There's something truly awe-inspiring about watching the Olympic Games. Featuring fierce patriotism, intense competition, and super-high stakes, the Olympic Games are one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. Of course, all of the participating athletes are inspiring on some level. But there's something especially impressive about the top female Olympians throughout history — not only have they fought hard to be world-class athletes, but they've broken a ton of social boundaries along the way. As spectators, we're lucky to witness world-class athletes push themselves to the limit in the hopes of getting the gold.
Ever since the first women competed in 1900, female athletes have been a huge part of the Games. This year, however, women are playing a bigger part than ever before: there are actually more American women than men competing in Rio, and Team USA represents the most female athletes ever in the history of the Olympics.
So to get ready for this year's games — and all the incredible women who will surely make history there — we thought we'd first take a look back to Games past. We've put together a list of eight impressive female athletes, all of whom have made Olympic history. Read on, and get ready to be inspired.
At 23 years old, Margaret Abbott made history by becoming the first American woman to become an Olympic champion – and she never even knew it.
Abbott was studying art in Paris, the host of the 1900 Games. Unlike today, the competition was spread out over several months. So when she entered (and won) a golf competition, she wasn’t even aware it was an Olympic event — she thought she won a regular tournament. Adding to the confusion, champions weren’t given Olympic medals as prizes at the time; rather, she won a bowl for her winning performance.
Margaret Abbott died in 1955, never knowing her place in Olympic history. It wasn’t until 1990, when a college professor reached out to her family, that her children found out about their mother’s accomplishments.
Madge Cave Syers
Madge Cave Syers, an English figure skater, was the first woman to compete in an Olympic figure skating event in 1902, when she discovered that the competition did not specify the gender of its participants. Competing against all men, she took silver in that competition, inspiring officials to create a separate women’s event for the 1908 competition.
Syers took home the gold in 1908, along with the bronze medal in the pairs competition, which she entered with her husband (and coach), Edgar.
Despite the health challenges Wilma Rudolph experienced early in life – a premature birth, leg braces until the age of nine – Rudolph never gave up on her athletic ambitions. She was a star athlete in high school, eventually dedicating herself to track and field, where she excelled.
Rudolph competed in two Olympic games, in 1956 and 1960, eventually becoming the first black woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. She was considered the fastest woman in the world in the '60s. But she was more than a great athlete; she was an inspiration off the track, too.
When she returned from the 1956 Games, Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington, a segregationist, planned to lead her welcome home celebration. Rudolph refused to attend, saying she would not participate in a segregated event. And just like her Olympic competition, Wilma persevered: her parade and banquet were the first integrated events in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.
Credited for launching figure skating’s “modern era,” Peggy Fleming was one of the most talented – and popular – female athletes of her time. After a devastating plane crash in 1961, in which the entire U.S. figure skating team (including Fleming's coach) died, she went on to compete in the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France. Wearing a handmade costume from her mother, she won the only gold medal that the U.S. earned that year.
Mary Lou Retton
In 1984, Mary Lou Retton become the first American – male or female – to win a gold medal in gymnastics.
Only 16 at the time, she entered the final competition in the lead, but only by a fraction. The next closest competitor, from Romania, was only behind by .15 of a point. The two competed against each other through several rotations. For Retton’s final rotation, she needed to score higher than a 9.95 to win the gold.
And she did it – Mary Lou received a perfect score to win the gold and make Olympic history.
Natalie Du Toit
A South African native and promising swimmer, Natalie’s professional swimming career was put in jeopardy in 2001 when she was involved in a car accident that resulted in the amputation of her left leg. Not one to be deterred, Natalie got back into the pool less than three months after her accident, before she could even walk again.
Du Toit went on to compete in – and win – several Paralympic Games over the next few years. And in 2008, she represented South Africa during the Summer Olympics in Beijing, becoming the first female Paralympian ever to compete.
The most decorated figure skater in history, Michelle Kwan is probably responsible for all of those dreams of ice-skating you had growing up — and for good reason!
Learning how to skate when she was only five years old, Michelle went on to win five world championships and two Olympic medals. Kwan is considered one of the most popular figure skaters of our time, even serving as a TV correspondent for the 2010 Olympic Games. After her time on the ice, Michelle went back to school for her degree and went on to serve as a public advocacy envoy for the U.S. State Department. She currently works at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. So basically, this woman is awesome at whatever she sets her mind to.
After a long and successful swimming career, Dara Torres shocked the world by coming out of retirement to compete in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At 41, she become the oldest Olympic swimmer in history, as well as the first American to compete in five separate games (despite skipping the games in 1996 and 2004.) How did she do? She won, of course – in 2008, Dara won three silver medals, bringing her official count to 12. Wow.
Images: Wikimedia Commons (2)