10 Inspiring Athletes Who Are Breaking Barriers For Women in Sports – and Beyond
It’s impossible to deny the sheer athleticism of the women on this list, but these athletes represent so much more than a collection of medals and trophies. They’re also trailblazers who are making sports more accessible for the athletes who come after them and advocates who are dedicated to a number of important causes, from racial justice to equal pay. Every day, they’re proving that women (and athletes) are capable of anything, even shaping the world around them. Ahead, learn more about 10 athletes who are accomplishing big things, taking a stand, and inspiring countless others along the way. We’ll bet they inspire you, too.
In 2018, Chloe Kim became the youngest woman to win an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding, and she quickly used her platform to speak out against bullying, something the then 17-year-old had experienced herself. “So many kids have taken their lives, or are hurting themselves because of bullying. And they don’t see the joys in life,” Kim told Good Morning America. Three years later, Kim is a founding partner of Togxther, a new platform dedicated to women’s sports, which are notoriously underrepresented in media. It’s yet another way to ensure that kids can see a future for themselves: one where their talents are celebrated.
Gracie Gold may have won an Olympic bronze medal in figure skating, but arguably, some of her greatest contributions to the sport came after she left the ice. In 2016, Gold stepped away from figure skating to seek treatment for anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder, and though she has since returned to the sport, she continues to encourage other athletes to speak out about mental health. “There is not an Olympic medal for who can suffer in silence the longest,” Gold said in an interview with the Olympic Channel.
It would be shorter to list the barriers Serena Williams hasn’t broken through during her illustrious tennis career. She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and has won 23 Grand Slams, the last of which came when she was 35 years old and pregnant with her daughter Olympia. But Williams is also a champion for other women and the body-positive hero we deserve. “There was a time when I didn’t feel incredibly comfortable about my body because I felt like I was too strong,” Williams told The Undefeated, acknowledging the criticisms faced by Black women, specifically. “I had to take a second and think, ‘Who says I’m too strong? This body has enabled me to be the greatest player that I can be.'”
Soccer player Megan Rapinoe is a two-time Olympian and World Cup champion, who in recent years, has become a leader on and off the field, rallying around causes including racial justice and equal pay. But as far back as 2012, Rapinoe has been an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out,” Rapinoe told Out, in the first interview where the soccer phenom openly said that she’s gay. “People want – they need – to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
Simone Biles is a five-time Olympic medalist and the most decorated gymnast in World Championship history – but with any luck, it’s her confidence that will inspire the next generation of athletes. “It’s important to teach our female youth that it’s OK to say, ‘Yes, I am good at this,’ and you don’t hold back,” Biles told USA Today, noting that men are praised for carrying that level of confidence, while women are seen as cocky. She added: “I’ve won five World titles and if I say, ‘I’m the best gymnast there is,’ [the reaction is] ‘Oh, she’s cocky. Look at her now.’ No, the facts are literally on paper.”
Beach volleyball player April Ross has medaled in two straight Olympics, but off the court, she’s an advocate for several causes that are close to her heart, including Kids Play International, an organization that promotes gender equity through sport in countries that have been impacted by genocide.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, when Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming, she made clear that she hoped she wouldn’t be the last – and in the years since then, Manuel has taken bold steps to pave the way for fellow athletes. According to ESPN, Manuel put an inclusion rider in her contract with swimsuit brand TYR Sport, to help ensure that the company extends opportunities to underrepresented groups. It’s believed to be the first inclusion rider in pro sports.
After losing her leg during her deployment in 2004, Melissa Stockwell became the first Iraq War veteran to qualify for the Paralympic Games. She competed in swimming in 2008, then shifted her focus to triathlon, winning three world championships before returning to the 2016 Paralympics. Stockwell won bronze at the Rio Games, and now she has her sights set on Tokyo. But she’s also committed to giving back. Currently, Stockwell serves on the board of directors for the Wounded Warriors Project, the USA Triathlon Foundation, and the USA Triathlon Women’s Committee.
After experiencing abuse at the hands of former team doctor Larry Nassar, six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman bravely confronted her abuser in court, then joined a chorus of athletes calling for an investigation into USA Gymnastics – a crusade that continues to this day. Raisman’s advocacy for survivors of sexual abuse has extended beyond the world of gymnastics, and she has also spoken candidly about therapy and recovery, becoming a much-needed voice for those who have suffered trauma.
When golfer Cheyenne Woods won her first professional tournament in 2014, the world took notice. But much like her uncle Tiger’s impact on the game, Cheyenne’s career is about more than wins and losses – she wants to make pro golf more accessible to Black women. “Obviously, I loved watching Annika Sorenstam and Grace Park, but as a young child looking to someone I could really relate to and have some kind of connection with, I felt that was lacking,” Cheyenne told CNN. She continued: “I think it’s important for me to at least show representation on Tour. To show that it is possible because that’s what Tiger showed me.”