International Women’s Day 2023: 10 athletes who changed the course of sport for women

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NationalWorld takes a look at some of history’s most inspirational female athletes

In the past 12 months, sport has given women much to celebrate and there will be even more cause for joy in the upcoming months as both our footballers and Netball players prepare for their respective World Cups.

England’s cricketers recently reached the semi-final of the T20 World Cup in South Africa while the Red Roses reached the final of the Rugby World Cup in November 2022.

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We will also look forward to the return of The Hundred cricket franchise and the first ever Women’s Indian Premier League is currently underway in Mumbai with stars such as Nat Sciver-Brunt and Sophie Ecclestone forming part of an historic competition not just for women’s cricket, but for women’s sport more broadly.

History has known some spectacular female athletes, and it is because of these pioneering women that we are able to enjoy preparing for so many female sports competitions.

Here is a look at some of the most influential women who changed the course of sport…

Serena Williams - Tennis, b.1981

You can’t have a conversation about women in sport and not mention Serena Williams. She and her sister Venus rose to fame quickly when they started participating in WTA events and Serena has won a total of 23 singles Grand Slam records and 39 including doubles (an Open Era record for both women and men).

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Serena Williams, with her daughter Alexis Olympia, after winning Auckland Classic in 2020Serena Williams, with her daughter Alexis Olympia, after winning Auckland Classic in 2020
Serena Williams, with her daughter Alexis Olympia, after winning Auckland Classic in 2020 | AFP via Getty Images

The 41-year-old was ranked number one in the world for 319 weeks, including a joint-record of 186 consecutive weeks and finished as the year-end number one on five occasions.

Alice Coachman - High Jump, 1923-2014

In 1900, tennis player Charlotte Cooper became the first female Olympic champion but it wasn’t until 48 years later that an Olympic gold medal was won by a black woman, and that woman was Alice Coachman.

The American won the high jump at the 1948 Olympic Games in London where she cleared the bar at 1.68m. In her hometown of Albany, a tribute was prepared for her, but the auditorium was segregated and the mayor, who was white, refused to shake her hand.

Billie Jean King - Tennis, b.1943

Billie Jean King dominated, not just tennis, but the world of women’s sport for more than two decades and has become one of the most prolific advocates for gender equality. In 1972, King became the first woman to be named Sportsperson of the Year and is most widely recognised for her defeat of the former world number one men’s tennis player, Bobby Riggs, beating him in straight sets in 1973.

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The tennis star founded the Women’s Sport Foundation and she was also the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association.

Billie Jean King celebrates with her Wimbledon trophies in 1973Billie Jean King celebrates with her Wimbledon trophies in 1973
Billie Jean King celebrates with her Wimbledon trophies in 1973 | Getty Images

Dame Ellen MacArthur - Sailing, b.1976

In 2005, Ellen MacArthur sailed around the world, and not only did she circumnavigate the world by herself, she also accomplished it faster than anyone else had done before her: 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds (one day and eight and a half hours faster than the Frenchman, Francis Joyon). Since retiring from her sailing career, she has dedicated her work to protecting the oceans through the MacArthur Foundation.

Nadia Comaneci - Gymnastics, b.1961

At the age of just 14, the Romanian was the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic event. Comaneci is one of the world’s best-known gymnasts and has played a pivotal role in advancing the popularity of the sport around the world.

Comaneci left her homeland just a few weeks before the Romanian Revolution and journeyed by foot across Europe, before starting a new life in America and she has since become a member of the International Gymnastics Federation Foundation.

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Nicola Adams - Boxing, b.1982

Nicola Adams became the first female Olympic Boxing Champion when the sport was added for women at the London 2012 Olympics. She then went on to beat Sarah Ourahmoune from France in Rio four years later and became a double Olympic champion.

At the age of 13, she had fought and won her first boxing match but it would be another four years before Adams would be able to fight again simply because there weren’t any other girls of her age against whom she could compete.

Since her retirement from the ring in 2019, Adams competed in the 18th series of Strictly Come Dancing and she featured as part of the show’s first ever same-sex couple.

Ellie Simmonds - Swimming, b.1994

Simmonds was born with dwarfism and at the age of 13, Ellie became the youngest British athlete at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing. She won two gold medals in the 100m and 400m freestyle.

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Paralympian Ellie Simmonds wins gold in 400m freestyle in 2012Paralympian Ellie Simmonds wins gold in 400m freestyle in 2012
Paralympian Ellie Simmonds wins gold in 400m freestyle in 2012 | Getty Images

Four years later in London, Simmonds then won another gold medal in the 400m freestyle and took five seconds off the World Record time. Two days later, Simmonds then took another gold in the 200m individual medley, breaking the World Record once again.

In Rio 2016, Simmonds once again won gold for the 200m individual medley and set yet another world record with a time of 2 minutes 59 seconds.

Dame Sarah Storey - Swimmer and Cyclist, b.1977

Dame Sarah Storey is Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian and has won an incredible 28 medals at the Paralympics. Her left hand became entangled while still in her mother’s womb and didn’t develop normally.

However, this did not stop Sarah who was part of the Paralympic Games held in Barcelona in 1992 as part of the swimming team. At just 14 years old, she won six medals.

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Following several ear infections, Sarah then switched to cycling and within her first year on the bike she had broken her first cycling world record.

Storey has now taken part in four Paralympic Games as a cyclist, competing in both track and road events and all of the medals she has won have been gold.

Emma Raducanu - Tennis, b.2002

Raducanu is the number one British tennis player and in 2021, she became the first British female tennis star to win the US Open since 1968. She completed the feat having fought her way through the qualifiers, without dropping a single set.

Her year ended with her winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and she has now become a regular on the WTA circuit, most recently reaching the second round of the Australian Open.

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Alex Scott - Football, b.1984

Alex Scott became the first female pundit at a World Cup for the BBC. Scott also became the first female pundit on Sky Sports when she joined the Super Sunday team in 2018. She has since become a staple on our televisions but in her career as a footballer, she made 140 appearances for her country and played as a right-back for Arsenal. With the club, she won the FA Cup seven times, the 2012 WSL title, and Women’s Premier League six times between 2003 and 2009.

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