There’s no question that female athletes are strong and determined. From climbing the highest mountains on earth to swimming in brutal ocean conditions to running 26.2 miles at blistering speeds, women have proved time and again that they’re capable of achieving seemingly impossible physical feats.
But female athletes aren’t just strong; they’re powerful and inspirational. They smash barriers. They fight for equality. They change perspectives and pave ways for our future women in sport.
The Sporting Her team came together to highlight the female olympians that inspire them. Our hope is that in reading this list, you will learn and feel inspired by female olympians around the world.
Unnati Naidus's favourite Olympian
Christen Press is well-known amongst women's football enthusiasts all across the world. We're all aware of her great stats for the US Women's National Team. The two-time World Cup winner has 146 appearances for her country, scoring 63 goals and assisting 42 others. She possesses speed, creativity, and the ability to make defenders weak. Even with all the impressive stats, she is looking to redeem herself at the Olympic games this year. After failing to make the quarter-finals and losing on penalties to Sweden five years ago, Press has worked her way up to turn the bitter taste of what happened five years ago into the pleasure of winning the gold medal this year. In the last 37 games, we've seen a happier and more secure version of Press; she's been directly involved in 37 goals.
Christen believes growing as a person each year and continually pushes herself to be a better athlete. The Hermann Trophy winne- Representing the USA in footbalr has excelled in a more clinical and prominent role under coach Vlatko Andonovski than she did under the previous coach Jill Ellis. Christen Press has shown to be an essential member of the national squad while also speaking out against many social injustices. She has paved the road for future ambitious football players not to give up and continue their journey. While this is her second Olympic competition, if they win, it will be her first medal, unlike the other veterans on the squad. There is a burning desire to succeed, and her drive never ceases to astonish me. Christen Press is a defender's worst nightmare, and we'll see it throughout the tournament. Despite her popularity over the years, she remains incredibly humble and adores her followers. She motivates me to pursue my goals and never give up.
2x World Cup Winner
2x CONCACAF Women's Championship
2x Algarve Cup
4x She Believes Cup
Hermann Trophy Winner
UEFA Champions League Runner Up
📸: Christen Press - Representing the USA in football
Megan Armitage's favourite Olympian
Enith Brigitha’s story is not one widely known in the swimming world but is one with a trailblazing impact. Brigitha represented the Netherlands in the 100m and 200m Freestyle at the 1972 Munich and 1976 Montreal Olympic Games and is the first black athlete to win an Olympic medal in swimming. Born in Dutch-Caribbean Curaçao, Enith was taught to swim by her mother in the Caribbean Sea as a method of survival. Nurturing her love for the water, Enith continued to train after her family moved to the Netherlands, having the opportunity to become a world-class athlete.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Enith won Silver in the 100m Freestyle and Bronze in the 200m Freestyle. However, in 1993, it came to light that both East German swimmers that Enith had finished behind in her events had been part of a systematic doping scandal. As a result, many have called for Enith to be recognised as Olympic Gold medallist in the 100m Freestyle and Olympic Silver medallist, behind USA’s Shirley Babashoff, in the 200m Freestyle. The IOC refused to overturn these records due to the years that had passed between the events and the discovery, yet many view the lack of acknowledgement as a level of racism and sexism towards the deserving athletes.
Now retired, Enith continues to develop her love for the sport by teaching those in both Curaçao and the Netherlands to swim. Her achievements have earned her a place in the Swimming Hall of Fame and a name continually admired by those underrepresented in the swimming world. To this day Enith considers herself the Olympic Champion in the 100m Freestyle.
📸: Enith Brigitha - Represented the Netherlands in swimming
Jess Blissett's favourite Olympian
Jill Scott is an English female footballer who plays for Manchester City FC women's team and the England Women's national team as a midfielder. At age 13, she had to decide between football or running, and chose to concentrate on playing football - And we're glad she did! Jill began her senior England career in 2006 and since then has represented her country at several major tournaments including the last three EURO, World Cups, and now Tokyo 2020. To top it off, this year she also celebrated her 150th England appearance during their friendly against Northern Ireland.
Jill might be among the more experienced veterans, but she is unashamedly the most immature, and if there’s mischief or malarkey happening in the England squad, you can bank on her being the instigator. She is a key role model within the football space, both on and off the pitch. Her work in coaching both at her parent club Manchester City and in her local community has made Scott one of the most recognised and respected players in the game. Utterly devoted to her sport, Scott actively inspires the next generation with initiatives like the Jill Scott Soccer School and her Obvious Jill Lockdown Skills Challenges she churned out on social media to keep girls engaged with football during the pandemic. To top it off, she set up another business alongside her partner Shelly Unit - Boxx 2 Boxx Coffee. Based in Manchester, the coffee shop attracts not only the locals, but its a space for football fans to come together and socialise whilst also being a hot spot for your women footballers.
When it comes to inspiring the future generation of footballers, you can count on Jill Scott.
Louisa Okolobe's favourite Olympian
Suzanne Brigit Bird an American basketballer known to many as Sue Bird. Four time Olympics gold medalist and WNBA champion, future hall-of-famer She is a prime example of the positive effect a role model could have in your life. She has always said her origin story was wanting to be like her older sister and do everything she did, luckily for her Jen Bird picked up a basketball. Sue Bird was drafted 1st overall in the WNBA in 2002 after an invisible run to win the NCAA championship with University of Connecticut.
In her WNBA mini-documentary four years ago she revealed how it felt like coming from college when she did not lose to WNBA where you were expected to know how to deal with a loss. After the 5th loss she said she looked around the room and realized she was the only one taking it that hard and she would be emotionally exhausted at the end of the season if she continued on that path. She quickly learnt to see losses as learning curves to continuously improve her game. In the early stages American basketball players were expected to play overseas to stay sharp through the WNBA offseason and make more money. Sue Bird played in Russia for ten years, she talked about getting paid to play in unfamiliar territories and its pressure with her U.S. national teammate Diana Taurasi. She was able to shut out the noise and play the game she loved. At the 2016 Olympics the top question she kept getting asked was “Will this one be very special because its her last?”. Sue’s response to questions of her retirement is always met with the same answer since 2016, she will keep taking care of her body so she can play at the highest level possible for as long as she has a passion for the game.
Sue has been playing at a professional level consistently for almost 20 years and according to forbes the average WNBA career lasts five years. Safe to say she has beaten all odds and with her latest Olympic selection she stands a chance of becoming one of the most decorated in the game alongside Diana Taurasi. When asked at the latest Team USA press conference how important this selection means to her she said, “they all feel the same to me, I to live an even keel life and celebrate after the job has been done”. Sue Bird is a big inspiration because she does not just defy the odds but showcases how continuous effort at the thing you love yields reward, she has won it all and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
📸: Sue Bird - Representing the USA in basketball
Danielle Van De Donk
Unnati Naidu's favourite olympian
Danielle van de Donk, a well-known personality in the Netherlands who plays for their Women's Football Team, will make her Olympic debut this year, as the Netherlands qualifies for the first time. She grew up in the small town of Valkensward, where she played with the boys who found it rather unconventional that a girl played in a team full of boys. 'Tiny Terror,' as some fans endearingly named her, quickly silenced the boys who made remarks about her with her skills. Starting her professional career with the Dutch club Willem-II at age 17, Danielle went on to play for clubs like PSV and Arsenal. Van de Donk joined Arsenal from Gothenburg in 2015 and made 142 appearances for the Gunners, the highest ever by an International player for the club; most recently joined the French giants, Lyon. Danielle completed her debut for her country in a match against Mexico in 2010 and has been an essential team member ever since. Danielle, a natural leader with superb ball control, is a player to look up to on the team alongside other legends. Following her World Cup achievement, the European Champion is eyeing an Olympic gold medal with her team qualifying for the first time. Her goal is apparent; she wants to win against big teams and is not hesitant anymore. Danielle is not only a powerful presence on the field, but she is also humble and caring off the field, not only towards her squad but also towards the spectators. Her constant hard work and desire to improve are nothing short of motivating young Dutch girls and everyone else around the world.
Danielle van de Donk was the person who got me interested in women's football. She is a true inspiration and continually pushes me to improve in whatever I do. She can be feisty at times, but the concern she shows for other players on the pitch, even if they are not on her team, stands out and says a lot about her. She's a tremendous player, and I can't wait to see the havoc she inflicts on the opposing side. I can't help but be biassed, like the rest of the Dutch, and wish that the Netherlands Women's National Team wins the gold medal because this outstanding athlete deserves it.
📸: Danielle Van De Donk - Representing the Netherlands in football
Katie Worth's favourite olympian
I have always idolised the Australian 400m sprinter Cathy Freeman. She was an athlete who was determined to succeed, had courage, and persevered.
In the final stages of her seventeen-year athletic career, Freeman won gold in the 400m sprint in front of a home crowd at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. As a kid growing up in Australia, I remember that iconic race – in her full body race suit, she took the lead 75 metres from home and held off her competition to win the Olympic Gold medal by 4 metres. This race has been immortalised as a defining moment for both Freeman and Australia’s Olympic athletic legacy.
For Freeman, gold was just one aspect of her performance. She commented after the race that she was grateful for winning but was disappointed with the time of 49.11 seconds as she wanted to achieve a run under 49 seconds. She knew she had the capability to run faster, such as her nature, an athlete, and a perfectionist.
Freeman accounts that part of her passion and need to run was a response to her older sister Anne-Marie. Anne-Marie had severe cerebral palsy which caused physical disability. As Freeman explains “she taught me that if you can run, do it, if you can walk, do it and to just be humble and have respect for life and the gifts that are there for you”. She had the ability to run, and so she did.
However, it was also her actions after the race that cemented mine and most of Australia’s awe and respect for her character – Freeman, a Kuku Yalanji woman, completed her victory lap holding both the Australian and Indigenous flags. This was a monumental moment as it became a symbol for reconciliation and Freeman’s pride in her Indigenous heritage. At the 2000 Games and still to the present day, Australia is yet to reconcile its continued poor treatment of Indigenous Australians.
After Freeman’s athletic career, she set up the Cathy Freeman Foundation which supports Indigenous students. Her foundation currently supports over 16,000 students (spanning across early childhood years, primary and to secondary education) in remote Indigenous communities in Australia.
I believe Freeman to be one of the truly great Olympians. She is a true testament to the value of Olympism both during her career and after retirement. Freeman became the first Australian to win a 400m Olympic Gold medal since 1964, and was the first Indigenous Australian to ever win an Olympic Gold in athletics. She became an Australian household name who inspires me to continue to work towards my dreams, and continues to inspire many into athletics and other sporting endeavours.
· Commonwealth Games Gold 1990
· 2 x 400m World Champion
· Gold medal in 400m 2000 Olympics
· Silver Medal in 400m in 1996
· Three-time Olympian
📸: Cathy Freeman - Represented Australia in the 400m sprint
Ivy Samuel's favourite olympian
I was 10 years old during the 2012 Olympics, it was the first one that I’d ever properly watched. And being the track and field enthusiast that I was back then the athlete that captured my attention throughout the summer was Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon.
After missing out on Beijing due to injury, London was Ennis’ chance to perform on the highest stage in front of a home crowd. It’s not common that multi-event athletes receive such high levels of support or admiration but Jessica Ennis captured the hearts of the nation.
With the country behind her, she achieved 3 personal bests in the first 6 events. And before she even reached the starting line for the 800 metres, it was pretty much a done deal. Jessica Ennis became an Olympic champion, finishing 306 points ahead of her nearest competitor, backed by the roars of her spectators.
Though she’s retired now, Jessica Ennis-Hill, is still widely regarded as an inspiration. Her willingness to pick herself back up and try again when things got tough, is one of the qualities that I find most remarkable about her. And besides being a woman that I look up to, Jessica Ennis-Hill is one of Great Britain’s most successful female athletes and continues to be a strong advocate for women in sports.
📸: Jessica Ennis - Represented Great Britain in track and field events
Grace Ott's favourite olympian
There are many words that can be used to describe American swimmer extraordinaire Katie Ledecky, but the only way that I have found to adequately describe her athleticism in the water is that she is an absolute beast. Ledecky, simply put, is one of the greatest swimmers in the world, possibly all time. She heads into her third Olympics as one of the most decorated female swimmers of all time with thirty-four medals from major international competitions: Olympics, World Championships, and Pan-Pacific Championships. Twenty-eight of these medals are gold. Ledecky is the current world record holder in the women’s 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyle, and throughout her career has broken world records FOURTEEN TIMES (and many of those were breaking her own records). Ledecky has been known to have to wait in her lane for relatively long times before being allowed to get out when all swimmers had finished, once a full ninety-seven seconds in the 1500-meter freestyle (she was seventeen seconds ahead of the second-place finisher).
And yet, what might be the most interesting thing about her utter domination in the pool is the fact that Katie Ledecky is only twenty-four years old. Her Olympic debut in 2012 came at the young age of fifteen and five years ago, she was the only teenager on the US women’s swim team. Now she finds herself a veteran of the Games, serving as a leader and role model for the young swimmers beside her. But that certainly doesn’t mean she’s done winning medals. While her times in the past couple of years, have not quite been the caliber of her previous record-breaking swims, Ledecky is the only US swimmer to qualify for four individual events in this year’s Olympics: the 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter freestyles. She is the favorite to win gold in all of them.
📸: Katie Ledecky - Representing the USA in swimming
Unnati Naidu's favourite Olympian
Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, or MC Mary Kom, is India's most famous boxer. Mary is synonymous with boxing in India, having won six World Championship gold medals. The mother of four is now on a roll. She qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics after capturing silver and bronze medals at the Asian Boxing Championship and the Boxam International Boxing Tournament. Throughout her career, the six-time World Champion has received various accolades.
Along with men's hockey team captain Manpreet Singh, the Indian pugilist will carry India's flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. Mary's most potent weapon heading into the Olympics is her two decades of experience, and her resume of 19 international medals (13 gold, three silver, and three bronze) is sometimes enough to frighten rookie boxers. The only thing missing from Mary Kom's resume is an Olympic gold medal. And the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be her final chance to add another yellow award to her collection. Mary Kom's most valuable asset is her experience. She has been a strong force in women's boxing for many years, and she will need every ounce of her experience to finish on the podium in Tokyo. She bears the hopes and expectations of a billion Indians. But, on the other hand, Mary is known for her ability to perform under duress, especially when she is backed into a corner. And it would not be surprising if Mary Kom ends her Olympic career by accomplishing her long-held desire of earning a gold medal in the world's largest sporting event.
Mary Kom has won a medal in practically every competition in which she has competed. Her journey at the World Championships in 2019 was cut short in the semifinals, as she was defeated by Turkey's Busenaz Cakiroglu, who went on to win her eighth World medal. In March 2020, the Indian athlete competed in Olympic qualifiers, where she also took bronze, ensuring an Olympic spot in the 51kg division for the first time. Mary Kom's participation in events was halted due to the pandemic. However, in 2021, she demonstrated that she still possesses some flair by winning a bronze medal at the Boxam International tournament, followed by a silver medal at the Asian Boxing Championship. She lost the final after a closely fought bout.
Bronze medal – Flyweight, 2012 London
Gold medal – Pin weight, 2002 Antalya
Gold medal – Pinweight, 2005 Podolsk
Gold medal – Pin weight, 2006 New Delhi
Gold medal – Pin weight, 2008 Ningbo City
Gold medal – Light flyweight, 2010 Bridgetown
Gold medal – Light flyweight, 2018 New Delhi
Silver medal – Light flyweight, 2001 Scranton
Bronze medal – Flyweight, 2019 Ulan-Ude
Gold medal – Flyweight, 2014 Incheon
Bronze medal – Flyweight, 2010 Guangzhou
Gold medal – Pinweight, 2003 Hisar
Gold medal – Pinweight, 2005 Kaohsiung
Gold medal – Pinweight, 2010 Astana
Gold medal – Flyweight, 2012 Ulaanbaatar
Gold medal – Light flyweight, Ho Chi Minh City
Silver medal – Pinweight, 2008 Guwahati
Silver medal – Flyweight, 2021 Dubai
Gold medal – Light flyweight, 2018 Gold Coast
Asian Indoor Games
Gold medal – Pin weight, 2009 Hanoi
📸: Mary Kom - Representing India in boxing
Jess Blissett's favourite Olympian
Magda Erikson. The captain of Chelsea FC Women's Team and Sweden international. Eriksson’s leadership skills, winning mentality, and consistent performances also make her a key player on the pitch. She made her senior Sweden debut against France in 2014 and was part of the squad which reached the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup and quarter-finals of the 2017 European Championship. After a successful career so far, she is now representing Sweden in Olympic football. Eriksson’s importance to Chelsea FC was highlighted throughout the 2020/21 campaign, with the Sweden international leading by example as Chelsea clinched the WSL, the Continental League Cup and reached our first ever Champions League final. Eriksson made 34 appearances, scoring two goals and the important role she played in Chelsea's defence throughout the 2020/21 campaign was further highlighted when she was named in the PFA Women’s Team of the Year.
Whilst she is known for her performance on the pitch, it is the work and determination off the pitch that contributes to her being a role model. Being part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I admire Magda and her girlfriend, Pauline Harder, for being the inspirations they are. They're not being anything more than themselves, but that's what matters. I've always found sports women inspiration, but the sight of two elite footballers being so open, unbashed, and natural in their affection is inspirational to me - especially because growing up, being gay wasn't something that was as openly spoken about. The pair now wield that power via social media, and through ‘Play Proud’, a campaign to support and empower LGBTQ+ young people.
Personally, I would love to see footballers come together more visibly as together they do have an opportunity to effect and inspire change, now more than ever, not only in sports but also across society.
Grace Ott's favourite Olympian
Megan Rapinoe can be lauded for so many accomplishments on the field: the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball at the 2019 World Cup, the Ballon d’Or Féminin, The Best FIFA Women’s Player, two World Cup wins, an Olympic gold medal, 59 goals and 70 assists in 179 caps for the national team, the list goes on (and that’s not even touching her club career). But some of her greatest impact comes off the field. Rapinoe is constantly using her platform as one of the most famous women’s soccer players in the world to fight for equality for people of all races, cultures, orientations, and identities. Though she has been involved with philanthropic work for organizations like Athlete Ally (which focuses on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports) since 2013, Rapinoe was truly thrust into the spotlight for her activism in 2016, when she was the only player to take a knee during the national anthem of an international match in support of Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL player who famously did the same to draw attention to the racism that is still prevalent in our society, which set off waves of culture wars in the United States that still clash today. In a 2020 interview, USWNT teammate Crystal Dunn lauded Rapinoe for kneeling, though she herself did not because she was worried that she, as a Black woman, could lose her job for doing the same.
Rapinoe is also one team member leading the charge for equal pay and equal treatment for both the USWNT by the US Soccer Federation and the Women’s World Cup by FIFA itself. She even, along with teammate Midge Purce, met with President and First Lady Biden this spring to mark Equal Pay Day and advocate for the importance of closing the pay gap between women and men, though this may not be the presidential encounter that will be remembered best for Megan Rapinoe. Before the quarterfinals of the 2019 World Cup, she famously and explicitly eschewed a hypothetical White House invitation that would have been offered by former President Trump if the USWNT won the World Cup. When the former president responded that she should win first before talking, she proceeded to win everything she could have possibly won in that tournament: Golden Ball, Golden Boot, World Cup trophy. Her triumphant pose, arms outstretched, after scoring against France in the quarterfinals will forever live on as one of the most iconic moments in sports history. Megan Rapinoe is one of the most famous women’s soccer players in the world, not only for her play on the field, but also for her tireless advocacy in interviews, on social media, and in her everyday life to make the world a better, more equal place for everyone.
📸: Megan Rapinoe - Representing the USA in football
Eze Chibuzor's favourite olympian
Not since the "Hey days" of Chioma Ajunwa has Nigeria seen a more talented female long jump athlete.
Ese Brume announced herself to the World last year in Doha at the World Athletic Championship where she became the first Nigerian to win a medal at the event since 2013. She landed a mark of 6.91m which was enough to claim the Bronze at the women's long jump event.
The three-time African Senior Champion gained more momentum in her quest for Olympic glory when she broke the African and Nigerian record held by Chioma Ajunwa. The 25-year old, at the Chula Vila festival leaped a distance of 7.17m effectively beating Chioma Ajunwa's Olympic Gold winning 7.12m at Atlanta 1996 Olympics. It was a truly breathtaking performance to shatter a record which stood unchallenged for 25 years. Ese, who was ecstatic about her incredible feat admitted that she never saw Ajunwa's record as unbreakable.
The new African record holder in women's long jump will be hoping to clinch a medal in Tokyo as all eyes in Nigeria and Africa will be watching. With her immense talent and confidence she is no doubt a genuine contender for Olympic glory. I admire her drive for self improvement and competitiveness which will go a long way in helping her do the Nigerian flag proud in Tokyo. Her famous inspirational quote "Impossible is nothing" is an indicator that the sky is the starting point in her career.
📸: Ese Brume - Representing Nigeria in athletics, specialising in long jump
Matt Johnson's favourite olympian
I admire Dame Sarah Storey because not only has she managed to achieve great success, she has done it in two different sports. Having won six Paralympic medals, including two golds, as a swimmer from 1992-2000 she then switched to cycling. She has since won a further ten Paralympic medals, including three golds. This has made her Britain’s most successful Paralympian of all time.
📸: Sarah Storey - Representing Great Britain in the Paralympics
Unnati Naidu - Representing India in Badminton
Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, or P.V. Sindhu (known), is one of the most prolific Indian Badminton players of the 21st century. When it comes to Indian badminton in the twenty-first century, the World Champion is in a class by herself as the first Indian woman to win a silver medal at the Olympics and gold at the BWF World Championships. She hopes to continue the pattern of returning with an Olympic medal after success in the last two games. She has been India's shining beacon for sportswomen, with fellow badminton star Saina Nehwal and boxer Mary Kom. Shuttler PV Sindhu, currently ranked seventh globally, is one of India's most prominent prospects in badminton as the country prepares for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. PV Sindhu's career graph is notable for her consistent growth at annual events year after year. This tendency was also seen at the coveted World Championships. She won the gold medal in 2019 after defeating Japan's Nozomi Okuhara 21-7, 21-7. She had previously won two bronze and two silver medals between 2013 and 2018.
Sindhu defied expectations and became a household name following the Rio Olympics, where she outperformed her senior, Saina Nehwal, who won a bronze medal in London. It's been five years, and the 26-year-old hopes to use her expertise to bring home India's first badminton Olympic gold. Sindhu will enter Tokyo as the favorite to win gold, following the withdrawal of an injured Marin, who had previously stopped her run. Sindhu has always been a big-match player, and while she didn't have a terrific year leading up to the Olympics, she aims to be in top form for the Games. She must believe she is capable of doing it again and going one step beyond. Sindhu is a solid contender to win India's first Olympic gold medal in badminton women's singles.
📸: PV Sindhu - Representing India in badminton
Make sure to tune in to the Olympics and support the female athletes representing their nations. Medal or not, you are an inspiration ✨
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