she has won 39 Grand Slam titles: 23 in singles, 14 in women’s doubles and two in mixed doubles. And for good measure, she has won four Olympic gold medals. Williams has been ranked No. 1 in the world six times. Williams is 40 years old and her career as of late has been hampered by injuries. It is unclear if she will play in 2022.

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Katarina Witt
> Sport: Figure skating

Katarina Witt was the face of the East German athletic powerhouse in the 1980s. She dominated figure skating in the 1980s. She won the first of her two Olympic gold medals in 1984 by defeating favored American skater Rosalynn Sumners by one-hundredth of a point. In 1988, she became the first female figure skater to defend her Olympic title since Sonja Henie in 1936. From 1983 to 1988, Witt won six European Championships and four World Championships. From 1984 to 1988, she only lost once, to American Debi Thomas in 1986.

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Ireen Wüst
> Sport: Speed skating

The Dutch athlete made history at the Beijing Olympics by winning an individual gold medal in her fifth straight Olympiad, the only Olympian ever to have done so. The 35-year-old won the 1,500-meter speed-skating race with an Olympic record. Wüst has won six gold medals overall and 13 total, second only to Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjørgen‘s 15 medals. She plans to retire after the Beijing Olympics.

Source: Getty Images

Babe Didrikson Zaharias
> Sport: Golf, track

Nicknamed Babe after Babe Ruth for her athletic prowess, Zaharias was an All-American in basketball, won two gold medals and one silver medal in track at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She took up golf and became one of the greatest women’s golfers of all time, winning 41 LPGA events.

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