Sports History: The Greatest Female Athletes of All Time
Women are amazing athletes, and the ones we remember most are those who were either pioneers in their respective sports, or simply achieved amazing feats – sometimes both!
To honor their achievements, this article will tell you a little bit about the greatest female athletes of all time: The 15 women on this list made a huge impact on their disciplines and inspired others to do the same. Read on to learn some groundbreaking athletic history!
1. Jackie Joyner-Kersee
One of the greatest American athletes of all time, Joyner-Kersee won six Olympic medals and was on the US track and field team for four Olympic cycles.
She won three gold medals at the Olympics: Two at the 1988 Games in Seoul, for the heptathlon and long jump (also setting a still-standing world record for women), and she won another gold four years later at the 1992 Games in Barcelona in the heptathlon.
Also, in 1988, she became the first woman to score more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon and set another world record that she still holds.
Joyner-Kersee was voted the best female athlete of all time by Sports Illustrated magazine, and since 2013 the award for the best female track and field US athlete has held her name.
She retired from competition in 2001, but remains active as a philanthropist, motivational speaker, and board director of the USA Track & Field governing body.
2. Katie Ledecky
Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky is one of the most dominant athletes on the planet right now. She has won over 40 medals in major international competitions, including seven Olympic gold medals, and broken numerous world records in swimming.
In 2012, at just 15 years old, Katie Ledecky stepped onto the global stage and won a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle at the London Olympics. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, Ledecky made history by becoming the first woman to win four gold medals in freestyle events, and set two world records.
And she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon: At just 25 years old and at least another decade of competitions in her future, Katie Ledecky is already cementing her legacy as one of the greatest female athletes in the world.
3. Serena Williams
There’s probably no need to emphasize that Serena Williams is one of the most iconic athletes in the world. A true powerhouse, she has dominated the tennis world for over two decades, winning an astounding 23 Grand Slam singles titles.
Williams has won four Olympic gold medals and was ranked number one in both singles and doubles competitions. She is one of the few women in the world who rank amongst the currently highest-paid athletes in the world.
In addition to her incredible skill on the court, Serena is also known for her powerful persona. She has used her platform to speak out about everything from racial inequality to body positivity and is a true inspiration to millions of people – especially women – around the globe.
4. Diana Taurasi
Taurasi was born and raised in Chino, California, and began playing basketball at an early age. After an impressive college career, she was drafted first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2004 WNBA Draft. She has been with the same team ever since, and it cultivated her growth into one of the top female athletes of all time.
A five-time Olympic gold medalist, she is also a three-time WNBA champion. In 2021, she was the first player to pass the 9,000 points mark in the league. The same year, she was voted the greatest league player of all time.
Outside the WNBA, Taurasi has also enjoyed success with various international teams. She is a three-time FIBA World Championship gold medalist and has won six EuroLeague championships.
In short, Diana Taurasi is one of the most accomplished basketball players of all time, regardless of gender, and her accomplishments continue to inspire future generations of athletes.
5. Billy Jean King
Billy Jean King is a former professional tennis player who is widely regarded as one of the best female athletes of all time. She won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, including six at Wimbledon, and was the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a single year.
She was the first woman to be voted Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the year in 1972.
That same year, she became a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association and its first president. The WTA revolutionized the sport by advocating for equal prize money and opportunities for female players, with King and the organization famously pressuring the US Open into paying the men’s and women’s champions equally from 1973 onward.
In addition to her accomplishments on the court, King is also an outspoken advocate for gender equality and social justice in other fields of life.
In 1987, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990, and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Today, King remains an active voice in promoting gender equality in sports. She is an inspirational figure for athletes all over the world.
6. Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Babe Didrikson Zaharias is one of the great female athletes who succeeded in multiple sports in her time, winning medals in everything from track and field to golf.
Born in 1911 in Texas, Didrikson began her athletic career as a teenager, competing in local track meets. She soon caught the attention of the national sports media, and by the 1930s, she was one of the most famous athletes in the country.
She played baseball, basketball, and golf, but first distinguished herself in 1932, when she won gold medals in the javelin throw and the 80-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and also a silver medal in the high jump.
Later, she switched from track and field to golf, where she became one of the most accomplished players of all time, setting several records and winning 10 LPGA major championships. Her unfortunate death came in the midst of her professional golf career, right after she had won two tournaments.
Didrikson was recognized by Sports Illustrated as the second-greatest female athlete of all time, as well.
7. Larissa Latynina
Larissa Latynina is a retired Soviet gymnast and one of the greatest female athletes of all time. She had her first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1956 when she was 21 years old.
She is the most decorated Olympic gymnast of all time, in any gender, with 18 medals, nine of which were gold.
Her record for most Olympic medals was held for nearly five decades until it was surpassed by another great athlete, American swimmer Michael Phelps in 2012. She is tied for second place on the list of all-time gold medal winners at the Olympics.
Latynina retired from gymnastics in 1966 and later became a coach. She was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1998.
8. Sonja Henie
Sonja Henie was a Norwegian figure skater and three-time Olympic gold medalist. She is also credited with helping to popularize the sport of figure skating, both in her native Norway and around the world.
In 1924, at the age of eleven, she became the youngest skater ever to compete at the Olympic games. Henie would go on to dominate the sport for the next decade, winning 10 consecutive World titles and six European Championships, becoming one of the most famous athletes in women’s sports.
At the 1928 Winter Olympics in St Moritz, Switzerland, Henie won her first Olympic gold medal, an achievement she would repeat at the 1932 and 1936 Games.
In addition to her success as a competitive skater, Henie was also a successful film actress, appearing in a string of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, she is widely considered one of the greatest figure skaters of all time.
9. Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph made history at the 1960 Summer Olympics by claiming three track and field gold medals for the United States and soon claimed her spot as one of the greatest female sprinters in history. Rudolph was a sprinter who won medals in 100 m and 200 m as well as in the 4 x 100 m relay competition.
At that time, she was widely regarded as the world’s quickest woman, and her abilities as an athlete brought her attention beyond the lights of the stadium. She rose to prominence as one of the best-known Black women and a role model for athletes of all backgrounds. If you enjoy sports-themed movies, several TV films and documentaries have chronicled her accomplishments.
10. Annika Sörenstam
Anika Sörenstam is a retired Swedish professional golfer who is widely regarded as the greatest woman athlete in the history of golf, along with Babe Zacharias. She won 72 official LPGA tournaments, including 10 major championships, and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2013.
Sörenstam dominated the sport in the early 2000s, setting numerous records and becoming the first woman to shoot a 59 in a competition. In 2003, she became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event in 58 years.
Her historic appearance helped to break down gender barriers in golf, a traditionally male sport, and paved the way for future female golfers. Today, Sörenstam is retired from competition but remains an active philanthropist and businesswoman.
She is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and continues to inspire young female athletes all over the world.
11. Fanny Blankers-Koen
Fanny Blankers-Koen was an incredible Dutch athlete who set multiple world records and won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. She was nicknamed “The Flying Housewife” due to the fact that she achieved her greatest successes as a mother of two and after her thirtieth birthday. She rose to prominence during a time when women’s sports were largely overlooked.
She continued to compete at the highest levels of the sport until her retirement in 1955, when she was elected captain for the Netherlands’ women’s national team in track and field. Although she passed away in 2004, her legacy as one of the best female athletes has forever debunked the myth that women can’t compete and win in sports after motherhood and their twenties.
In 1999, she was voted “Female Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations.
12. Clara Hughes
Clara Hughes is a Canadian Olympian who has won multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. A versatile athlete, she has competed in track cycling, speed skating, and road bicycle racing.
Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Hughes began her athletic career as a speed skater. She quickly made a name for herself on the international circuit, but switched to road cycling soon after and won her first Olympic medal in 1996.
Later, she returned to speed skating, at the age of 28. In the 2002 Winter Olympics, she won the bronze medal for speed skating and made history by becoming the first woman to win medals in both the Winter and Summer Games. Hughes is also unique in that she is the only person to have won multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
Since then, she has gone on to win multiple World Championships and Olympic Medals, including the gold for speed skating in Turin in 2006, cementing her place as one of the greatest woman athletes in the history of Canada and the world.
In 2010, Hughes was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, cementing her legacy as one of the nation’s greatest athletes.
13. Mia Hamm
Mia Hamm is one of the most iconic soccer players of her generation. Winning two Olympic gold medals with the US national team and two FIFA World Cups, she helped transform the sport of women’s soccer and inspired a new generation of athletes.
Born in 1972, Hamm began playing soccer at the age of five. She quickly showed her natural talent, and by age 15, she was already playing for the United States national team.
She would go on to have an illustrious career, scoring a record 158 international goals for her country and being a part of the US team that won the 1991 World Cup, defeating Norway in a thrilling final.
She retired from international soccer in 2004, but her legacy as one of the top female athletes is secured.
14. Lindsay Vonn
Lindsay Vonn is one of the most successful ski racers in history. She has won four World Cup championships (three of which were consecutive), three Olympic medals, and eight World Championship medals.
Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1984, Vonn began skiing at the age of two and quickly showed a natural talent for the sport. She debuted on the world stage in 2000, and won her first medal in the Junior World Championship in 2003.
From 2008 to 2010, she won the overall World Cup every year and a downhill gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Then, after a loss in 2011, Vonn won another overall World Cup title in 2012.
In February 2018, Lindsay Vonn made history when she won her 82nd World Cup race, surpassing Annemarie Moser-Pröll’s record for most career World Cup victories.
Vonn is widely considered one of the greatest skiers of all time, and her achievements are all the more impressive given her many injuries and setbacks.
15. Lottie Dod
Lottie Dod was one the most famous woman athletes of her generation. A multi-talented sports star, she excelled at tennis, golf, archery, and field hockey, winning multiple championships in those disciplines.
A world-class tennis player, she won five Wimbledon singles titles and seven Grand Slam doubles titles. She also competed in the women’s singles event at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
Dod was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1983, and remains an inspiration to athletes worldwide.
16. Michelle Akers
During the 90s, Michelle Akers was one of the most famous female athletes and is widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, having been included on the FIFA 100 list. A dominant force in the midfield, she was a vital member of the United States women’s national soccer team that won the World Cup in 1991 and 1999.
Akers was also a member of the 1996 Olympic gold medal-winning team.
She has been inducted into both the National Soccer Hall of Fame and the World Football Hall of Fame, and was named FIFA Female Player of the Century, an honor she shares with Chinese soccer player Sun Wen.
Akers is also a member of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame, and she was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Greatest Athletes of the 20th century.
As we come to the end of this list of the most famous female athletes in history, it is essential to remember that these athletes are only a handful of the many talented and determined women who have dedicated their lives to sport.
There are countless other inspiring female athletes out there. We hope you have enjoyed reading about these remarkable women as much as we enjoyed writing about them.
Who is considered the first great women's athlete?
The first great women athlete was Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias. She was born in 1911 in Port Arthur, Texas. She learned to play basketball, baseball, and track and field while attending Beaumont High School.
She went on to compete in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where she won two gold medals and a silver medal. After the Olympics, she turned professional and began competing in golf. Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the greatest female athlete of her time, and continues to inspire female athletes today.
Who is the most famous female runner?
When it comes to running, few athletes can match the achievements of Joan Benoit Samuelson. A native of Maine, Joan began running at a young age and quickly developed into a world-class athlete. In 1979, she won the Boston Marathon with a time of 2:22, setting a new world record.
Who is the GOAT of female sports?
When it comes greatest female athletes of all time, there are many contenders on the list for the top spot. From Serena Williams to Babe Didrikson Zaharias, there are a wealth of athletes who have achieved greatness in their respective sports. However, one name that stands out above the rest is Jackie Joyner-Kersee. A three-time Olympic gold medalist, Joyner-Kersee was a dominant force in both the long jump and the heptathlon.