These trailblazing athletes raised the bar for women's sports – CNN

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark reacts after breaking the women’s record for NCAA Division I scoring in February. (Matthew Putney/AP)
By Bernadette Tuazon, Kyle Almond and Emmalee Reed, CNN
Published March 30, 2024

Iowa’s Caitlin Clark reacts after breaking the women’s record for NCAA Division I scoring in February. (Matthew Putney/AP)
Just when you think Caitlin Clark mania can’t get crazier, the college basketball phenom sets yet another record.
The latest came Monday when she set an NCAA Division I women’s record for most points scored in a single season (1,113). Already this year, the University of Iowa guard passed “Pistol” Pete Maravich to become the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division I basketball — male or female.
Clark’s dazzling displays are helping to fuel a boom of interest in the women’s game. TV ratings are reaching new heights. Attendance records are being shattered.
“I think Caitlin is having a lot of us look at this sport that is such an American institution in a different way,” CNN sports analyst Christine Brennan said.
Clark’s meteoric rise is just another example of how women’s sports have exploded in popularity in recent years. Media coverage of women’s sports has nearly tripled in five years. More people are tuning in than ever before to watch women play in events such as the NCAA Tournament and the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Elite women’s sports will generate revenue of $1.28 billion in 2024, according to financial analysts Deloitte — that’s up 300% from three years ago.
It’s not a surprise to basketball legend Sue Bird, a five-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the greatest to play the game.
“We’ve always been playing, the product has always gotten better, so what has changed is society has caught up,” Bird said recently on an MSG+ “Women of the W” panel.
Women athletes are finally getting more of the due they deserve. And it wouldn’t be possible without many of the athletes on this list — trailblazers who have inspired generations by setting records, breaking barriers or doing something that no woman has ever done before.
What couldn’t Zaharias do? The daughter of Norwegian immigrants, she moved to Texas at the age of 4 and quickly excelled at whatever sport she turned to. In track and field, she won three Olympic medals — two golds and a silver — in 1932. To this day, she is still the only track-and-field athlete, male or female, to win individual Olympic medals in running, throwing and jumping events. She later became a professional golfer, co-founding the LPGA and winning 10 major tournaments. Oh, and she was an all-American basketball player who could also play baseball — she pitched in three Major League spring training games in 1934. The Associated Press named her the greatest female athlete of the first half of the 20th century. “She is beyond all belief until you see her perform,” sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote. “Then you finally understand that you are looking at the most flawless section of muscle harmony, of complete mental and physical coordination, the world of sport has ever seen.”
Williams dominated women’s tennis for much of her career, winning 23 grand slam singles titles — the most in the Open era and one behind the all-time record held by Margaret Court. Williams also won four Olympic gold medals. She and her older sister, Venus, transformed the sport when they became professionals as teenage phenoms. “I think that (Serena’s) legacy is really wide to the point where you can’t even describe it in words,” said four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka. “She changed the sport so much. She’s introduced people that have never heard of tennis into the sport. I think I’m a product of what she’s done. I wouldn’t be here without Serena, Venus, her whole family.”
Guthrie, a former aerospace engineer, is the first woman to compete in two of the most famous races in the world: the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, both in 1977. A year later, she raced the Indianapolis 500 again and finished ninth despite having a fractured wrist. She secretly wore a cast and drove all 500 miles essentially one-handed. Guthrie wasn’t immediately accepted by all her peers in the male-dominated sport. “There was a lot of hostility at first,” she told Motorsport Magazine. “However, I figured that once they gained the experience of driving against me, attitudes would change, and indeed attitudes did change and that was very gratifying.” Guthrie raced 33 times on NASCAR’s top circuit, finishing in the top 10 five times. She was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this year.
No one has scored more goals at the Women’s World Cup than Marta, a Brazilian icon who many consider to be the best female footballer in history. She scored 17 times at five different World Cups, and she was named FIFA Player of the Year six times — no other woman has won that award more than three times. She is also Brazil’s all-time greatest goalscorer (117). “My generation, we did not have female players to look up to,” said Sissi, a former teammate on the national team. “So now to have players like her, especially with what she achieved and who she became, it’s very important. You already saw how much the game changed in Brazil. Now, people can say: ‘I want to be like Marta.’ “
King retired in 1990 with 39 grand slam titles, including 12 in singles play. But perhaps her greatest legacy is her work promoting the women’s game and gender equality. Fifty-one years ago, she defeated Bobby Riggs in a historic “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. It was the most watched tennis match of all time, with an estimated 90 million people tuning in worldwide, and it became an important moment in the women’s rights movement. Riggs, a cocky 55-year-old once ranked No. 1 in the world, claimed he could still beat the top female players in the game even though he was much older. He defeated Margaret Court and then challenged King, who had just established the women’s tour and threatened to boycott the US Open if male and female champions did not receive the same prize money. “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King said. But she ran Riggs ragged at the Houston Astrodome, winning in straight sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Many consider Biles to be the greatest the gymnast of all time. The American is the most decorated gymnast — male or female — in the history of the sport, winning 34 medals across the Olympics and the World Championships. She has also astounded us with never-before-seen moves; there are now five signature skills named after her. Biles also has become an advocate for athletes’ mental health as well as children in the foster care system and victims of sexual assault. In 2022 she became the youngest person ever to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “A trailblazer and a role model, when she stands on the podium, we see what she is: absolute courage to turn personal pain into a greater purpose, to stand and speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” President Joe Biden said.
Many consider Joyner-Kersee to be the greatest all-around female athlete in history. She won Olympic gold in the hepathlon and the long jump in 1988 and then followed that up with another hepathlon gold in 1992. She also won a silver and two bronzes over her career, and she did it all while managing severe asthma. “Sports allow you to learn so much about yourself,” she said in 2021. “About hard work, character, integrity, and the discipline it takes to not be the best, but the best version of yourself.”
Stone was the first woman to play in an all-male baseball league when she played for the Indianapolis Clowns, a team in the Negro American League, in 1953. She played second base, and her roster spot once famously belonged to Hank Aaron, who left the Clowns to sign with Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Braves. She hit .243 in 50 games with the Clowns. “She was a natural athlete in anything that was handed to her,” Martha Ackmann, who wrote a book about Stone, told ESPN. “She played football. She was a champion in ice skating. What I especially loved was that she was the most feared kid in her neighborhood when it came to playing red rover. One of her Negro League teammates said, ‘I have seen a lot of great woman athletes. Babe Didrikson was a good player. But Toni Stone was a real good player.’ “
Last year Shiffrin became skiing’s all-time winningest athlete, passing Ingemar Stenmark for most World Cup wins in history (87). She has since increased that number to 97, and she has also won two gold medals at the Olympics and seven at the World Championships. “(Mikaela) is the best skier that has ever lived in my eyes," said Lindsey Vonn, Shiffrin’s American compatriot who once owned the most World Cup wins for a woman.
Lieberman became the first woman to play in a men’s professional basketball league when she joined the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League in 1986. The point guard also was a star in the Women’s Professional Basketball League and the Women’s American Basketball Association in the early 1980s. When the WNBA was formed in 1997, Lieberman was the league’s oldest player at 39. She was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, and she would later become a coach and TV analyst. In addition to coaching the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, Lieberman became the first woman to coach a professional men’s team when she was hired by the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks’ developmental team, in 2009. “I don't want to be a woman who is coaching men; I want to be a coach who is coaching,” she said. She later became an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
No gymnast had ever achieved a perfect 10 at the Olympics until Comăneci in 1976. The 14-year-old Romanian actually received seven perfect scores over the course of the games, but the first came in the uneven bars final. “First of all, it was not 10. It was a 1.00 because the computers couldn’t cope!” Comăneci told CNN in 2012. “They were not prepared for the 10, so they didn’t make enough space after the decimal to be able to accommodate the 10.” Comăneci would go on to win gold in that event, as well as in the balance beam and the individual all-around. She also won silver in the team all-around and bronze on the floor exercise that year. She added two more golds in 1980.
Ledecky was one of the biggest stars of the 2016 Summer Olympics, winning four gold medals and setting two world records — one in the 400-meter freestyle and one in the 800-meter freestyle. The American was the first swimmer since 1968 to win the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles at the same Olympics. At the Tokyo Games in 2021, she added another two more gold medals to her haul. Last year, she surpassed Michael Phelps for the most individual world swimming titles (16). “I think without a doubt she’s the greatest female swimmer in history,” said NBC Olympics commentator Rowdy Gaines, who won three Olympic gold medals himself. “Nobody’s even in her ballpark.”
Rhéaume, a goaltender, played exhibition games with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992, making her the first woman to play in any of North America’s four major pro sports leagues. She also won a silver medal with Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics to go with the two golds she won at the World Championships in 1992 and 1994. “When parents come up to me and said, you know you’re such an inspiration for my daughter, or my son did a project on you in school, or even an NHL goalie that says to me, you know, when I saw you going to training camp, I told myself if she can do it, I can do it myself, too,” Rhéaume said. “It really felt amazing to realize that my story impacted people in a positive way.”
Rapinoe, an Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup winner, scored 63 goals over 203 matches for the United States. In 2019, she was considered the best player in the world by FIFA, and she was also awarded the Ballon d’Or Feminin. Off the field, Rapinoe is known for her work on social issues, including gender and pay equity, LGBTQ+ rights and racial inequality. Teammate Kelley O’Hara called her “one of a kind,” saying: “There’s never been one like her. There probably is never going to be one close to her.”
Graf won 22 grand slam singles titles over her career — the most in the Open Era before Serena Williams passed her in 2017. The German superstar, nicknamed “Fraulein Forehand” for her powerful forehand shot, was the No. 1 player in the world from August 1987 to March 1991. That record, 186 consecutive weeks, still stands today. In 1988, Graf became the first tennis player — and to date, the only player — to win the Golden Slam: winning the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, the US Open and an Olympic gold medal all in the same calendar year. “Steffi Graf is the best all-around player,” Chris Evert, another all-time great, once said. “Martina (Navratilova) won more on fast courts and I won more on slow courts, but Steffi came along and won more titles on both surfaces.”
At the 1988 Summer Olympics, “Flo-Jo” won both the 100 and 200 meters — and to this day she still holds the world record in both events. The American retired after the Olympics to start a family, she said. Ten years later, she died during an epileptic seizure. She was just 38 years old. Her records, and her legacy, live on. “Every time you see a woman in the 100 or 200 meters with makeup and nails, that’s Florence,” her husband, Al Joyner, told CNN. “She did it with style and she did it with speed. She was in a class by herself especially for all the women she opened the door for. Her star will always shine.”
Krone won more than 3,700 races during her career as a jockey, and in 1993 she became the first woman to win a Triple Crown race when she won the Belmont with Colonial Affair. A decade later she was the first woman to win a Breeders’ Cup race. When she was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 2000, she encouraged kids to chase their dreams: "If the stable gate is closed, climb the fence."
Leslie, one of the greatest players in WNBA history, won two league championships with the Los Angeles Sparks and four Olympic gold medals with Team USA. The three-time league MVP also became the first to ever dunk in a WNBA game, doing so against the Miami Sol in 2002. “For young girls who now are in the league growing up able to see that and then to see the replays of that and to be inspired by that, I think that it’s one of those barrier-breaking moments,” former Miami player Ruth Riley told The Athletic. When Leslie retired in 2009, she was the WNBA’s all-time leader in points and rebounds. She was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Coachman was the first Black woman to win Olympic gold when she won the high jump in 1948. It came one day after Audrey Patterson became the first Black woman to win an Olympic medal (bronze in the 200 meters). Coachman was also the only American woman to win a gold medal that year. When she got back to the United States, she was received by President Harry S. Truman at the White House, and her hometown of Albany, Georgia, held a special day in her honor — even though the city was still segregated. “If I had gone to the Games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps,” she told The New York Times in 1996. “It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder.”
No woman has more wins on the LPGA Tour than Sörenstam (72), and it’s not even close. Ten of those wins came in major tournaments. In 2003, Sörenstam completed the career grand slam and also played with the men at the Colonial, a PGA Tour event. It was the first time in nearly six decades that a woman had competed on the men’s tour, with the last being Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Sörenstam missed the cut by four strokes, but her performance still inspired many. “It was just really cool for women’s empowerment and saying, ’Gender is not the thing that divides these players,’ ” LPGA star Lydia Ko told the Golf Channel last year. “It’s so unique, and that moment is just one of the amazing moments that Annika had.”
Rousey enjoyed a distinguished career as a judoka, winning an Olympic bronze medal, before moving to mixed martial arts in 2011. She is credited by UFC boss Dana White as being one of the main reasons behind the growth of MMA. She was the promotion’s first women’s bantamweight champion, and she successfully defended her title six times. Her fights headlined UFC pay-per-views as fans tuned in to see the “baddest woman on the planet.” In 2018, she was the first woman inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. “When I famously said women would never fight in the UFC, I had never met Ronda Rousey,” White said during her induction. “I had never met the woman who would change everything. She started by changing my mind, and she ended up changing the world."
Switzer made history in 1967 when she became the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon. Another woman, Roberta Bingay Gibb, completed the Boston Marathon in 1966 without a bib, but the next year Switzer signed up with her initials, K.V., and secured an official spot in the race. A couple of miles into the marathon, race official Jock Semple tried to rip off her number, claiming it was a men’s only race. The encounter was captured in an iconic photo that turned Switzer into a hero and launched her career as an advocate for women in sports. She went on to finish the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes. “I was determined to finish no matter what,” she recalled. She was later disqualified, but by 1972 the Boston Marathon had established an official women’s race.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Hamm was the face of American soccer and an idol for many young fans. She scored 158 goals for the United States, winning two Women’s World Cups and two Olympic gold medals. In 1999, Hamm set the world record for career goals in international soccer competition (she’s now third). She was the first woman to be inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame. “When Mia Hamm is your superstar and she is the most selfless, humble and grounded person that never wants to take credit for anything, it’s easy to have an awesome group of women come together,” said Julie Foudy, who played with Hamm on the US team.
Their partnership on the sand is the stuff of Olympic legend. On their way to winning gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings never lost a match. They lost only one of 43 sets in Olympic play. The duo took an extended break in 2009-2010, with Walsh Jennings giving birth twice and May-Treanor recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. It was questioned whether the two would ever play again. They silenced the doubters with gold medal No. 3 before May-Treanor retired. “I wanted to do this for her and finish in this way for both of us,” May-Treanor said. “We’ve lived so much life together.”
Rudolph contracted polio as a child and her doctor once told her she would never walk again. She went on to become one of the world’s greatest sprinters. At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics, taking first place in the 100 meters, the 200 meters and the 4×100-meter relay. "She was the Jesse Owens of women's track and field, and like Jesse, she changed the sport for all time," Olympic historian Bud Greenspan said. "She became the benchmark for little Black girls to aspire."
Navratilova won 59 grand slam singles and doubles titles over the course of her illustrious career, and she still holds the WTA Tour’s all-time record for tournament wins (167). After retiring from singles in 1994, she continued playing doubles — and winning titles — into her 40s. She was also one of the first openly gay professional athletes. “Martina was the first legitimate superstar who literally came out while she was a superstar.” Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, told ESPN years ago. “She exploded the barrier by putting it on the table. She basically said this part of my life doesn’t have anything to do with me as a tennis player. Judge me for who I am.”
Patrick became the first woman in history to win an IndyCar race when she won the Indy Japan 500 in 2008. She finished a career-high fifth in the 2009 IndyCar standings, and she would later move on to stock cars and race on NASCAR’s top circuit. In 2013, Patrick became the first woman to win pole position for a NASCAR Cup Series race when she qualified first for the Daytona 500. She is one of only 14 drivers to have led the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, and no woman has finished better in both. “I actually never thought about being a girl in racing until I was about 14,” Patrick said. “That’s when TV shows were wanting to do programs on me, and of course the question came up. My Mom, my Dad never let me use that as some sort of benchmark, like ‘You’re the best girl out there.’ It was really about being the best driver.”
Before Serena and Venus Williams, there was Gibson. Tennis was a segregated sport for many years before Gibson became the first African American to compete in the US National Championships — the precursor to the US Open — in 1950. In 1956 she became the first Black player to win a grand slam tournament when she won the French Open. A year later she became the first Black champion in Wimbledon’s 80-year history. When she retired, Gibson had won 11 grand slam titles and was the world’s top-ranked player. “Althea Gibson paved the way for us,” Venus Williams said after her U.S. Open debut in 1997. “So it's important that we recognize this, that I recognize it, and for me to know my history.”
In 2013, at the age of 64, Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage. It took her nearly 53 hours to accomplish the feat, in what was her fifth try in 35 years and her fourth since turning 60. Dozens of onlookers — some in kayaks and boats, many others wading in the water or standing on shore — gathered to cheer Nyad on as she finished the more than 100-mile swim. “I got three messages,” an exhausted and happy Nyad told reporters afterward. “One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.” In the 1970s, Nyad won multiple swimming marathons and was one of the first women to swim around the island of Manhattan. She holds the world’s record for longest ocean swim — 102.5 miles from Bimini in the Bahamas to Jupiter, Florida.