International Women's Day: Sport360 staff pick their favourite female athletes of all-time

Sport360 staff 08:14 08/03/2018
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On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Sport360° team has selected some of the greatest female athletes. The mix of sports these women represent highlights the true diversity that now exists in the sporting arena. Alongside sports like tennis and athletics we now see women dominating headlines in boxing and mixed martial arts, sports traditionally the domain of men but now have a much more level playing field.

We asked our writers who their favourite female athletes are. Do you agree with their opinions?

DAME KELLY HOLMES DBE

Kelly Holmes with her two Olympic gold medals

Kelly Holmes with her two Olympic gold medals

When judging a sportsperson’s greatness, you occasionally have to look at the setbacks they endured to truly understand the sacrifices made to reach the pinnacle of their sport. That’s certainly the case for Dame Kelly Holmes DBE, who battled through injury, depression and disappointment to become a double Olympic champion at the 2004 Athens Olympics Games. After finishing fourth in the 800m and 11th in the 1500m in 1996, and then third and seventh respectively four years later in Sydney, to achieve what she did in 2004, fighting against injury and depression in the build-up, serves as the perfect example to show any young sporting hopeful what can be accomplished through hard work, perseverance and dedication. Her 2004 medal haul saw her named BBC Sports Personality of the Year as Holmes retired on top. Not even Usain Bolt can say that.

CATHY FREEMAN

Cathy Freeman

The true test of a sporting great is how they perform when under the greatest pressure – and on that scale there are few greater than the pint-sized Australia. Freeman may only have stood at 5ft 5in but her heart is as big as the nation she represents. Going into the Sydney Olympics no one had more pressure on them than Freeman. The host nation’s chances of gold on the track rested squarely with Freeman and after silver at the Atlanta games four years previously expectations from the unforgiving Australian sporting public were high. There was also more pressure heaped on Freeman, unfairly some said, when she lit the Olympic flame at the start of the Games. But somehow putting this all aside Freeman managed to power home and win the 400m becoming only the second Aboriginal Olympic champion. On her victory lap, Freeman carried both the Aboriginal and Australian flags, which till this day ranks as one of the most enduring images in the nation’s struggles towards reconciliation.

by Alex Broun

BILLIE JEAN KING

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 30: Billie Jean King speaks at the WTA 40 Love Celebration during Middle Sunday of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 30, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Few people have done more for women’s tennis and sport than the American. So much so, that King’s 39 Grand Slam title wins combined in singles and doubles actually don’t feel like her biggest achievement. The 74-year-old broke down gender barriers and paved the way for equal prize money between men and women, as well as overall gender equality in the game. In 1973, she triumphed in the famous ‘Battles of the Sexes’ tennis match – when she defeated retired 55-year-old player Bobby Riggs – who had previously dismissed the quality of the women’s game. That same year, she founded the WTA Tour and to this day is still the bedrock to success for the women’s game. She has also successfully campaigned on LGBT and environmental issues and is see as an idol to many players, sharing a special friendship with Serena Williams in particular.

KATIE TAYLOR

One of the world’s most influential female sports stars, Taylor is perhaps the finest boxer of either gender to climb into a ring in the modern era. The 2012 Olympic gold medalist made a superb transition to the professional ranks 15 months ago after a glittering amateur career in which she won five World Championships, six European Championships and five European Union Championships. Since making the jump to the pro game, the Irish boxer has won all eight of her fights, including a world title win in Cardiff back in October. The Bray native will have a chance to unify the lightweight division belt when she steps out under the bright lights of New York to face IBF champion Victoria Bustos next month. Away from her exploits in the ring, the 31-year-old also holds 11 caps for the Irish women’s football team – having made her debut as 20-year-old back in 2006. Hugely popular in her home country, Taylor is credited with raising the profile of women’s boxing worldwide.

MARY KOM

Mary Kom is competing despite being a Parliamentarian and mother of three son.

Mary Kom is competing despite being a Parliamentarian and mother of three sons.

Mary Kom is not just a boxer. She is an icon for women in India and across the globe. The 35-year old pugilist from Manipur in north-east India is a five-time World Amateur Boxing champion and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships. Last year, Mary Kom became the first boxer to claim five gold medals at the Asian Championship despite being a full-time member of Parliament and mother of three sons. Women’s boxing was introduced at the Olympics only at 2012 and she was not at her absolute peak at that time, having dominated the sport – mainly in the pinweight (46kg) and flyweight divisions divisions – since 2002. Even so, she won bronze at the London Games.

She is far from done, drawing inspiration from Muhammad Ali and aiming to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. No wonder she had a movie made on her in 2014 with actress Priyanka Chopra in the lead role.

LARISA LATYNINA

Not only is the Ukrainian former Soviet Union gymnast the most decorated female in Olympic Games history, her total of 18 Olympic medals was a record for 48 years before being surpassed by Michael Phelps at London 2012.

She also held the record for individual event medals with 14 for 52 years before again being surpassed by Phelps in Rio. She is the only woman to have won nine gold medals at the Olympics while also recording her incredible haul at just three Games – Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964).

Latynina also bagged herself 14 World Championship medals (nine gold) and 14 European Championship medals (seven gold) for a total major medal cache of 46. At the Moscow World Championships in 1958 she won five out of six titles despite competing while four months pregnant.

At the Olympics, Latynina won a medal in every event in which she competed, except for the 1956 balance beam where she was fourth.

STEFFI GRAF

Steffi Graf was a model professional

Steffi Graf was a model professional

Finishing with 107 career titles and 22 Grand Slam Singles titles, Steffi Graf’s record speaks for itself. Her extraordinary 377 weeks ranked as number one in the world, before the technological advancements and regimes of the modern game, speaks volumes of her levels of consistency and confirms her status as the greatest women’s tennis player of all-time.

Over the course of her 17-year career, she was a model professional and a complete tennis player. Capable of delivering on all surfaces, Graf’s game was near-perfect. She was graceful but powerful, drawing comparisons to Roger Federer in not just style but standing.

Despite her meteoric rise to stardom, her character and reputation remained untainted as she conducted herself with dignity, dedicating everything she had to the game and respecting every opponent she came up against. Serena Williams’ overwhelming success challenges the iconic German’s achievements but her role as a pioneer for women’s tennis cannot be devalued.

ALLYSON FELIX

United States of America are fortunate to have produced many top sporting stars and Allyson Felix certainly falls into that bracket. You only have to look at her CV to see why she is one of the greatest female track and field athletes ever.

At just 32, the American is often underrated for her achievements but has made big strides on the track ever since winning 200m gold at the World Championships in Helsinki way back in 2005.

Fast forward to today, that tally now reads 16 medals, 11 golds, three silvers and two bronzes – making her the most decorated female athlete in World Championship history. On the Olympic stage (with six golds and three silvers), she just needs one more medal in Tokyo that would see her surpass Merlene Ottey to become the Games most successful athlete.

What make her achievements more remarkable is considering not only has that come over the 200, 400m and relay distances but has been consistent for more than a decade.

Being a five-time recipient of the Jesse Owens Award – the highest accolade given by USA Track and Field speaks volumes of how far she has come. Yet, she still finds time out from her busy schedule to support projects such as her brand ambassadorial role at the Special Olympics which will be held in Abu Dhabi next year.

RONDA ROUSEY

UFC 190: Rousey v Correia

In 2011 UFC president Dana White confidently claimed women would “never” step foot in the Octagon. Two years later and Ronda Rousey was headlining a UFC pay-per-view in the promotion’s first-ever women’s fight.

The Olympic bronze medallist in Judo practically thrust women’s MMA into the popular consciousness on her own, breaking down gender barriers which had existed since the UFC’s emergence in 1993 and becoming a face for female empowerment on a global scale.

A compelling athlete, Rousey holds the UFC record for title defences by a female champion with six consecutive victories – five of which secured in the first round.

She was the whole package, a blend of beauty and brutality with her obsessive work ethic and ‘Rowdy’ persona elevating women’s MMA on to a level platform with their male counterparts.

Female fighters routinely occupy main-event slots on the biggest cards with barely any acknowledgment – a testament to the depth of equality pioneered by Rousey. One of the most famous fighters ever, Rousey has and will continue to inspire generations of athletes.

By Alex Rea

TIRUNESH DIBABA

TiruneshDibaba

Ethiopia has produced some of the greatest endurance athletes the world has ever seen, and Tirunesh Dibaba hails from one of the greatest bloodlines. As compatriot and fellow long-distance legend Haile Gebreselassie once put it, ‘There are a a few running families, but not like the Dibabas’. Older sister Ejegayehu has an Olympic silver,  youngster sister Genzebe has held eight world records simultaneously, and their cousin Derartu Tulu became the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold in 1992. But Tirunesh holds the candle.

A three-time Olympic champion across the 5,000 and 10,000 metres, Dibaba, from an athlete-factory of a town called Bekoji, had very few peers in her prime – the closest being Meseret Defar, who defeated her over 5,000 metres in the London Olympics.

The ‘baby-faced destroyer’ had a baby of her own in 2015 and upon her return, only then did she lose a 10,000m race – at the Ethiopian Olympic Trials – for the first time in her career. As far as the speed gun was concerned Dibaba was as rapid as ever, as she ran the fourth-fastest time in 10,000m history at Rio 2016 though it was only enough to win her bronze.

New pursuits lie ahead in the marathon, in which her stated aim is to break Paula Radcliffe’s record of 2:15.25. In London last year she finished just two-and-a-half minutes away and in the process became the third-fastest female marathon runner of all time. At the age of 32, there should be no temptation to write her off.

By Chris Bailey

SERENA WILLIAMS

BeFunky Collage1

Any Mount Rushmore of women athletes has to include Serena Williams, who has a strong argument for GOAT (greatest of all-time).

The American has dominated tennis since turning pro in 1995, winning her maiden Grand Slam singles title in 1999 before reaching the pinnacle of the sport by ranking world No. 1 for the first time in 2002.

Her 23 Grand Slam singles titles are the most for any player, man or woman, in the Open Era, and trail only Margaret Court’s benchmark of 24 on the all-time list.

Williams’ most recent Grand Slam triumph came last year when she captured the Australian Open for a seventh time, which was later revealed to have come while she was around eight months pregnant, further adding to her lore.

Her impact as a sporting figure and a cultural icon, especially as a black woman, can not be understated. And at 36, Williams still may have more left in the tank.

By Jay Asser

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