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Celebrating Women Athletes: Women Who Are Changing Sports

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Much like the great players who have come before them, women in today's games are changing sports in incredible ways. Whether it be pioneering new places for games to grow, dominating the highest levels of competition like never before, or simply knocking down more barriers to opportunities, the progress is still ongoing.

This list highlights some names that you may or may not know. However, all of them play crucial roles in advancing the way sports are played now and how they will be played well into the future.

 

Hajra Khan - Pakistan Soccer

Soccer is the most watched, played, and cared for sport in the entire world. People from nearly every country on earth take part in the game. Even with this widespread love, women have often been at a disadvantage in terms of the opportunities they get to play at a high level. Historically, this has been especially true in Pakistan, a country that has limited women's rights among most parts of everyday life. This is until 2010 when Pakistan fielded its first Women's National Team. Hajra Khan was named the captain for the nations first tournament.

Khan is almost undoubtedly the best Pakistani soccer player, male or female, to ever to play the game. At age 14, Hajra began her professional career, scoring 9 goals in her first 3-game tournament. She has since amassed over 100 goals in roughly 40 games during her club career. This insane production of nearly a hat trick worth of goals per games has given her Pakistan's goal scoring record at only 25 years old. Hajra has also added 5 goals in 16 games wearing the Pakistan National Team shirt, this included bringing her team to a semi-final appearance in the 2010 inaugural SAFF Women's Championship.

Perhaps the biggest first that Hajra has been a part of for Pakistan is that she was the first player, male or female, to be invited to trial for top-level European clubs. After being unable to sign with German side MSV Duisburg due to VISA issues, Khan became the first Pakistani international to sign a contract outside of the country when she agreed to play in the Maldives in 2014. Off the field, she uses her position as the face of Pakistani football to lobby for equal opportunities for women on the field and in payment.

 

Serena Williams - USA Tennis

Serena Williams has become a name synonymous with women's tennis. Since the early 2000s, she has won nearly every prize there is to win in the sport, claiming the #1 spot in the rankings for the first time in 2002. From there she would never look back, building one of the most decorated resumes of any major tennis player in the history of the sport. Her career would see her lift titles from singles and doubles tournaments as well as Olympic games.

With her sister Venus Williams, the pair went an astounding 14-0 in doubles championships from 1999-2016. Serena has also added 23 singles titles during her 31 tournament campaigns from 1999 to 2018. Her 23rd title, which allowed her to pass legend Margeret Court, also gives her the most ever in the Open Era by any player, male or female. Serena also boasts the most prize money won by any female tennis player at over $88 million, more than double that of second place at $41 million (Venus), a number that puts her 4th all-time when male and female lists are combined. When you take into account the staggering 85% win rate over her career, it is easy to see why these feats are possible.

However, with all of this success, it seems that Williams may have completed the most impressive feat of her entire career in 2017. During her record-breaking 7th Australian Open victory (the most in Open Era), a victory that came without losing a single set, she was roughly 8 weeks pregnant. This amazing physical accomplishment made the 35-year-old tennis superstar's dominating performance in the Australian heat even more impressive. It also put to rest any questions that could be asked about female athletes being able to overcome the highest possible physical challenges associated with major sports.

 

Sue Bird - USA Basketball

While fans of men's basketball all know names like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, followers of women's basketball all know the name Sue Bird. Bird, who has no relation to men's player Larry Bird, played her college ball at the University of Connecticut. During her time with the program, she would lead the Huskies to an impressive 114-4 record and 2 National Championships. During her senior season, the team would finish undefeated at 39-0, capping off an amazing college career and earning Bird the spot as #1 pick in the WNBA Draft of 2002. 

Her professional career has been anything but quiet. Sue has already become the WNBA assists leader as well as the all-time league leader in games played. During her time in Seattle, her team has appeared in the playoffs during 13 of 16 seasons, hoisting the WNBA title on 3 separate occasions. She has also been a huge part of Team USA winning gold at the past 4 Summer Olympic games. During the WNBA offseason, Bird even played in Europe up until this year where she has collected 5 Russian League titles, 4 EuroLeague championships, and 2 Euro SuperCups. 

Bird is changing the game in the office as well as on the court. In 2018, Sue accepted an offer from the Denver Nuggets to fill the role of president of basketball operations. The front office job with the NBA championship contender comes as Bird will return for another WNBA season. She is one of the first few women to begin to work in high office positions in the men's game, leading the way for further integration between the two leagues. 

 

Katinka Hosszu - Hungary Swimming

Anyone who watches the Summer Olympics swimming events realizes that there are a few countries that dominate the pool. Hungary typically has not been one of those nations. At the Rio games, however, Katinka Hosszu would change that. Prior to the Rio games, Hosszu had competed in two different Olympics without capturing a single medal. Finally, in Brazil, Hosszu would take 3 golds (100m back, 200m medley, and 400m medley) and 1 silver (200m back) during her events.

This burst of Olympic podium appearances should not be seen as a fluke rise of a new swimming champion. Hosszu had successfully won gold at multiple European Championships as well as World Championships before winning in Rio. From 2009 to the games of 2016, she had managed to claim gold on 6 of 9 occasions in both the 200m medley and the 400m medley, the events she swam the most. She also won medals in the 200m back, 4x200m free, and 100m back leading up to the success of 2016. Rio would neither be the first or last time the podium held Hosszu.

Katinka has cemented her mark in the history books through a dominant record accumulation. She currently holds 6 world record times which ties her with Sarah Sjostrom and Michael Phelps with the most active records in swimming. And since 2013 no other female swimmer has been able to claim the 200m or 400m medley gold from Hosszu. Her dominance in the pool has helped put Hungary among the list of top swimming nations.

 

Toni Harris - USA Football

It is no secret that football is a popular sport in the US. With the NCAA and NFL raking in millions of dollars every year, it is one of the most widely watched and played sports in the country. Although it is one of the most popular, women are rarely ever given a chance to play. There have been a few attempts at forming professional women's leagues, most of which have failed. This is something that would not stop Toni Harris or her passion for the game. Her drive recently paid off with an offer to play for an NAIA school in Missouri.

Harris is not the first female to play football. Many women have been featured on NCAA schools. Most of them were kickers however, which is not considered to be a skill position. Being that she plays free safety, Toni has the chance to become one of the first ever women to play in a skill position. This combined with the fact that Bethany College also offered her a scholarship is a huge step. It is the first reported case of a female football player receiving a scholarship for a position other than kicker.

Ultimately, Toni wants to be the first woman drafted into the NFL. If this story sounds a bit familiar to you, it is because she actually appeared in a commercial for Toyota during the Super Bowl. The commercial highlights all of the barriers that Harris and other women like her are breaking, not just around football, but the entire sports world as well. If Toni is able to make her dream come true and reach the NFL, it will surely be a revolutionary moment that women's football and women's sports will celebrate for a long time.