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Eight Incredible Women Of Team USA Who Had An Impact On & Off The Field

By Peggy Shinn | March 08, 2021, 8:51 a.m. (ET)

Jackie Joyner-Kersee celebrates at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992.

 

For years, Olympians and Paralympians have honored International Women’s Day by advocating for a broad range of issues, including gender equality and equal pay.

But women in sports have been breaking barriers on and off the field for decades. Here’s a look at eight female Olympians and Paralympians who have made an impact on and off the field.


Andrea Mead Lawrence
Andrea Mead Lawrence made headlines at the Olympic Winter Games Oslo 1952 when she won two Olympic gold medals—first in giant slalom, then in a legendary come-from-behind win in slalom. She was 19 at the time and remains the only U.S. alpine skier to have won two Olympic gold medals at the same Games.

After the Oslo Games, Mead Lawrence had three children, then came back for her third Olympic Games in 1956—finishing fourth in GS. After retiring from racing and having two more children, she moved to Mammoth Lakes, California, where she became an environmental advocate, founding Friends of Mammoth. The group brought a landmark environmental case to the California Supreme Court in 1972 and won. She also served on the Mono County board of supervisors and was a long-time advocate of Mono Lake’s protection. In 2003, she founded the Andrea Lawrence Institute for Mountains and Rivers (ALIMAR), a non-profit committed to conservation in the Eastern Sierra.

“Winning gold medals was a wonderful experience,” she once said. “But it was just a starting point. It helped lay the groundwork for the rest of my life.”

“She wanted to give back to the environment and landscape that gave so much to her,” said daughter Quentin Lawrence. “She understood how important nature and landscape is to human health, how our souls need it.”

Mead Lawrence lost her battle with cancer in 2009 at age 76.


Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph’s career was defined by overcoming obstacles. She was born prematurely, then suffered from childhood illness, including polio. Told she would never walk again, her mother insisted she would. She not only walked again. She ran. At the 1960 Olympic Games, Rudolph became the first American to claim three Olympic gold medals in track and field at one Games, winning the 100, 200, and anchoring the 4x100 relay to victory.

The triumph can't be had without the struggle. And I know what struggle is. I have spent a lifetime trying to share what it has meant to be a woman first in the world of sports so that other young women have a chance to reach their dreams."

“Wilma's victories delighted a country long accustomed to seeing solid and stolid Russian and European women dominate the Olympic events,” said a Sports Illustrated staff report in 1961. “With her lissome grace and warm smile, Wilma was not only a winner, she was delightfully American as well.”

Rudolph used her platform to fight for equality. Her hometown threw a homecoming parade. She agreed to attend if it were integrated. Later, she protested to desegregate a local restaurant. Soon, the mayor announced that all public facilities, including restaurants, would be integrated. In sports, track meets open only to men began holding women’s events, just so Rudolph could make an appearance.

As teacher and a coach, Rudolph advocated for youth in sports, establishing the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in 1981 to train young athletes. And she served as a role model for the next generation of American track athletes, including Evelyn Ashford and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

After Rudolph’s death from a brain tumor in 1994, Joyner-Kersee said, "She laid the foundation for all of us women who wanted to aspire to be great athletes.”


Jackie Joyner-Kersee
After winning four world titles, six Olympic medals, and setting a world record in the heptathlon that still stands, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was named the greatest female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. But the track legend has had an even greater impact off the track.

In 1988—with two more Olympic Games still ahead of her—she launched the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation to provide high-quality after school programs for youth in East St. Louis, her hometown. The goal was to inspire youth to develop the drive and determination to succeed in both academics and athletics. The foundation’s motto: “Because there is gold in all of us.” Twelve years later, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center opened as a community space for these programs. 

“Your environment doesn't define you,” Joyner-Kersee told the Oregonian at 2012 Olympic Trials. “I don't have a lot of money, but I can help train people (with her husband) and I can talk to people. We can all be mentors to the next generation. Some people are embarrassed to say they came from East St. Louis, but now more people want to claim it. I grew up in a community center, and I knew what it gave me. I always knew I wanted to give back and help people because people helped me.”

I always knew I wanted to give back and help people because people helped me.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track & Field

Bonnie St. John attends the The Women's Sports Foundation's 38th Annual Salute To Women in Sports Awards Gala on Oct. 18, 2017 in New York City.

Bonnie St. John
To say Bonnie St. John is driven is an understatement. She taught herself to ski, even gathering the equipment needed—not easy for a teenager who had lost her leg to a birth defect. She fell in love with the sport and wanted to inspire others. So she attended Burke Mountain Academy, the first ski-racing academy in America founded by Warren Witherell. The rest is history. At the 1984 Paralympic Winter Games, St. John won two bronze medals and a silver, becoming the first Black athlete to win a medal at a Winter Games. 
 
Twenty years later, Witherell asked St. John to speak to a group of kids in Colorado. While there, she asked her mentor how he had made a difference. 
 
“I never pushed people one at a time,” Witherell responded. “I created communities of champions. When you have a whole community teaching each other best practices, pushing each other, picking each other up, and cheering for each other’s successes, everybody goes farther.”
 
St. John took his response to heart. She started Blue Circle Leadership and began creating communities of champions for multicultural women leaders in Fortune 500 corporations. The programs are virtual and have now broadened to include other diversity areas such as the LGBTQ community, veterans, and men. 
 
“The inspiration that I got from skiing and from working with my coach at Burke Mountain Academy has helped me to become a coach in corporate America and to make a difference for all kinds of people,” she said.
 
St. John graduated from Harvard, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, has worked in the Clinton White House as a director of the National Economic Council, and is the bestselling author of several books. Her latest work, Micro Resilience, offers quick techniques for better handling stress and restoring one’s focus and drive. She has had several speaking engagements on the topic during the pandemic.
 
“Small hacks,” she said, “can make a big difference.”


Jessica Mendoza
Jessica Mendoza did not wait until her softball career was over to begin work as a broadcaster. Between helping Team USA win gold and silver medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, respectively, she started working as a softball analyst and sidelines reporter for college football in 2007, and added the 2010 Olympic Winter Games to her broadcasting resume as well.

Soon, her trailblazing broadcast career took off. In 2015, she became the first female analyst for Major League Baseball on ESPN’s “Monday Night Baseball.” From there, she was a regular on “Sunday Night Baseball,” and her list of “firsts” has continued to grow: first female broadcaster to call a MLB post-season game, first female solo analyst for a national package of MLB game telecasts, and first female game analyst to call the World Series on ESPN radio in 2020—a series between her childhood hometown Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays. She also served for a year as a senior advisor to the New York Mets general manager.

"I realize when I'm going to work every day that there are thousands of girls, hundreds of thousands of women, that want to break that same barrier and that might not be within Major League Baseball,” Mendoza told an Oregon TV station in January 2021. “It could be within their workplace, it could be within so many different fields.

"This isn't about me doing a good job for myself at my own job, but really to be successful so that more men who are hiring understand that women are just as equal to, if not better, at so many jobs that are out there that they thought they could never do.”

Tatyana McFadden
Tatyana McFadden’s story is legendary. Born with spina bifida, she was adopted from a Russian orphanage, where she kept up with the other kids by walking on her hands. Adopted in 1994, McFadden came to the U.S., and her parents enrolled her in sports to help her build strength. Her favorite: wheelchair racing. Starting in 2004, at age 15, she began racking up Paralympic medals, winning 17 (and counting) in every distance from 100 meters to the marathon—and cross-country skiing’s sprint as well. 

She has also won every major marathon multiple times, winning the world major marathon Grand Slam (Boston, Chicago, NYC, and London) four consecutive years.

Off the road and track, McFadden has used the same strength and determination to advocate for disabled athletes. In high school, she and her mother sued the local school system for equal access to sports. They won, then lobbied the state of Maryland, which passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act requiring schools to provide equal access to physical education programs and athletic teams for students with disabilities. In 2013, these standards became federal law.

Her advocacy work has not stopped there. She authored a children’s book, Ya Sama, Moments From My Life, that shares messages of strength, hope, and courage (in Russian, ya sama means “I can do it myself”). McFadden continues to work for equality for disabled athletes and Paralympians, advocating for equal pay and more balanced media representation. 

“At the end of the day,” McFadden told Self, “I want to be a legacy for what I’ve done for the sport.”

 

Melissa Stockwell runs during a training session on May 27, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Melissa Stockwell
When Melissa Stockwell woke up in a Baghdad ER in April 2004, a roadside bomb having taken her left leg, she did not even know what the word Paralympian meant. Once she could walk again, she wanted to return to the athlete she was, and several organizations, like Wounded Warriors, showed her the possibilities. She made the 2008 U.S. Paralympic team, swam in Beijing, then was the U.S. flagbearer at the Closing Ceremony.

Stockwell then turned her talents to paratriathlon, becoming a three-time world champion and co-founding Dare2tri, a non-profit that aims to help people with physical disabilities either stay or become active. At the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, she was part of a USA sweep, taking the bronze medal. One of Stockwell’s protégées at Dare2tri, Hailey Danz, finished ahead of her with the silver medal.

Now a coach with Dare2tri, Stockwell feels that she has done more with her life with one leg than she ever would have done with two. 

“Melissa’s the epitome of what an athlete should be in every single way,” Danz said after winning an ITU Paratriathlon before the Rio Games. “She’s taught me a lot about character and humility and respect and what an athlete should be.”

Stockwell and husband Brian have two young children and own a prosthetic company. She is aiming for her third Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer.


Kendall Coyne Schofield
Growing up near Chicago, Kendall Coyne Schofield was one of few girls playing ice hockey at the time. But that didn’t stop her. She has won two Olympic medals with Team USA—silver in 2014 and gold in 2018—and was the leading scorer for Team USA at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. 

Since then, Coyne Schofield has scored a series of firsts both on and off the ice. She is the first woman to play in the NHL All-Stars Skills challenge, and with experience as an analyst and color commentator, she was part of the first all-female broadcast team calling a NHL game last year on International Women’s Day. In November 2020, the Chicago Blackhawks hired Coyne Schofield as a player development coach. As a specialist in growing youth hockey, she is passionate about bringing more girls into the sport.

Inspired by Billie Jean King, Coyne Schofield has been at the forefront fighting for gender pay equity in sports. She is the president of the Professional Women’s Hockey Association and wants girls to have the same pro hockey dreams as boys. Most recently, she and her husband, NFL player Michael Schofield, invested in the Chicago Red Stars, a National Women’s Soccer League franchise.

“As two professional athletes ourselves, we’ve had two very different experiences in the professional sports world,” Coyne Schofield told reporters. “Our involvement is beyond capital. It’s about bringing awareness to the disparity between men’s and women’s professional sports.” 

With the 2022 Olympic Winter Games Beijing less than a year away, Coyne Schofield continues to play hockey and is captain of Team USA.

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

Related Athletes

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Tatyana McFadden

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Melissa Stockwell

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Jessica Mendoza

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Kendall Coyne

Ice Hockey