International Women’s Day

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Honoring 25 influential female Olympians on International Women’s Day

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In honor of International Women’s Day, a look at 25 of the most influential female Olympians for their work at the Games and beyond:

Joan Benoit Samuelson, U.S.: Winner of the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984 continues to run swiftly to this day. She has said a goal is to clock a sub-three-hour marathon after she turns 60 years old in May.

Fanny Blankers-Koen, Netherlands: “The Flying Housewife” won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, when the mother of two also held the world records in the high jump and long jump, two events in which she didn’t compete at those Games. Named the female athlete of the century by track and field’s international governing body.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias, U.S.: Considered by many the greatest all-around female athlete of all time due to her success in basketball, golf and track and field. Won medals in 80m hurdles (gold), javelin (gold) and high jump (silver) at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Voted by The Associated Press as the Woman Athlete of the 20th Century.

Halet Cambel, Turkey: A fencer, the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics. Cambel reportedly refused an invitation to meet Adolf Hitler while competing at the 1936 Berlin Games.

Alice Coachman, U.S.: The first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, in the high jump at the 1948 London Games. She returned home to a segregated victory ceremony, with blacks and whites on separate sides of the building. The white mayor would not shake her hand.

Nadia Comaneci, Romania: The star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, earning five medals, including all-around gold and the first Olympic perfect 10 at age 14. Defected to the U.S. in 1989, married U.S. Olympic champion Bart Conner and continues to promote gymnastics and charities around the world.

Anita DeFrantz, U.S.: Captain of the 1976 U.S. Olympic women’s eight rowing team that took bronze. An IOC member since 1986, she became the first IOC female vice president in 1997.

Donna de Varona, U.S.: Made her first Olympic team at age 13 in 1960 and earned three gold medals overall. In 1965, she became the youngest and the first woman sportscaster on network television, eventually earning Emmy Awards for her work. Her many honors included being the first president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Nawal El Moutawakel, Morocco: Became the first female Olympic champion from an Islamic nation when she captured the first women’s 400m hurdles crown at Los Angeles 1984. An IOC member since 1998.

Cathy Freeman, Australia: The face of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, lighting the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony and then winning 400m gold and carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags on her victory lap.

Mia Hamm, U.S.: Most accomplished U.S. soccer player in history. Led the U.S. to Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004 and silver in 2000 in the first three Olympic women’s soccer tournaments. Also won the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

Sonja Henie, Norway: Debuted at the first Winter Olympics in 1924, finishing last at age 11. Then won three straight Olympic singles figure skating titles, a feat no woman has repeated. Henie then became a Hollywood film star while still, decades after she retired, looked as the epitome of women’s skating.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, U.S.: Three-time swimming gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. In retirement, became president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and a lawyer, advocating for gender equity in sports.

Yuna Kim, South Korea: Perhaps the most popular athlete in her country’s history. Kim skated at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with the weight of a nation on her shoulders and took gold in record-setting fashion. She has become an ambassador for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, where she should play an important role.

Olga Korbut, Belarus: “The Sparrow from Minsk” or “The Elf from Grodno” was arguably gymnastics’ first worldwide superstar, earning a combined four golds and two silvers at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

Yusra Mardini, Syria: Swam in Rio about one year after swimming for her life for three hours in the Aegean Sea while fleeing Damascus for Europe. She was one of 10 athletes on the first Refugee Olympic Team.

Pat McCormick, U.S.: Swept the diving events at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, doing so the second time after the birth of her son earlier that year. In retirement, she traveled the world with fellow Olympic champions like Jesse Owens, modeled, earned college and nursing degrees and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, according to TeamUSA.org.

Martina Navratilova, U.S.: Competed in one Olympics, in doubles at age 47 at Athens 2004, 23 years after gaining U.S. citizenship. In her heyday, Navratilova eschewed Olympic tennis’ debut in 1988, saying sponsorship rules made star pros treated like children. An influential athlete voice, activist and charitable supporter for the last three decades.

Wilma Rudolph, U.S.: The 20th of 22 children, Rudolph contracted polio as an infant but overcame doctors’ predictions that she would never walk to become one of the greatest sprinters in history. She swept the 100m and 200m at Rome 1960 and in retirement was devoted to coaching and working with underprivileged children.

Beckie Scott, Canada: Upgraded from 2002 Olympic cross-country skiing bronze to gold in 2002, after the top two from Russia failed drug tests. In retirement, has been an influential voice in clean sport, chairing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s athletes’ committee.

Rafaela Silva, Brazil: Judoka won Brazil’s first gold medal at the Rio Olympics. Silva grew up in Rio’s most famously violent favela, Cidade de Deus (“City of God”).

Pat Summitt, U.S.: The first person to play for and coach U.S. Olympic basketball teams, earning silver at the 1976 Olympics, the first with women’s basketball, and then coaching the 1984 team to gold. Summitt is best known for her 38 seasons coaching Tennessee, with 18 Final Fours and eight national titles. A Tennessee player has been on every U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team.

Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada: Greatest female hockey player of all time. Played in the first five Olympic women’s tournaments, taking four gold medals and one silver. Also played on the 2000 Canadian Olympic softball team. The number of registered female hockey players in Canada went from 16,000 in her first year on the national team to almost 87,000 now, boosted in part due to her efforts, such as the annual hockey festival Wickfest.

Venus and Serena Williams, U.S.: The iconic siblings have defined their sport, and have been role models for female athletes in all sports, for nearly 20 years. Each won Olympic singles gold, and they have teamed for three Olympic doubles titles.

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MORE: One year out: PyeongChang Olympic storylines

Special thanks to Olympic historian Bill Mallon of OlympStats.com for his contribution.