Women have been competing at the Olympic Games since 1900 when women's tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf were added to the program and 22 women participated. In the ensuing 116 years, female participation has grown exponentially - there were 269 women on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team compared to 261 men - and American women have won gold medals in 31 sports. Take a look back at the trailblazing women that led the way and earned the first gold medal for the U.S. in each sport.
Alpine Skiing: Gretchen Fraser (1948)
A week before Fraser competed in slalom at the St. Moritz 1948 Olympic Winter Games, she had already become the first U.S. Olympian, male or female, to medal in an alpine skiing event when she took silver in women’s combined. When she earned slalom gold, it was the first Olympic gold medal won by any American in alpine skiing. Fraser’s road to the Olympics was a long one, as she missed out on the 1940 and 1944 Games that were cancelled due to World War II. An underdog in 1948, she shocked the world and became the most decorated U.S. athlete at those Games.
Archery: Matilda Howell (1904)
The St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games saw the debut of women’s archery on the Olympic program. With three women’s events – the double National round, the double Columbia round and the team round – Howell completed a clean sweep of the gold medals. Howell won her first national championship in 1883 and, by the time she retired in 1907, she had won 17 national titles. Her scores in the 1895 championship set records that weren’t broken for 36 years.
The U.S. women’s basketball team had been defeated by the Soviet Union in the final of the 1983 world championships, 84-82. Following the defeat, much of the U.S. team would stay together to compete at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. The Soviet-led boycott meant the two world powerhouses would not get a rematch, however, and the U.S. rolled over the competition to its first gold medal. Coached by Pat Summitt and led by Cheryl Miller, the team won the final over Korea 85-55, its closest game in the tournament.
Beach Volleyball: Misty May and Kerri Walsh (2004)
May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings both competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, May-Treanor finishing fifth on the beach and Walsh Jennings finishing fourth with the indoor squad. The two teamed up in 2001 and soon became the dominant force in beach volleyball. They rode a 90-match win streak into Athens in 2004 and didn’t lose a single set on their way to the gold medal. They went on to win two more Olympic golds together, in 2008 and 2012, and placed first in 104 tournaments.
Bobsled: Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers (2002)
Though men’s bobsled had been a staple on the Olympic program dating back to 1924, women’s bobsled made its debut at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Bakken and Flowers entered the competition as an underdog, not even supposed to be the top U.S. team. By beating not only their compatriots but also two heavily-favored German teams, they ended a 46-year U.S. medal drought in Olympic bobsled. Flowers became the first black athlete ever to win a gold medal at a Winter Games.
Boxing: Claressa Shields (2012)
Women’s boxing made its Olympic debut at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and Shields dominated the middleweight class on her way to winning gold. With only one loss in her career, Shields went on to win the 2014 world championship and became the first U.S. women's boxer to win gold at the Pan American Games, a feat she completed in Toronto in 2015. She looks to become the first American boxer, male or female, to win two Olympic gold medals with a second win in Rio.
Cycling: Connie Carpenter (1984)
Carpenter’s first Olympic experience came when she was a 14-year-old speedskater in 1972. Also a national crew champion while attending the University of California at Berkeley, cycling was her true forte. She won 12 U.S. cycling championships, more than any other cyclist in history at the time, and four medals at the cycling world championships. In the first-ever Olympic road race for women, at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, she out-sprinted fellow American Rebecca Twigg for gold.
Diving: Aileen Riggin (1920)
Riggin was only 14 when she traveled to Antwerp for the 1920 Olympic Games and competed in the Olympic debut of women’s 3-meter springboard. She led an American podium sweep in the event and became the youngest American to ever win Olympic gold, a record that has since been broken. She later competed at the Paris 1924 Olympic Games and became the only woman to win medals in both diving and swimming, earning silver in the 3-meter springboard and bronze in the 100-meter backstroke.
Equestrian: Mary Anne Tauskey (1976)
In 1974, Tauskey was a waitress at the hotel at which the U.S. equestrian team stayed before the world championships. In 1976, she was the first female U.S. Olympic champion in the sport, taking gold in eventing on her horse Marcus Aurelius. The two also won gold at the 1975 Pan American Games as members of the eventing team.
Fencing: Mariel Zagunis (2004)
Zagunis wasn’t supposed to be a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team. But when another fencer dropped out, Zagunis was named to the team. She went on to stun the world, becoming the first U.S. fencer to win an Olympic gold medal in 100 years and the first-ever Olympic gold medalist in women’s saber. She has since become the most decorated athlete in U.S. fencing history, defending her Olympic title in 2008 and winning five world championships. She aims for a third Olympic gold medal in Rio.
Figure Skating: Tenley Albright (1956)
Albright began figure skating to regain her strength after an attack of polio; six years later she burst onto the scene, winning the Olympic silver medal in 1952 and going on to win five consecutive national championships (1952-1956). She won two world titles in 1953 and 1955 and, despite injuring her ankle two weeks before the Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 Olympic Winter Games, went on to win gold.
Freestyle Skiing: Donna Weinbrecht (1992)
Though Weinbrecht’s first sport was figure skating, she found her calling when she began skiing recreationally with her family and got into moguls. She won three world championship medals – silver in 1989 and 1997 and gold in 1991 – and was a five-time world cup season champion (1990-92, 1994 and 1996). Her Olympic gold was the first ever awarded in women’s freestyle skiing, and she is viewed today as a pioneer in her sport.
Golf: Margaret Abbott (1900)
The Paris 1900 Olympic Games were the first to include women, and Abbott was one of only 22 women that competed across all sports. She shot 47 in nine holes to take first place, though, instead of a gold medal, she received a porcelain bowl. Abbott hadn’t even realized she was competing in an Olympic event at the time. As the International Olympic Committee didn’t decide until after her death that these results were part of the Olympic program, Abbott never knew she was the first female Olympic champion.
Gymnastics: Mary Lou Retton (1984)
Before 1984, no American gymnast – male or female – had ever won Olympic gold. It wasn’t until Retton burst onto the scene in Los Angeles that that streak was broken, as Retton took gold in the individual all-around after earning a perfect 10 on vault, the final event, to put her in front by .05 points. She went on to win four additional medals: silver in the team event and on vault, and bronzes on the uneven bars and floor exercise. She was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997. Retton was the only American to win gold in the all-around until Carly Patterson and Paul Hamm in 2004.
Ice Hockey (1998)
Women’s ice hockey made its Olympic debut at the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games and looked to be a showdown between the sports two powerhouses, the U.S. and Canada. It did indeed come down to that, as the U.S. and Canada faced off for the gold medal, with Team USA earning a 3-1 win to take the top spot. The U.S. finished the tournament with a perfect 6-0 record and outscored opponents 36-8. The entire team was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010. The U.S. has medaled at every Games since, but the 1998 team remains the only gold medalists.
Judo: Kayla Harrison (2012)
When Kayla Harrison won gold at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she became the first American judoka in either gender to become Olympic champion. In 2010, Harrison became only the fourth American to win a world title; she went on to win two world bronze medals, in 2011 and 2014, and is the 2011 and 2015 Pan American Games champion. Currently ranked No. 1 in the world in the -78 kg. weight class, Harrison looks to make her second Olympic team in 2016.
Long Track Speedskating: Dianne Holum (1972)
Holum competed at the Grenoble 1968 Olympic Winter Games as a 16-year-old, winning silver in the 500-meter and bronze in the 1,000-meter. She returned to the Games in Sapporo in 1972 and claimed gold in the 1,500-meter, setting an Olympic record in the process, before earning another silver, this time in the 3,000-meter. That same year, she won the 1,000-meter at the world sprint championships to earn silver overall. She then retired from speedskating and became a coach, instructing the likes of Eric Heiden, who would go on to win five Olympic gold medals of his own.
Rowing: Coxed Eight (1984)
On the first day of rowing finals at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Romanian crews had won five straight women's events before the coxed eight final took place. The U.S. women’s eight came from behind in the final race of the day to defeat the Romanians by a second, avoiding the sweep and securing the first Olympic gold medal for women’s rowers. It stood as the only one for over 20 years, until U.S. women’s eight crews won back-to-back golds in 2008 and 2012.
Sailing: Allison Jolly and Lynne Jewell (1988)
Jolly and Jewell won gold in the women's 470 class despite being a long shot to do so. In the first race of the Games they placed third, and in the next race their boat capsized twice. But they managed to stay in contention, finishing strong in the remaining races to win gold with a convincing lead. They were the only American sailors in either gender to win gold at those Games, and they remain one of only two female American crews to have won Olympic gold.
Shooting: Pat Spurgin (1984)
When Spurgin was 17, she won four gold medals at the 1983 Pan American Games. She rode that momentum into the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, taking gold in 10-meter air rifle and setting an Olympic record in the process. Spurgin was a four-year first team All-American competing for Murray State University and a two-time NCAA champion, and her air rifle gold is one of only two won by American women in that event. She was inducted into the USA Shooting Hall of Fame in 2013.
Short Track Speedskating: Cathy Turner (1992)
Turner’s Olympic journey began in 1980, when she was the reigning national champion but failed to make the Olympic team in long track speedskating. She then spent eight years away from speedskating, pursuing a career as a singer, but began training once again and qualified for the Albertville 1992 Olympic Winter Games. In short track speedskating’s Olympic debut, she won gold in the 500-meter race by 0.04 seconds and helped the women’s team to silver in the 3,000-meter relay. She retired after those Games but returned to the sport once again, defending her 500-meter title in 1994.
Skeleton: Tristan Gale (2002)
Gale competed for gold under enormous pressure: it was women’s skeleton’s Olympic debut in front of her hometown crowd during a blizzard. But with the pressure of a hometown crowd came the familiarity of sliding on her hometown track, and she finished a mere one-hundredth of a second in front of teammate Lea Ann Parsley to win the first-ever women’s skeleton Olympic gold medal. She won a world cup later that year on the same track, and in 2003 earned bronze at the world championships. Gale remains Team USA's only women's skeleton Olympic champion.
Snowboarding: Kelly Clark (2002)
Before Clark was a pioneer and the most dominant force in women’s snowboarding, she was a teenager competing at her first Olympic Games. Her halfpipe gold kicked off a string of American dominance in the discipline; two U.S. women have been on all Olympic halfpipe podiums since. Clark finished fourth at her second Games in 2006, but bounced back to win bronze in both 2010 and 2014. Now 32, she has over 60 career wins to her name and shows no signs of slowing down.
Despite it being women’s soccer’s Olympic debut at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and receiving no live television coverage, the U.S. found itself competing in front of record-breaking crowds. More than 76,000 spectators packed the stands to watch the gold-medal game which, at the time, was the most spectators to attend any female sporting event. The U.S. beat China 2-1 for the gold medal, a precursor to the final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1999, and the first of four Olympic gold medals that Team USA has won.
With softball making its Olympic debut at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, the U.S. women had home-field advantage. However, having won 106 consecutive international games from 1986-1995, they hardly needed it. Their winning streak had been ended by a loss to China at the 1995 Superball Classic, and the gold-medal game ended up being a rematch. The U.S. won 3-1, kicking off a run of three consecutive Olympic gold medals. They won silver in 2008, the last year softball was included on the Olympic program.
Swimming: Ethelda Bleibtrey (1920)
Bleibtrey was a prolific backstroke swimmer and world-record holder in an age when there were no women’s backstroke events on the Olympic program. So she simply switched to freestyle, entered the three Olympic events open to women at the Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, and won gold in all of them. Her first gold, and the first gold in Olympic swimming won by an American woman, was the 100-meter freestyle, in which she set a new world record and led a U.S. podium sweep. She then set world records in the 300-meter freestyle and the women’s 4x100-meter freestyle. Bleibtrey never lost a race in her amateur career, won every national championship from 50 yards to three miles and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967.
Synchronized Swimming: Tracie Ruiz and Candy Costie (1984)
When synchronized swimming made its Olympic debut at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Ruiz and Costie took the world by storm. Four-time national champions and the 1983 Pan American Games gold medalists, the two paired up when they were just 10 years old and finished lower than first place only twice. Ruiz also had a prolific solo career, winning a second gold in the event in 1984 and silver in 1988.
Tennis: Helen Wills (1924)
Wills dominated women’s tennis for much of the 1920s and ‘30s; her Olympic gold in 1924 was only the tip of the iceberg. She won her first U.S. championship in 1923, Olympic gold in both singles and doubles in 1924 and her first Wimbledon title in 1927. Over the course of her career, Wills won a total of 19 Grand Slam singles titles and 12 in doubles. A seven-time U.S. champion, Wills did not lose a single set in singles play from 1926-1932 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959.
Track and Field: Betty Robinson (1928)
The 100-meter race at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games was only Robinson’s fourth 100-meter competition. The 16-year-old equaled the world record to take gold, the first-ever given in the event as it was brand new on the Olympic program. She added a silver with the 4x100-meter team. In 1931, Robinson was involved in a plane crash and was in a coma for seven months, missing the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games as she recovered. It took two years before she could fully walk again and was still unable to kneel for a normal 100-meter start when she competed at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. Competing only with the 4x100-meter team, she earned her second Olympic gold before retiring.
Water Polo (2012)
Women’s water polo has been on the Olympic program since 2000 and the U.S. women had been on every podium, but never in the gold-medal position. A long-time water polo power, Team USA finally stood atop the podium at the London 2012 Olympic Games behind a five-goal effort by Maggie Steffens in the gold-medal game to beat Spain, 8-5. After London, the U.S. women went on to become the first women’s team ever to hold the current Olympic, world championship, world cup and World League titles.
Weightlifting: Tara Nott (2000)
Nott was a multi-talented athlete, having trained in three different sports at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers (gymnastics, soccer and weightlifting). She found her most success in weightlifting, winning seven national championships, two Pan American Games gold medals and one Olympic gold. She became the first American weightlifter to do so in 40 years and was the first female Olympic weightlifting champion. She made a second Olympic team in 2004, finishing 10th.