by Peter Guzik
Special to CVO
At the end of the day, sports, by its nature, declares who is the best. The Yankees beat the Red Sox. The Ravens came back against the Broncos. Worknesh Degefa was the faster runner that day. However, sports can be the source of many great arguments. Which was the greatest game 7 in the World Series? Who was considered the greatest athlete of the 20th century, Babe Ruth or Muhammed Ali? How can you decide that? Their peaks took place 50 years apart and in different sports!!
We will try to end one of the greatest sports arguments of all time: the greatest female athlete! We have looked at several lists of the “best” female athletes (see the list below) from various eras to get a broad scope of women. There is one thing that bonds all the women on this list: They all attended college. Some sports, like tennis and gymnastics, require their athletes to dedicate most of their time to practicing and becoming the best at an early age. By the time they are at or approaching their peaks, they are the age of a typical college student. Other sports, like soccer or softball, have a thriving collegiate system that leads these women to go to college to practice their sports. So many famous women, while amazing and inspiring athletes, won’t be on this list.
And this is the perfect time of year to break down this amazing collection of women. March is International Women’s Month and March Madness (and April) is the most exciting time in college sports with the NCAA basketball tournaments. So, let’s not waste another second!
We took seven lists of top female athletes and one of the greatest athletes, male and female, of the 20th century. Some of these were rankings and others were lists. We determined our list by counting how many rankings in which the women appeared on. When there was a tie, we took the lists that gave a ranking and took the average of where the women appeared. We hope you enjoy reading about these incredible women as much as we did!
- Business Insider (2019) – 36 women
- Glamour (2020) – 40 women
- Pledge Popular (2020) – 10 women
- ESPN All-Time (1999) – 100 men and women
- Bleacher (2011) – 50 women
- Sports Illustrated (2000) – 100 women
- CBS (2015) – 24 women
- ESPN (1972-2012) – 40 women
30. Flo (Flora) Hyman – Volleyball
Flora Hyman, known to everyone as Flo, was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. Often called the greatest American female volleyball player, she was always taller than the other kids. She was 6’3” by the time she was twelve and was 6’5” as her adult. As a child, she had trouble dealing with being significantly taller than everyone but was finally convinced by friends and family to embrace her height. After graduating from high school, she stayed local for her first year of college at El Camino College, a two-year community college. She later transferred to the University of Houston, where she spent three years studying. She was the first woman to receive a scholarship at Houston, but left school to join the US. National team. They failed to qualify for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and in 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics held in Moscow. In 1984, she finally got her chance to reach her Olympic dream. Unfortunately, the team lost in the finals to China, earning the silver medal.
Flora Hyman, known to everyone as Flo, was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. Often called the greatest American female volleyball player, she was always taller than the other kids. She was 6’3” by the time she was twelve and was 6’5” as her adult. As a child, she had trouble dealing with being significantly taller than everyone but was finally convinced by friends and family to embrace her height. After graduating from high school, she stayed local for her first year of college at El Camino College, a two-year community college. She later transferred to the University of Houston, where she spent three years studying. She was the first woman to receive a scholarship at Houston, but left school to join the US. national team. They failed to qualify for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and in 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics held in Moscow. In 1984, she finally got her chance to reach her Olympic dream. Unfortunately, the team lost in the finals to China, earning the silver medal.
Afterwards, Flo went pro and moved to Japan to play for the Daiei team. In January of 1986, she collapsed in the middle of a game against Hitachi and passed away later that evening. Initially, her death was stated to have been caused by a heart attack. Her family felt that was impossible and had its own autopsy performed upon the arrival of Flo’s body to the States. It was determined that she had been suffering from an undiagnosed case of Marfan Syndrome, a disease that affects the eyes and heart, among other areas of the body. It was believed that Flo lived longer than most doctors would have predicted. Her brother also suffered from the disease.
Flo was inducted into the Volleyball hall of Fame in 1988 and the first woman admitted to the University of Houston’s Hall of Honor a decade later. In 1999, Sports Illustrated listed her as the 69th greatest female athlete of the 20th century.
29. Lynn Hill – Rock Climbing
Lynn Hill, possibly the greatest rock climber, male or female, was born in Detroit but raised in Fullerton, California. She is a gifted athlete. At a young age, she got involved in gymnastics, only to quit at the age of 12. She hated the way girls “had to smile and do cutesy little routines on the floor.” She took it up again in high school, but it was never her passion.
Hill was introduced to rock climbing by her sister and her sister’s fiancée. She climbed many places, including Joshua Tree National Park. School was never her thing. She attended local Fullerton College for a year before taking time off. She added weightlifting and running to her resume and was recruited to run track when she started to attend Santa Monica College. With no training, she quickly placed near the top of state meets, helping the school win the state championship. She later moved to New Paltz, N.Y., where she continued her climbing career and received a degree from SUNY- New Paltz in biology.
Hill’s love of climbing never left her and she began to climb competitively, winning 30 international competitions between 1986 and 1992. In 1989, a friend suggested she try to free climb The Nose of El Capitan, located in Yosemite park. The Nose is one of the most difficult climbs in the world. The first route was set in 47 days, back in 1958, This accomplishment was referred to being equal to reaching the moon. Hill was unsuccessful in first attempt. Four years later, she returned and became the first person to free climb the route. It took her four days. The following year, she returned and made the climb in under 24 hours. When she completed the route in 1993, she said the phrase that had been part of her entire life: “It goes, boys!” It certainly does.
28. Alex Morgan – Soccer
Alex Morgan, one of the most celebrated women’s soccer players in history, grew up in Southern California. She didn’t play for any club teams until she was 14 but had been playing sports since she was little. She was called up to the U.S. under-20 woman’s national team at the age of 17 but tore her ACL, delaying her debut.
Morgan attended UC Berkeley, where she was a star from the beginning, leading the team in scoring in her first year. By the time she graduated with a degree in Political Economy, she helped Cal reach the NCAA Tournament all four years and left school as the third in goals scored and points, even though she missed a lot of time due to her commitments to the U.S. national team.
Morgan’s post-college career has been full of great successes. She was the first overall pick in the WPS by the Western New York Flash. The team won the regular season and WPS championship that year. In addition to the Flash, she went on to play in the MLS for the Seattle Sounders Women, Portland Thorns, and Orlando Pride. She also played in Europe, first for Lyon and later for Tottenham. She also played for the U.S. team in the World Cup in 2011 (finishing second), 2015, and 2019 (winning both). She also played on the team in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic team, winning the gold medal in the former. In 2019, she led the fight for the USNWT to get equality compared to the men’s team. The lawsuit was filed on March 8th of the year, International Women’s Day, with her name listed first in the lawsuit. In December 2020, part of the lawsuit was settled. However, as of the writing of this article, the issue of equal pay is still undecided.
27. Cammi Granato – Hockey
A pioneer in woman’s hockey, Catherine “Cammi” Granato was born into a hockey family. One of six children, she is the younger sister of former NHL player Tony Granato and current interim head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, Don Granato. Her parents tried to get her interested in figure skating at a young age, but the allure of hockey had its grip on her by the age of five, playing on boys teams until she was 16. Additionally, she played on a boys’ baseball team and was on the girls’ soccer and basketball teams while in high school.
Granato earned a hockey scholarship to Providence College, earning Player of the Year awards on the team and in Eastern College Athletic Conference. While attending college, she was also on the U.S. Women’s National Team. After using up her NCAA eligibility, she attended Concordia University in Montreal and earned her Master’s in Sports Administration. Again, she was a star of the team, leading Concordia to three consecutive provincial championships. She continued to play for the U.S. national team until 2005, including leading the 1998 gold medal-winning team as its captain and winning the silver medal in 2002. In 2006, the controversial decision not to include her on the team led to many people being upset with the decision. This was especially disappointing to fans when the team lost in the semifinals to Sweden, eventually earning the bronze medal.
Granato has continued to be a leader for women’s role in hockey since she finished her playing days. In 2010, she was the first woman elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2019, she was the first woman hired by an NHL team to be a scout. In addition to being born into a family of hockey, she has married into one as well. Her husband, Ray Ferraro, and her stepson played in the NHL.
26. Lisa Fernandez – Softball
Lisa Fernandez is considered by many to be the greatest female softball player in the U.S. history. Based on the tremendous success of the U.S. in most international competitions, that would most likely make her the greatest of all-time. She was born and raised in Southern California, following religiously the MLB teams of the area, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the California Angels. The sport was the favorite of most of her family, leading her to start playing at the age of eight. By the time she graduated from high school, her team had already won a championship and she was off to UCLA to play for the Bruins. There she earned a degree in psychology and four national championship finals appearances, two resulting in winning the final game.
While in college, Fernandez was already playing for the national team and winning gold medals at international competitions. This continued as she played for the Olympic team, earning gold medals at Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), and Athens (2004). In Athens, she set Olympic records by striking out 25 batters in a single game and setting the high mark for the best batting average for a single tournament (.545). The natural way for her to share her knowledge and understanding of the sport was to coach. Her former coach, Sue Enquist, said, “She had a coach’s curiosity even as a freshman. She could feel the momentum shift; she could pick up on an opponent’s signals or pitches.” This curiosity has led to her being part of the coaching staff for the UCLA Bruins softball team for 23 years.
25. Nancy Lieberman – Basketball
Nancy Lieberman, born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and raised in Rockaway Beach, is a pioneer in women’s basketball. She grew up playing many sports found her passion and true calling in basketball. While still in high school, she was named to the U.S. National team that went on to win many medals in international competitions, including the silver at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She went on to play four years and earned a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at Old Dominion University, where still holds many season and single-game records. Known for great defense and precision passing, she earned the nickname “Lady Magic” in homage to Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the all-time great LA Laker. She was received the Wade Trophy award twice, given to the top upper class woman player.
Lieberman continued to do things no one had done before. She became the first woman to play in men’s professional league and be offered a tryout by the NBA. In 2009, she became the coach of the Texas Legends in the NBA Development League. Six years later, she became an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, only the second women to do so in NBA history. There, she was welcomed with open arms by the players. She said the players wanted “to know how they can get better and they wanna know my perspective- on life and basketball.” She was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame and is currently a broadcaster for the New Orleans Pelicans.
24. Mary T. Meagher – Swimming
Mary T. Meagher, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, where the Aquatic Center is named after her, has been a star in the world of swimming since she was a girl. Meager, or “Madame Butterfly,” set her first world record at age 14, before she had even started high school! She was supposed to go to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but the entire team was unable to compete as the United States boycotted the games.
In 1981, Meagher set the world record in the women 200-meter butterfly. Her record would stand for nearly 20 years. At one point, she held the top ELEVEN times in world history. She decided to further her swimming career at the University of California, Berkeley, winning many awards, including the Honda Broderick Cup in 1987, given to the nation’s top female collegiate athlete. She graduated that year with a B.A. in social sciences.
Eventually, Meagher became a decorated Olympic athlete, winning a total of five medals, including three gold medals at the 1984 games held in Los Angeles. Yet, she was never a bragger. In fact, her sister, Anne, said, “I’ll bet that I’ve told more people that Mary T is my sister than she’s told people she swims!” Well, if you can walk the walk, you don’t need to talk the talk.
23. Diana Taurasi – Basketball
Diana Taurasi is one of those athletes that is impossible to write a summary of their career. She has so many highlights and accolades it is impossible to mention them all. If you print out a copy of her WNBA page that lists her awards, scoring records, and season highlights, you will find a document that is thirty-two pages. That is not a misprint. Thirty-two pages!
Taurasi, nicknamed White Mamba by Kobe Bryant, grew up in California. Sports were a part of her blood, her father having played professional soccer in Italy. She decided to go to college across the country at the University of Connecticut, graduating with a degree in sociology. She won multiple player of the year awards as she led her team to three consecutive NCAA championships. After she was drafted #1 by the Phoenix Mercury in 2004, she led them to three WNBA championships, was named Finals MVP twice, and league MVP in 2009. She is one of five athletes in history to win four Olympic gold medals in basketball and is the all-time leading scorer in the WNBA. She continues to play basketball at an incredible level. She has played 16 seasons and just resigned for two more years.
22. Janet Evans – Swimming
Janet Evans, considered by many to be the greatest American freestyling, long distance swimmer ever, first got in the pool at the age of two. By the time she was 15, she had already set world records for the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1,500-meter freestyle distances. She made her first Olympic appearance the following year, 1988, in Seoul. There, she beat her own record by setting a new time that would not be beat for nearly two decades and won three gold medals.
In 1989, she began studying at Stanford University. Two years later, the NCAA put limitations on how long student-athletes could practice. Because of her goals and long practice schedules, she renounced her scholarship and left Stanford. She briefly attended the University of Texas, Austin, finally finishing her communications degree at the University of Southern California.
In 1992, she went to Barcelona and earned one gold and one silver medal. She continued her dominance over the sport, winning the 400 and 800-meter freestyle events at the U.S. National Championships twelve times…each! In 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics games, she was not able to keep up with her historic levels and failed to win any medals. However, her moment at that Olympics was not without highlights. She was one of the people who was given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch during the ceremonies. She was the next to last to hold it, handing it off to Muhammad Ali, who lit the cauldron. She attempted to comeback for the 2012 games in London but failed to make the team.
21. Abby Wambach – Soccer
Abby Wambach, born in Rochester, New York, in 1980, is one of the United States most successful female soccer players. She started at the age of 4 and, by the time she was 5, she was moved to the boys’ team after scoring 27 goals in three games! Her success continued through high school. She was named the All-Greater Rochester Player of the year two times.
She was highly sought after by colleges but finally decided to go to the University of Florida. Even though the team was new, she was excited by the challenge of helping build a soccer program. And it worked! In her freshman year, Wambach helped lead the Gators to be NCAA champions over UNC, one of the schools that worked hard to recruit her. She left with her degree in 2002, as well as many school records, including being the all-time leading scorer with 96 goals.
She joined the Washington Freedom after college and continued her unprecedented levels of success with them and the National Team. She helped lead the USNT to Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2012, and a bronze medal in the 2003 and 2007 World Cup, silver medal in 2011, and winning the championship in 2015. Along with her six US Soccer Female Athlete of the Year awards, Wambach was the all-time leading scorer of international matches, male and female, until early in 2020 when she was passed by Canadian Christine Sinclair. She is often referred to as the GOAT, Greatest of All Time, of women’s soccer. Pretty reasonable choice!
20. Dara Torres- Swimming
Dara Torres, the only American swimmer to appear in five Olympics, was born in Beverly Hills, California. Like many great athletes, she had many siblings, creating a natural setting for intense drive and competition between brothers and sisters. She followed her older brothers to swimming practice and, by the time she was 14, she won the national open championship in the 50-yard freestyle, defeating the current champion at the time, who was a college junior!
Torres appeared at the at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles where she won her first gold medal as a member of the 4X100-meter freestyle relay. She went on to college the following year at the University of Florida. The number of awards she won is too numerous to list here. For example, she won 28 All-American swimming honors, the maximum possible for an individual during a college career. Basically, she won everything, including SEC Athlete of the year in 1988. She graduated with B.A. in telecommunications in 1990.
During her time at school, Torres returned to the world stage at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, winning a bronze and silver medal. In 1992, she went back one more time, to Barcelona, and won another gold medal. For the next 7 years, she stayed out of competitive swimming. However, she began to train again in 1999, preparing for the 2000 games in Sydney. This time, she did even better than before. For the first time, she won medals for individual events, finishing with three bronze showings. She won two more gold medals in the same relay races as 1988, the 4X100-meter freestyle and medley relay. But Torres was not finished. She returned to the 2008 Games in Beijing and won 3 more medals, all silver, giving her a total of 12 medal, four of each. No other American female Olympic athlete has as many medals as Torres.
19. Venus Williams – Tennis
Venus Williams is one of the most celebrated tennis players, male or female, in history. Her younger sister, Serena Williams, is also on the short list of famous tennis players who are known by just a first name. The sisters grew up in Compton, California, but moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1990 so they could be trained on their way to becoming professionals. Venus played in first pro tournament, the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland. In her second-round match, she was paired with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who was number two in the world at the time. Williams won the first set and was up a service break but eventually lost to the Vicario.
Venus played in a few tournaments in 1995 and 1996, but went full throttle in 1997, appearing in 15 tour events. She made the U.S. open final that year, becoming the first unranked player to make the finals in nearly 40 years. It was a sign of things to come! Over the next 20 years, she went on to appear in 16 Grand Slam singles finals, winning seven, including 4 Wimbledon Championships. She won two of the three mixed doubles finals she appeared in. AS for women’s doubles, she and her partner, sister Serena Williams, are 14-0 in Grand Slam finals!
While she is still playing professional tennis, she has expanded her life off the court. In 2007, she finished her associates degree from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. “I love fashion and the idea that I am using my design education to actually create clothing and footwear that reflects my personality and energy both on and off the court.” She continued her education by taking advantage of an agreement between Indiana University East and the Women’s Tennis Benefits Association that allowed the players to attend school online, allowing them to study while continuing their professional career. This is a great option as many tennis players, both men and women, begin their professional careers at such an early age, they don’t get to the chance to attend school at the typical time your average teenager does. Venus graduated in 2015 with a degree in Business Administration. These degrees have helped to create her own line of clothing and run the business all while continuing to play tennis.
18. Ann Meyers Drysdale – Basketball
For each thing, there is always a first. Ann Meyers Drysdale has many of those firsts. Born in San Diego, she comes from a family of many athletes. Her father, Bob Meyers, played basketball at Marquette University, then for the Shooting Stars, a Milwaukee professional team. Her brother, Dave Meyers, played at UCLA and for the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA. Ann was a star high school student athlete, lettering in seven sports. Her high school basketball team had a career record of 80-5 while she was on the team, and she was the first high schooler to play for the U.S. national team.
One day, her brother came home from school for a brief visit and asked Ann if she was interested in playing at UCLA along with him. She was offered the first four-year athletic scholarship to any woman at any university. She accepted and she became a star. In her senior year, she led her team to the AIAW National Championship, and became the first to accomplish a quadruple double in NCAA history. She scored 20 points, 14, rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals. This was only duplicated nearly 30 years later by Lester Hudson from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She graduated with a degree in sociology.
Her career outside college was also highly impressive. She was a leader on the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, the first time women’s basketball was at the Olympics, winning the silver medal. In 1980, while preparing for the 1980 Olympics, she was offered a chance to tryout with the Indiana Pacers, the first woman to ever receive the chance to play in the NBA. To sign her no-cut contract, worth $50,000, she would have to renounce her eligibility to play for the Olympic team. While it was not an easy decision, she decided she could not pass up such an offer. She spent three days practicing with the team but, in the end, she didn’t make the final cut. While she impressed the coaching staff, who gave serious consideration to offering her a spot, she was very disappointed not to make the team.
She has been inducted into several halls of fame, including the Naismith Memorial Basketball hall of fame. Her late husband, the great Dodger pitcher, Don Drysdale, was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the early 80s. They are the first, and so far, only, married couple to both be elected to their sports’ hall of fame.
16. (tied) Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings – Volleyball
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings appear as separate entries on this list, but they are forever connected in volleyball history, specifically beach-volleyball. Both women, like many of the people on this list, came from athletic families. May-Treanor’s father was a member of the 1968 U.S. men’s national volleyball team, and her mother was a nationally ranked tennis player, while Walsh-Jennings’ father played minor league baseball and her mother was a star volleyball player in college. Both women were star players in high school and competed against each other. They went on to play in college, May-Treanor at Long Beach State and Walsh-Jennings at Stanford. Both made it to the NCAA championship finals, Long Beach State winning in 1998, and Stanford losing to Penn State in 1999. May-Treanor graduated with a degree in Kinesiology/Fitness and has an MBA in Coaching and Athletic Administration from Concordia University while Kerri Walsh-Jennings received a B.A. in American Studies.
Their fame has come mostly due to their appearances on the biggest stage of the volleyball sport: The Olympics. They both played at the 2000 Games, but they were not yet partners. Walsh-Jennings finished fourth in indoor volleyball while May-Treanor finished in 5th place on the beach. It was at those games that the two met after the families started talking to each other. They started to work out together and realized what a good pair they made. They went on to win the next three Olympic gold medals. When I say they won I mean, they won! They did not lose a set in any of their matches in Athens, Beijing, or London. At one point, they won 112 consecutive matches. They are the most dominant beach volleyball team in the history of the sport.
After London, May-Treanor decided to retire from the sport. Walsh-Jennings has continued without her long-time partner, winning the bronze medal with April Ross at the 2016 Rio games. Due to Covid-19, the 2020 games in Tokyo have been delayed until 2021. Walsh-Jennings and her new partner, Brooke Sweat are aiming to win the gold in Japan.
15. Cheryl Miller- Basketball
It is hard to be a Hall of Fame player, but it’s very rare for a family to have TWO of them! Cheryl Miller and her brother, Reggie Miller, star of the Indiana Pacers of the NBA, fit that bill. Cheryl, her little brother, and their three siblings, including former major league baseball player, Darrell, were raised in Riversdale, California. Her high school career alone would have made her a legend. Her team’s record during her four years was 132-4. She was named national high-school scholar-athlete of the year in 1981 and scored 105 points in a game during her senior year.
Miller decided to stay local for college, attending the University of Southern California. She was a leader of the team all four years she played. She still holds many USC career records, including points, rebounds, steals, and other. Her totals also put her in the top rankings of the NCAA, including tenth in scoring and third in rebounding. Additionally, she led the Trojans to back-to-back national championships and helped win the national team win the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics held in backyard of Los Angeles. She was the first basketball player, male or female, to have her number retired. No one else at USC will ever wear number 31. She spent her time at USC well, studying organic chemistry and quantum physics.
After her playing career ended, Miller stayed in the sport. She has been the head coach at USC, Langston University, and Cal State, LA. She also was the head coach for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA. She spends a lot of time on TV as a sideline reporter and studio analyst for the NBA and the Olympics. Capped by her induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame, sports analyst Chris Broussard, said it best: “She might be the GOAT. She changed the sport forever. Cheryl Miller was a pioneer for the game of women’s basketball.”
14. Annika Sorenstam – Golf
Annika Sorenstam, born near Stockholm, Sweden, is the older sister of Charlotta. The pair became the first sisters to both earn more than a million dollars on the LPGA tour. Annika was a great athlete as a child. She played golf, was a nationally ranked junior tennis player, played soccer, and skied. In fact, it was suggested that she and her family move to Northern Sweden so she could ski year-round. However, she found her calling in golf.
She was successful as a teenager. She played on the Swedish National Team for five years, winning several tournaments. When she was offered a scholarship to the University of Arizona, she jumped at the chance. She continued her success as a freshman, winning the individual NCAA Division I Championship, becoming the first non-American and first freshman to do so. In July of 1992, she made the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open, and finished in 63rd place. At that point, she decided to leave school and turn professional.
Sorenstam’s successful professional career continued. She was named LPGA Rookie of the year with three top-10 finishes. In 1995, she won her first LPGA title at the U.S. Women’s Open and won it again the following year. In 1997, she won six tour events. She struggled a bit over the next few years but had her best round any woman has ever had. She shot a 59 at the Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix, Arizona. No woman has ever shot below 60 in any tournament. Two years later, she was the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to be offered the chance to participate in a PGA tour event, Unfortunately, she missed the cut with poor putting but led the field in driving accuracy in the first round.
Sorenstam retired in 2008 to start a remarkably successful business career. She has designed golf courses around the world and started a golf academy. She finished her career with 10 Majors wins, tied for 4th among all female players in history. She earned more than $22 million on the tour and had 207 top 10 finishes, along with 72 career victories. In 2021, she attempted a comeback, finishing 74th at the Gainbridge LPGA event.
13. Althea Gibson – Tennis
Althea Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of tennis, was born in South Carolina in 1927 but moved to Harlem, NY, at the age of three. Growing up during the Depression was hard on everyone, but Gibson had many struggles. She quit school at the age of 13 while she excelled at sports. She was lucky to be living in an area with many organized sports for the kids of the area to play. She started to play tennis but didn’t really like it, even though she had an amazing talent for the game. She entered her first tournament, the ATA New York State Championship, and won. She went on to win the ATA national championship…many times.
Gibson’s immense talent caught the eye of Walter Johnson, a physician from Virginia who also mentored Arthur Ashe. Johnson helped support her and moved her to Wilmington, NC, in 1946 to help her get back into school trained. She continued her tennis career in 1949 at Florida A&M University where she received a full athletic scholarship. While she was not barred from some tournaments because of the color of her skin, the events were often held at clubs where blacks were not welcome, effectively banning her. She graduated from school in 1953 and took a job teaching physical education in Missouri.
She continued her international tennis career, become the first African-America to win a Grand Slam event. She ended up winning 11 Grand Slam events (five singles, 5 doubles, and one mixed doubles) in just three years! No one has won so many titles in such a short period. She was the number one-ranked woman in woman’s tennis and became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated. She retired from amateur tennis in 1958, as there was no prize money for any of these tournaments. She mostly focused on a singing career, touring with the Harlem Globetrotters, and, as she was such a good athlete, she added golf to her resume, joining the LPGA. She was very good at the sport, ranked as high as 27th in 1966, but never made much money from the sport, as racism was still a problem.
While she never financially secure from her amazing sports career, her mark on all of women’s sports, especially tennis, has never been in doubt. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. Many statues of her have raised around the country, but none more impressive than the one at Flushing Meadows, where the U.S. Open is played each year. Hers is only the second statue erected at the location for a champion.
12. Sheryl Swoopes – Basketball
Sheryl Swoopes, often referred to as “The Female Michael Jordan,” grew up in Texas, playing basketball with her three older brothers. She was extremely competitive and ended up being recruited to play at the University of Texas. She quickly left school, never playing a game for them. She transferred to South Plains Community College. She was a star at the school, a two-time All-America and all-region Selection, and the Junior College Player of the Year, 1991. The team finished 6th at nationals in her first season. She transferred to Texas Tech, close to where she grew up. She set many school records, most impressively was her nearly 25 points-per-game average over her career. She led the Lady Raiders to the National Championship in 1993. She graduated in 1994, the same year her uniform was retired by the school.
Swoopes’ post-college career has been equally impressive. She led the U.S. national team to three consecutive Olympic Gold medals, 1996, 2000, and 2004. She went on to play for the Houston Comets and led them to the championship in the WNBA’s inaugural season. She finished her career with four championships, three MVP awards, and was elected to the Basket Hall of Fame. She is currently an assistant coach at her alma mater, Texas Tech. She has said one of the highlights of her life was the first time she met Michael Jordan. He called her out at one of his camps, and they played a game of one-on-one. She was extremely nervous initially, missing her first several shots. She quickly composed herself and led 4-3. However, as he always does, MJ turned it on and won the pick-up game. While she may have lost to the legend, she is one herself.
11. Michelle Akers – Soccer
Michelle Akers is widely considered one of the best female soccer players in history. She grew up in Washington state but ended up going to college on the other side of the country, at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She was a key member of the team from the very start, listed as a four-time All-American. She won many individual awards, including UCF’s Athlete of the Year and was the inaugural winner of the Hermann Trophy, awarded to the national women’s soccer collegiate player of the year. She graduated with a degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences and a minor in Health.
Aker’s career flourished after her time at UCF. She was a member of the initial U.S. women’s national team and score the first goal in its history. She was a member of three U.S. World Cup teams, including the 1999 team that won the tournament. In 1998, she was awarded the FIFA Order of Merit, the highest honor in the global game of soccer. In 2004, she was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, and was one of two women named to the FIFA 100, a list of the greatest players to ever play the sport. At the University of Central Florida, there is an award named after her, presented to alumni who have brought international, positive attention to UCF.
10. Joan Benoit Samuelson – Running
Running a marathon is one of the most difficult things you can put your body through. You are expected to run 26.2 miles through a city that would be difficult to DRIVE that far in a couple of hours. However, the best runners do it with ease. One of the greatest marathon runners is Joan Benoit Samuelson, Maine’s most famous athlete. She started after a slalom ski race put her on crutches for several weeks, and she thought running would be a great way to rehabilitate her leg. It led to a long career.
She started attending Bowdoin College, playing field hockey and running. She soon transferred to North Carolina State on a running scholarship. She earned All-American honors while at NC State, but she was soon drawn back to New England and returned to Bowdoin, where she graduated with a B.A. in history and environmental studies.
Soon after returning to Maine, Benoit Samuelson decided to run in the 1979 Boston Marathon. As she was relatively unknown, there were low expectations. Nevertheless, not only did she win the race, but she also obliterated the previous record by more than seven minutes. She would go on to win the race again in 1983. The following year, she was preparing for the first women’s Olympic marathon race when she hurt her knee. What started out as an injury Benoit Samuelson thought would require rest, she found out she would need surgery- just 17 days before the Trials. Amazingly, not only did she make the team, finishing first in the Trials, she went on to win the gold medal by nearly 90 seconds.
9. Tracy Caulkins – Swimming
You often hear that so and so is “The Best.” But it’s not often that you can actually prove that someone is the best. Tracy Caulkins might be that one. Born in Minnesota but raised in Nashville, she grew up watching swimming competitions, dreaming of the day she would appear on the big stage herself. By age of thirteen, she was competing and winning in national swimming championships, setting U.S. records in the 200-yard and 400- yard individual medley events, as well as the 100-yard breaststroke.
While too young for the 1976 Olympics, she was ready for the 1980 Games. She qualified to compete in five events and most likely would have been on a relay team, as well. Unfortunately, the dreams of many young athletes, including Caulkins, were ripped to shreds when the U.S. Olympic teams boycotted the Moscow games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But she made up for it with a fantastic showing at the 1984 Olympics, held in Los Angeles. She won her first gold medal by beating Australian Suzie Landells by more than 9 seconds in the 400-meter individual medley. She went on to win two more gold medals in the games.
After the Olympics, she decided to retire from competitive swimming and focus on her degree in telecommunications. She ended her three-year college career with a team National Championship, twelve individual NCAA championships, twelve SEC titles, and twenty-one All-American honors. She won the Honda Sports Award, recognizing her as the outstanding college female swimmer, three years in a row. She ended her career with forty-eight national championship titles, sixty-three American records, and five world records. Her college records are sure to stand as the NCAA changed their rules, allowing no student-athlete to compete in more than three individual events in one year. What makes Caulkins so amazing is her versatility. Most people specialize on one or two areas, but she competed in the butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle. No one was able to keep up with her.
8- Florence Griffith Joyner – Track
Florence Griffith Joyner, known as Flo-Jo, was an American track and field athlete and was often referred to as the fastest woman in the world. She set world records in both the 100 meters and 200 meters that have not been broken for thirty-three years. Born the seventh of 11 children, she began competing in track events while in elementary school. Reportedly, she started to practice running by chasing jackrabbits to become faster.
Flo-Jo started her collegiate career at CSUN, helping them to the national championship in her first year. Soon after her stunning start to a career, she was forced to leave school to help support her family. A year later, her former coach helped her get financial aid at UCLA, where she graduated with her degree in psychology in 1983. She qualified for the 1980 Olympics but didn’t get the opportunity to race until the following games n 1984. There, she won the silver medal in the women’s 200 meters. During her career, she began to be noticed as much for her running as her look. She had extremely long fingernails, long flowing hair, and brightly colored outfits. In 1988, she qualified for the Seoul Olympics, and it is here where she made her mark on the world. In the quarterfinal race, she ran a world-record time of 10.49 seconds over 100 meters, far ahead of anyone else. She ended up with three gold medals and a silver. There is much controversy with her results. There were concerns over the wind and suspicions about whether she used illegal substances to get such amazing results. For all the talk, there were never any reported results of drug testing that would have caused her to forfeit her medals.
She retired after the 1988 Games, and although she flirted with a comeback for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, her racing career ended. Sadly, she passed away in her sleep in September of 1998. The Coroner’s office ruled that she died from suffocation during an epileptic seizure.
7- Bonnie Blair – Skating
Bonnie Blair, the most decorated Olympic female skater in American history, literally started out at the skating races. The youngest of six siblings, all the kids in her family skated competitively. When Bonnie was being born, her father took the other kids to their meet. Her father, Charlie, found out about the birth of his final child when the public-address announcer told the crowd, “It looks like Charlie’s family has added another skater.”
From there, Blair started skating at age two and participated in her first meet at the age of four. She made the national team when she was 15. During this time, she attended Parkland College but wasn’t focused on her studies. She ended up two classes short of finishing her two-year degree. Later, she talked about wanting to attend a four-year college, majoring in physical education, and minoring in business. She appeared in her first Olympics in 1984 at Sarajevo, where she finished 8th in the 500 meters race. The reality is she was only 19 and happy to make it to the Games. Her best days were still to come.
She was one of the best speed skaters coming into the 1988 Winter Games held in Calgary. She ended up winning the 500 meters, setting a world record, and getting the bronze in the 1,000 meters. She was supported, as always, by her friends and family in the stands, lovingly known as the “Blair Bunch.” She went on to win gold medals in the same events at both the 1992 Games (Albertville) and 1994 Games (Lillehammer). She won the Sportswoman of the Year award from Sports Illustrated in 1994 and retired the following year. She was one of the torchbearers at the 2002 Winter Olympics, held in Salt Lake City.
6. Lisa Leslie – Basketball
Lisa Leslie, the highest-ranked basketball player on this list, grew up and spent her career in Southern California. With a mother who was 6’3”, Lisa seemed destined to play basketball. She was a star from the beginning. She eventually ended up at Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, where she also played volleyball and competed in track and field. She reached her peak height of 6’5” in her junior year. In her senior year, she scored 101 points…in the first half of the game! The other team simply decided not to play the second half of the game.
Considered one of the best high school players in the country, she had her choice of where to play college ball. She decided to stay near home and attended the University of Southern California. She stood out from the beginning, scoring 30 points and grabbing 20 rebounds in her first game. She went on to win the NCAA Freshman of the Year award and won multiple National Player of the Year awards in 1994. She graduated with her degree in communications and later got her MBA in business administration from the University of Phoenix.
After finishing school, Leslie went on to win four consecutive Olympic gold medals. After playing for a spell in Italy, the founding of the WNBA led her to an amazing professional career. She was placed on the Los Angeles Sparks around the same time Kobe Bryant began playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. This proximity led to a great friendship between the two. Later, Bryant was a tremendous supporter of the league. Leslie ended up with to league MVP, two championships (and two Finals MVP awards to go with). She was named to the All-Decade team as well as the All-Time Top 15 player list. In 2002, she gained even more fame by becoming the first woman to dunk a basketball in the WNBA. Today, many of her stats remain among the tops in the WNBA and at USC.
5. Wilma Rudolph – Track
Wilma Rudolph was called “The fastest woman in history,” but nobody could have predicted that early in her childhood. She had many health problems as a child, including double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio, which she contracted at age 5 (a decade before the vaccine became available). She recovered but had to wear a leg brace for many years. There was doubt whether she would even walk again, but she traveled every week 50 miles by bus for her physical therapy, plus massage treatments four times a day from family members. Eventually, she regained full use of her leg.
Rudolph began playing basketball and running track. She was spotted by a local college coach that eventually led to the U.S. national trials for the 1956 Olympics and qualified for the 200-meter race at the age of 16. While she did not make it past the prelims, she did run as a member of the 4 X 100-meter relay. They won the bronze medal, and her Olympic career was on its way. She returned to the international stage in 1960 at the Olympic games held in Rome, Italy. There, she became a star. It was the first Olympics to be televised around the world so, after she won three gold medals, she, and many others, including Muhammad Ali, became worldwide stars. Before the 1960 games, she started college at Tennessee State University, where Ed Temple, the man who discovered her, was the coach. She graduated a few years later with her bachelor’s degree in Education.
The 1960 Olympics made Wilma Rudolph famous. She used this fame to help African Americans, especially athletes. She said she was inspired, both as an athlete and a person, by Jesse Owens, winner of multiple medals at the 1936 Olympics. Fans around the world wanted to get close to her. She needed police guards to help her in Cologne where they stole her shoes and surrounded her bus. Her coach, Ed Temple, said, “She’s done more for her country than what the U.S. could have paid her for.” She met President Kennedy, who, when he accidentally fell out of his chair, said, “It’s not every day that I get to meet an Olympic champion.” When her hometown wanted to have a celebration for her, she insisted that the parade be integrated. They gave her this wish, resulting in the first event in the city’s history to allow both whites and black to attend. She served as a goodwill ambassador of the United States on a trip to several countries in Africa. Her involvement in civil rights protests in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee is pointed at as one of the main reasons the town announced the full integration of its public facilities. While she never received financial wealth from her career, she used her fame to great lengths.
4. Nadia Comaneci – Gymastics
Nadia Comaneci is probably the most famous gymnast in the world. She was born in Onesti, Romania, in 1961. Her mother enrolled her in gymnastics classes when she was in kindergarten because Nadia was always so full of energy that she was hard to manage. She was discovered while doing cartwheels in the school yard and quickly became one of the best gymnasts in Romania, winning the Romanian Nationals at age nine, the youngest to ever do so. The following year, she won her first international contest in Skien, Norway, taking every gold medal but one.
As the 1976 games were approaching, Comaneci was considered the favorite. She was innovative, and her technical style was impeccable, but what happened next stunned everyone. She made history by receiving the first perfect 10 in Olympic history on the uneven bars. The score was such a shock that the display was not built to show 10.00 so they simply indicated her score by having 1.00 appear. Her unbelievable performances continued as she earned an additional six perfect scores. She won a bronze for the floor exercise, silver as part of the team all-around, and three gold medals for the beam, uneven bars, and the all-around. She became so popular that the music she performed to, originally called “Cotton’s Dream,” became famously known as “Nadia’s Theme.” She returned to the Olympics in 19080, winning two gold and two silver medals.
After she completed her competitive career, Comaneci went to attend college at Politehnica University of Bucharest where she graduated with a degree in sports education. She did compete at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, but she did attend as an observer, even though several Communist countries boycotted the games. She was not able to leave her home country during most of the 80’s. She felt like a prisoner, and finally, at the end of 1989, she traveled mostly on foot and at night through Hungary and Austria to defect to the United States. She began helping Bart Conner, another gold medalist, with his gymnastic school. They fell in love and married in 1996. She was elected to the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1993.
3. Mia Hamm – Soccer
Mia Hamm is celebrated by many as being the greatest American female soccer player. She holds many records and, in her prime, was viewed as one of the most marketable female athletes. She was so admired that Phil Knight, Nike chairman, named the largest building on the Nike campus after her.
Hamm was born in Selma, Alabama, but moved around due to her father being in the United States Air Force, finally settling in Wichita Falls, Texas. She was a huge fan of the game of soccer at a young age. She caught the eye of the national team coach, Anson Dorrance, and made the U.S. woman’s team at the age of 15! She went on to play college ball at UNC-Chapel Hill, scoring 103 goals and led the team to four NCAA championships. She graduated in 1994 with her degree in political science.
Her international career is even more impressive. She played for the national team 276 times during her 17-year career. She held the number of goals scored by anyone, 158, for many years until Abby Wambach passed her in 2013. She led the national team to two gold medals in the Olympics and two women’s world cup championship. Her #9 jersey was one of the most popular in all of soccer and she married another famous athlete, baseball all-star Nomar Garciaparra, in 2003.
2. Billie Jean King – Tennis
Billie Jean King is arguably the most important woman in the history of sports. Life Magazine, in 1990, included King on their list of the “100 Most Important Americans” of the 20th century. Her dominance over the sport of tennis is unparalleled, and she led the fight for equal pay for women athletes.
She grew up in Long Beach, California, playing baseball (like her brother, Randy Moffitt, a major league baseball player for twelve years), softball, and tennis. After playing tennis for the first time, she knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She began competing at age 16 while attending high school (Long Beach Polytechnic High School) and continued while in college at Los Angeles State College, now CSU-LA. She won her first grand slam event in 1961 at Wimbledon, going on to win 19 more events there and a total of 39 Grand Slams.
In the early 70s, King campaigned for the men’s and women’s events to pay equal prize money. Her threat not to play in the 1973 US Open helped it be the first major tournament where the men and women received equal prize money. It was the same year where she became involved in the most famous tennis match of all time, referred to as The Battle of the Sexes. Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old former Wimbledon winner, claimed that he could beat any woman. He took on Margaret Court, at the time, the number one woman in the game and beat her easily. He also wanted to play King. Initially, King refused but eventually agreed. The match was televised worldwide and played in front of more than 30,000 people, the largest attendance ever for a tennis match. She won easily. Later, she spoke of how important it was for her to win the match. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”
1. Jackie Joyner-Kersee – Track
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, born and raised in East Saint Louis, Illinois, is commonly referred to as the “World’s Greatest Female Athlete.” She, like many girls born in the early 60’s, was named after the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, because, as her grandmother said, “Someday this girl will be the first lady of something.” While not a fortune teller, her grandmother could certainly see into the future.
As a young woman, Joyner-Kersee grew up playing basketball, volleyball, and track and field in high school, while excelling in school. She finished in the top 10 percent of her class of 350 student. Her academic and athletic skills led her to UCLA on a full scholarship, competing in Trach and Field and playing four years of basketball. Her mother died while she was attending school. When she returned, she found comfort with her coach, Bob Kersee, who later became her husband. This sense of loss pushed her even harder. She graduated with her degree in history (Joyner-Kersee claims this to be her greatest accomplishment off the field), but her performance in the oval of Track and Field overshadowed nearly everything else.
Joyner-Kersee’s strongest areas were the long jump and heptathlon, a two-day contest consisting of seven events. The 1984 Olympic games were the first to include the event and she finished in second place, losing by five points. During the following two Olympics, Joyner-Kersee easily won the heptathlon, earning the gold medals. She also won medals in these two games, as well as the 1996 Olympics, in the women’s long jump, including the gold medal in 1988. After her victory in the heptathlon in 1992, Bruce Jenner, the last American to win the decathlon (1976), came up to her and said, “You have proved to the world that you are the greatest athlete who ever lived, male or female. You have done what no one else has ever done.” We’re not the only one to say it: Jackie Joyner-Kersee is the best.
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