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10 Team USA Women Who Changed Their Sport Forever

By Lynn Rutherford | March 01, 2020, 1 a.m. (ET)

 

With the nation celebrating Women’s History Month all through March and the world set to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we’re kicking off our Women of Team USA Week with a look at 10 remarkable athletes who changed the face of their sport and, in many cases, triumphed over gender, racial and physical barriers to inspire those who followed.

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Babe Didrikson Zaharias – Track and Field (1932)
Babe Didrikson Zaharias in action in 1951.

Perhaps no athlete excelled at more endeavors than Didrikson (1911-1956). As a youngster, she was a standout in basketball, softball and diving, among other sports. At the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1932, she won gold medals in hurdles and javelin, as well as a silver in the high jump, becoming the only athlete to ever win individual medals in running, throwing and jumping events. In 1939, she turned to golf, competing with men on the PGA Tour before winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur title in 1946. In 1950, she was one of 13 women to found the LPGA, breaking through barriers at a time when there were very few professional opportunities for women athletes. Her star power and swagger helped the tour succeed, and she won 10 major championships. Her career was interrupted by surgery for colon cancer in 1953, but she returned the following year to triumph at the U.S. Women’s Open by 12 strokes. In her final years, Didrikson Zaharias (her name after marrying pro wrestler George Zaharias) became a spokeswoman for cancer awareness, earning accolades from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She succumbed to her illness at age 45. 


Wilma Rudolph – Track and Field (1956, 1960)
Wilma Rudolph competes at the Olympic Games Rome 1960 on Aug. 3, 1960 in Rome.

Three-time Olympic champion Rudolph (1940-1994) overcame poverty, childhood illnesses and racism to become one of the first African-American female athletes to gain widespread stardom. Suffering from double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio as a youngster, Rudolph wore a brace on her left leg until she was 12 years old. Growing up in the segregated South, where black people were often denied medical treatment at “white-only” hospitals, she and her mother traveled two hours by bus from their home in Clarksville, Tennessee, to Nashville for Wilma’s physical therapy. She made her Olympic debut at 16 in 1956, winning a 4x100-meter bronze medal, and in 1960 “Skeeter” claimed Olympic gold in both the 100- and 200-meter as well as the 4x100, becoming the first U.S. woman to win three track and field golds at a single Olympics. Her athletic feats and moving personal story made her an international celebrity. When she returned to Clarksville, the city celebrated with the first fully integrated municipal event in its history, because Rudolph refused to attend a previously planned segregated event. In 1961, she became the first black woman to win the James E. Sullivan Award as America’s top amateur athlete. After retiring from competition, Rudolph worked as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. Department of State and participated in the civil rights movement. She died of brain cancer at age 54.


Peggy Fleming – Figure Skating (1964, 1968)
Peggy Fleming competes at the Olympic Winter Games Grenoble 1968 in 1968 in Grenoble, France.

With lyrical athleticism and sophisticated choreography, Fleming launched figure skating into the modern age. At age 19, the native Californian had already earned five U.S. titles and two world crowns before her elegant performance at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France, where she won the only U.S. gold medal of the Games. Her success sealed U.S. Figure Skating’s return to the top of the sport following the 1961 plane crash that killed the entire 18-member world team, along with many prominent coaches and officials. Fleming’s popularity was so great, she starred in five television variety show specials; her appeal helped figure skating become one of the most-watched winter sports of the television network era. “I just wanted to be the best I could be and improve every year,” Fleming said. “Things kind of fell into place, I won the Olympics and television was a big thing then.”


Joan Benoit – Marathon (1984)
Joan Benoit competes at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984 in 1984 in Los Angeles.

Just 50 years ago, many “experts” still believed women were too fragile to run marathons. The prejudice was so strong, in 1967 a Boston Marathon official ran on to the course and attempted to force runner Kathrine Switzer from the race. Women were finally allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon in 1972. In 1979, Benoit ran it for the first time, shaving eight minutes off  the previous record. She, along with fellow marathoners including Grete Waitz of Norway, continued to set ever-better records, giving proponents of the women’s marathon fuel for their cause. Finally, in 1981, the International Olympic Committee added the women’s marathon to the Games. When Benoit crossed the finish line first at the Los Angeles 1984 Games, still running strong and confident after 26 miles, the world knew that women marathoners were here to stay.


Diana Golden – Para Alpine Skiing (1988)

Diana Golden (center) on the podium at the Paralympic Winter Games Innsbruck 1988 in 1988 in Innsbruck, Austria.

The Massachusetts-born Golden (1963-2001) was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 12, losing her right leg. An avid skier, she was fitted with a prosthetic and returned to the slopes, joining the U.S. Disabled Ski Team at age 17. For many years, she dominated national and international competition, becoming a 10-time world champion and 19-time U.S. champion in the standing class. In 1988, she led a U.S. sweep of the giant slalom at the Calgary Games, where the event was a demonstration sport; that year, the United States Olympic Committee (now United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee) named her female skier of the year, where she beat out able-bodied skiers. That wasn’t the only time she did so. In addition to pioneering recognition of the Paralympic movement, Golden sought to compete in able-bodied events, and in 1985 convinced the U.S. Skiing (now U.S. Ski & Snowboard) to pass the “Golden Rule” allowing disabled athletes to race after only the top 15 skiers had competed, before the course became heavily rutted. When Golden passed away at age 38 after a long and courageous battle with breast cancer, Jack Benedick, director of the Disabled Ski Program for U.S. Skiing during her career, released the following statement: “Diana was a pioneer in helping to put the sport on the map. She was the first disabled skier to tackle marketing herself and the sport, and she lured major corporate sponsorships to disabled skiing for the first time.”


Lisa Leslie – Basketball (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008)
Lisa Leslie celebrates at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 on Aug. 28, 2004 in Athens, Greece.

One of the most dominant players in basketball history, Leslie’s achievements are near legendary. Over four consecutive Olympic Games, her teams played in 32 games and won all of them; Leslie still owns four of Team USA’s top 10 single-game scoring performances. Alongside her Olympic career, she was a standout in the WNBA, joining the fledgling league in its inaugural 1997 season and playing 12 years, becoming the first player to reach 6,000 career points. The 6-foot-5 center also threw down the league’s first dunk in 2002. She retired in 2009 as a three-time MVP and the all-time leader in points and rebounds. Today, she is still a trailblazer, coaching the Triplets in the BIG3, a 3x3 men’s professional league. Although obviously extremely gifted, Leslie attributes her success to her work ethic: “Everyone can say they want to be the best, not everyone is willing to make the sacrifice,” she said. “What separated me, and I’m pretty sure what separates all (great) athletes, is we are mentally tougher.”


Serena Williams – Tennis (2000, 2008, 2012, 2016)
Serena Williams competes at the 2019 US Open on Sept. 7, 2019 in New York City. 

Where to start? There are the 23 Grand Slam titles, the most of any player in the Open Era and second to Australia’s Margaret Court overall. Four Olympic gold medals, including three doubles wins with older sister Venus. A No. 1 ranking in singles on eight separate occasions between 2002 and 2017. With her aggressive baseline play, coupled with the best-ever serve in women’s tennis, Serena (along with Venus) ushered in a new era of power and athleticism to the game. But what stands out most is her fighting spirit and longevity: time and again, she has returned from injury to again dominate the tour. Since giving birth to a daughter in September 2017 — and suffering a pulmonary embolism — she has been four times a runner-up at the US Open and Wimbledon. At age 38, she needs just one Grand Slam win to equal Court’s record.


Tatyana McFadden – Para Track and Field, Para Nordic Skiing (2004, 2008, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2020)
Tatyana McFadden competes at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 15, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The 17-time Paralympic medalist’s competitive career defines diversity. She began as a sprinter and middle-distance wheelchair racer, winning a handful of silver and bronze medals at the Athens and Beijing Games before claiming the first three of her seven gold medals in London. Seeking a new challenge, she expanded her repertoire to cross-country skiing, winning a silver medal at the Sochi Games, before returning to the track for four more gold medals in Rio. Perhaps her greatest renown has come in the marathon: since 2009, she has amassed 22 major wins in the New York, London, Chicago and Boston races — more than any other woman wheelchair athlete. She is the only athlete – elite or wheelchair, of either gender – to win those four majors in a single year; and she did it four times. Her athletic achievements are matched by her activism: due in part due to her efforts, federal legislation was passed in 2013 to ensure students with disabilities will have equal access to compete in interscholastic athletics.


Simone Biles – Gymnastics (2016)
Simone Biles competes at the 2019 FIG Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 12, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany.

America’s most-decorated gymnast, the four-time Olympic champion has redefined the technical boundaries of her sport. Undefeated in the all-around since 2013, Biles is the first woman to win five world all-around titles, often by huge margins. Never one to play it safe, she consistently executes moves never before accomplished; a still-growing group of skills for the vault, balance beam and floor bear her name. When she debuted the “Biles II” — a triple-twisting, double-back somersault — at the 2019 U.S. championships, it became an instant viral sensation, garnering over 5 million views on YouTube. And in a sport that favors teenagers, at age 22 Biles is far from done. Expect her to write more history at the Tokyo Games this summer.


Chloe Kim – Snowboarding (2018)
Chloe Kim celebrates at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 13, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Still just 19, Kim has already amassed a lifetime of achievements, including four X Games gold medals and Olympic gold in women’s halfpipe snowboarding at the PyeongChang Games. She is world, Olympic, Youth Olympic and X Games champion in the halfpipe, and the first to win all four titles. In PyeongChang, she made history by becoming the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s in Olympic halfpipe competition; last season, she landed a frontside double cork 1080 in practice, but narrowly missed the move in competition. The charismatic teen not only breaks new ground athletically, but her winning personality — coupled with breathtaking performances and social media stardom — draws fans and sponsors to her sport. Following surgery for a broken ankle last March, Kim stepped away from competition this season to devote herself to her studies at Princeton University, but vows to return in time for the Beijing 2022 Games.

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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