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Celebrating Women Athletes: Women Who Changed Sports

Getty Images / Staff

March is National Women's Month so what better time of the year than this to highlight the women who have changed the entire world of sports through their amazing courage, persistence, and athletic abilities. Not only have many women changed the games we know and love over time, but even more continue to shake up the world of sports right now.

This list highlights many amazing women who have contributed to the sports world. Some of their names may not be ones you recognize, but their stories are all important to the games that they respectively have been a part of. These women have helped shape the platform that many modern games are built on.

 

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, USA Track/Field and Golf

Mildred Didrikson Zaharias was one of the greatest, if not arguably the best multi-sport athlete of all time. Her name can be thrown in the conversation with people like Jim Thorpe and Herschel Walker for the sheer amount of events that she was able to dominate. She earned her nickname "Babe" during one of her childhood baseball games where she managed to hit 5 home runs in a single contest. Her stand out athletic abilities didn't stop there, she would go on to be a leading point scorer for her amateur basketball team before turning to track and field. At one National AAU track meet, Didrikson represented her team alone and competed in all 10 events. After winning 8 and placing 2nd in a 9th, Didrikson won the entire meet by herself with 30 points (the second place team finished with 22 points and fielded 22 participants).

Babe's record-breaking would continue at the Olympics. In 1932, she participated in the LA games and would participate in all 3 events that women were permitted at the time. She would break the world record and win gold in javelin, break the world record (twice) during 80-meter hurdles (the best time clocking in at 11.7 seconds) and easily claim another gold. Finally, she broke the world record in the high jump, but was disqualified for using foul form. She would settle for a silver in the event.

Throughout the rest of her athletic career, Babe would go on to become a professional golfer winning countless championships as well as even pitch an inning of baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. All of these amazing feats solidified her as one of the greatest athletes of all time. In 1953, Babe underwent surgery for colon cancer. It was feared that she would never play sports again. In 1954, she won the US Women's Open by a massive 12 strokes, adding one more accomplishment to her resume for greatest athlete ever.

 

Billie Jean King, USA Tennis

King was a superstar in women's tennis throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. During her playing career, she was able to amass numerous records as well as championship trophies. King managed to win 39 Grand Slam titles (12 singles, 16 duos, and 11 mixed) as well as becoming the first woman to be selected as Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year in 1972. A year prior to this honor she also became the first female athlete to ever win more than $100,000 in prize money from her tournament participation. And in 1974 became the only woman ever to win US singles titles on all four surfaces (grass, clay, carpet, hard court).

Through all of this success, perhaps the most widely recognized of her accomplishments came in 1973 when she would pull off one of the most memorable moments in sports history. In 1973 Bobby Riggs, former #1 ranked men's tennis player, stated that even at age 55, he could beat any of the top-ranked women's players. Before facing off with King, Riggs did get the best of Margaret Court (one of King's top competitors). This forced King to accept the challenge. The stakes of the game were more than just money, if King were to lose, it could set not only women's tennis, but women's sports in general back decades in progress they had made. The "Battle of the Sexes" would bring in 90 million viewers on primetime TV. King would win the contest 3 sets to 0, silencing critics of the women's game as well as exposing many new people to the sport. 

Since the infamous game with Riggs, King has worked hard to advocate for equal pay and opportunities to women in tennis as well as all other walks of life. She has founded the World TeamTennis League and the Women's Tennis Association. Through all of her work to level the playing field as well as bring popularity back to the game of tennis, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 followed by the BBC Sports Personality Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 for the impact she has made in her life.

 

Larisa Latynina, Soviet Union Gymnastics

Latynina was the face of gymnastics during the 1950s and 1960s. Competing for the Soviet Union, Larisa managed to become one of the best gymnasts as well as one of the best overall Olympians ever. She held the record for most Olympic medals ever won by a male or female with 18 until 2012 when Michael Phelps managed to pass her. Of the 18 medals, her 9 golds were another record until Phelps beat it, a record which no other female athlete ever held.

Since her retirement from the floor, Latynina has embraced the coaching role. Her instruction has helped build the USSR and present-day Russia into a superpower in gymnastics. She has coached many of the great Soviet gymnasts that came after her. She even assisted in putting together the 1980 Moscow games. In 2006, she was a torchbearer at the Turin winter games in Italy. With Larisa's commitment to gymnastics, the Olympic sport would be given one of its most dominating national team dynasties of all time. 

 

Jackie Mitchell, USA Baseball

One of the best, and largely unheard of, stories in sports history surrounds the 17-year-old girl from Chattanooga, Tennesee. Jackie Mitchell learned how to play baseball from her father in a park near their home. However, the family also lived close to future hall of fame pitcher Dazzy Vance (premier strikeout pitcher of the 1920's). Vance would go on to teach Mitchell how to throw his signature pitch known as the "drop ball." In 1930, Mitchell signed to play baseball for a women's team in her home town. This is where Chattanooga Lookouts owner Joe Engel identified her as a prospect.

Mitchell became the first woman ever to sign a professional baseball contract in 1931 when she signed for the Chattanooga Lookouts to pitch. That same year the New York Yankees came to town for a set of exhibition games with the team. During the first inning of the game, Mitchell would come in to replace the Lookouts starter after he gave up hits to the first two batters. The first batter that Mitchell faced was none other than Babe Ruth. After Ruth watched a drop ball fall out of the zone, Mitchell caught the famous slugger swinging twice. Ruth even demanded that the umpire check the ball for tampering. On the next pitch, he was struck out looking and forced to storm back to the dugout. After this, Mitchell faced the legendary Lou Gehrig, striking him out on 3 straight pitches. She would be pulled after walking the next batter, but she had already made her mark on history.

Papers around the country couldn't wait to tell the story of the 17-year-old girl who had struck out the best players in the game. A few days later the commissioner of baseball pulled Mitchell's contract, trying to save the league from "embarrassment." Mitchell's brief moment of greatness was decades before its time, showing everyone that women were more than capable of being allowed to compete in men's sports. 

 

Manon Rheaume, Canada Hockey

Hockey has long been the pastime of Canada, a pastime that women did not have many opportunities to partake in at a consistent level. This was until the 1990s when the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) and the Winter Olympics both added Women's Hockey events. What a lot of people tend to forget, is that the women's side of the sport and the overall game were boosted by the appearance of a Canadian goaltender named Manon Rheaume.

Rheaume was in goal when the Canadian Women's National Team won gold at both the 1992 and 1994 IIHF tournaments. During both campaigns, Manon was named to the tournament's All-Star team as the best goaltender. She would then lead the Canadian team to a silver medal during the 1998 Olympics. However, Manon's largest mark left on ice hockey came during the 1992 season when she tried out for the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the1992 season, the Lightning was the newest expansion team to join the NHL and they held a large tryout to fill their roster. Manon boasted the 3rd highest save percentage in the tryout among all goalies, landing her a spot on the roster. Becoming the first woman to sign a professional contract in any North American sport, Manon played in two exhibition games against the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins, then becoming the first woman to play in an NHL game.

After her historic appearances for the Lightning, Manon would play regular-season games for several other men's minor league teams (another first for women) as well as a professional women's teams. Manon's appearances inspired many girls and boys alike to follow their dreams in hockey, growing the sport's popularity everywhere. In 2015, her inspirational story came full circle when she dropped the first puck during the inaugural game of the National Women's Hockey League between Buffalo and Boston.