6 Badass Women Olympians You May Not Have Heard Of, But Definitely Should Know
Despite my pathological mediocrity at sports, the Olympics are one of those events that I am inexplicably, forever and always, very much amped about. Another thing I get amped about? Reading about badass women. So to bring the two together, here are six badass women Olympians you may not know about. But you should — because sports, when played at this magnitude, are never just about "sports." They embody the cultural atmosphere of a country, the concerns of a nation, and the hopes and goals of millions of people. I can't be the only one who gets emotional watching an athlete, someone who has dedicated their entire life to a sport, finally succeed — and this is especially true when it comes to women, who didn't compete fully in the Olympics until 2012. That's right: 2012. The Summer Olympic Games in London that year were the first time in history that every single competing nation had at least one woman on its team.
I mean, Olympians accomplish what we all want to, right? They know their purpose. They pursued what was at one point, inevitably, a wild, shot-in-the-dark dream. And they pulled through. They did the dang thing. They gave themselves permission to choose the highest possible goal for themselves, and they got there. Whenever we watch them, we're watching humans transcend what humans are supposed to be able to do with our weak human bodies. So here are six women who did that, and did it well, and stomped all over barriers to do so.
1. Surya Bonaly
When it comes to sports rebels, Suryra Bonaly is queen. The powerhouse skater from France's signature move was a backflip, which she notably performed at the Nagano Olympics in 1998. As black woman in a white-dominated sport, Bonaly faced challenges may figure skaters do not, with one notable one being, as former U.S. Olympic coach Frank Carroll put it in the documentary Rebel On Ice, that she "didn't look like the 'ice princess.'" But in an era where the "ice princess" was often favored (although ESPN notes that this preference may be fading now), she was a game changer and an inspiration for so many other aspiring skaters who also weren't "ice princesses." There's nothing wrong with being an ice princess — but there's nothing wrong with not being one, either, and Bonaly is proof positive.
2. Babe Didrickson Zaharias
So, um, it can be hard to create a succinct blurb for Babe Didrickson Zaharias because she was so good at so many sports — but I'm going to try. Born in Texas to Norwegian parents, Zaharias initially rose to stardom for her basketball and track and field skills. In the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, she came in first for javelin (that's gold medal number one), broke the world record for 80 meter hurdles (that's gold medal number two), and tied the world record for high jump (although fellow American Jean Shiley then proceeded to brake that world record, leaving Babe with a silver medal). She was groundbreaking not only in her skills, but in her popularity and her embodiment of a national sports hero. She became someone a nation rallied behind.
Following the 1932 Olympics, Zaharias decided to take up golf. She never made it to the Olympics for that particular sport, but she did become the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Open. Her application was subsequently rejected by the United States Golf Association because she wasn't a dude, which is obviously terrible, but qualifying for it in the first place is no small feat.
3. Brandi Chastain
You know that famous photo of the soccer player tearing her shirt off and screaming? That's ya gurl Brandi Chastain. Though she has won two gold Olympic medals and one silver one, her biggest moment came in 1999, in the World Cup final against China, when her final penalty kick won the game in overtime and became one of America's favorite moments in the history of soccer. Brandi and her teammates were the epitome of "girl power" for me growing up, excelling at what was still considered by many to be a man's sport. They were powerful, and joyfully so.
4. Florence "Flo-Jo" Griffith Joyner
I'm going to hope you're already familiar with Flo-Jo, but it has recently come to my attention that not everyone is, so in case you are one of those people, this is my attempt to remedy that fact (because trust me: It is so, so worth it). This track star, who broke the world record for the 100 and 200 meters at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, rose to fame not only because of her immense talent, but because of her refusal to sacrifice her self-representation. Like, Flo-Jo was stylin'. And won and won and won and won in response to people saying her hairstyles and her flamboyant nails, her makeup and her amazingly beautiful uniforms were an impediment, and that traditionally "girly" stylistic elements showed weakness and frivolity.
Born in the South Central Los Angeles Projects, Flo-Jo became known as the "World's Fastest Woman," and the image of her holding the United States flag at the Seoul Olympics has been used for years as an emblem of "The American Dream."
5. Claressa Shields
In 2012, Claressa Shields became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing. She was 17 years old. Now, at 21, with a 74-1 professional record (yeah, so, like, she's lost once ever in her professional career), she is preparing to head to Rio, hopefully to claim another gold. A native of Flint, Mich., Claressa is the star of a new documentary, T-Rex, and recently made an appearance on my absolute favorite podcast, Another Round. (Here is the link to that episode Listen to it. Fall in her with her. Cheer her on over the next few weeks).
6. Fanny Durack
Fanny Durack was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming; indeed, between 1910 and 1918, she was best female swimmer in the world at every distance, from sprints to the mile. In 1912, the first year that women were allowed to compete in swimming at the Olympics, Fanny and her equally talented pal, Mina Wylie (close competitors, best friends), were initially barred from going by the New South Wales swimming league. The league changed its mind, but Mina and Fanny were forced to fundraise in order to bear the expense of traveling to Stockholm with the required chaperones. Fanny set a world record for women in the 100-meter freestyle that year. The next time an Australian woman won a gold medal swimming was 1932 (it was Clare Dennis, for the curious).