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’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.”
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.”