Women Sports Pioneers Who Taught Us That Anyone Can Play Like a Champion
We've all heard of Billie Jean King.
But some of these other names may not be as familiar.
Let’s get to know 15 women who didn't just open doors in the world of sports. They knocked them down to change the nature of competition. Forever.
And many of them still are going strong.
Becky Hammon, Basketball
For the 2018-19 NBA season, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich added a new person on the front bench. The spot is reserved for Becky Hammon, who was promoted to head assistant coach in June.
Hammon is the first full-time assistant coach in NBA history, and when James Borrego left San Antonio to be head coach of the Charlotte Hornets, Popovich called on Hammon to fill his spot.
She first made history in 2015 when the Spurs gave her the reins as head coach of its summer league team. Hammon went on to lead San Antonio to the Las Vegas Summer League title that year.
Jen Welter, Football
In 2015, Dr. Jennifer Welter became the first woman to coach in the National Football League when the Arizona Cardinals put her on the payroll as a linebacker’s coach for training camp and preseason play.
After that pioneering achievement, she became head coach of the first Australian women’s national team in 2017.
In November 2018, she was inducted into the first class of the Women’s Football Hall of Fame.
A few weeks later, the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football added Welter to their coaching staff as a defensive specialist.
Pat Palinkas, Football
Years before Dr. Welter took the football field, a woman named Patricia Palinkas was a holder in a game for the Orlando Panthers in the Atlantic Coast Football League in 1970.
Palinkas is the first woman to ever play professional American football. She received $50 in compensation for the two games she played.
Diane Crump, Horse Racing
In February 1969, Diane Crump, a 20-year-old jockey, saddled up at Hialeah Park Race Track as the first woman to ride a parimutuel race in the United States. (Parimutuel is a system of betting.) She finished in 10th place out of 12 horses on a 48-1 shot, Bridle 'n Bit, in the seventh race.
This accomplishment sent her across the country, and to Puerto Rico and Venezuela, as a female jockey.
In 1970, with some 40 wins under her belt, Crump made history riding Fathom, a horse she trained with her husband, in the world-famous Kentucky Derby.
Julie Krone, Horse Racing
Diane Crump paved the way for Julie Krone, the first female jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.
Krone is the winningest female jockey, garnering over $90 million in winnings during her career, and was the first woman to ever take a Triple Crown race, riding Colonial Affair in the 1993 Belmont Stakes.
Janet Guthrie, Auto Racing
An aerospace engineer turned professional race car driver, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for and race in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 in 1977.
The following year, Guthrie finished ninth in the Indy 500.
Today, her helmet and driver’s suit are on display in the Smithsonian Institution.
Danica Patrick, Auto Racing
Several decades after Janet Guthrie broke into auto racing, Danica Patrick appeared on the scene. At just 16, Patrick left her family in Illinois (with their blessing) to road race throughout Europe.
In May 2005, she sent shockwaves throughout the sports world with a fourth-place finish in the Indy 500. This race made Patrick the first woman to lead laps (19) and finish top five at this premier level of competition.
Lisa Leslie, Basketball
The Los Angeles Sparks made Lisa Leslie, a 6-foot-5 center out of USC, the seventh overall pick in the inaugural 1997 WNBA draft.
Leslie led the Sparks to their first WNBA title in 2001, the same year she won league MVP, All-Star Game MVP and Finals MVP.
The first female to dunk in a WNBA game, Leslie also earned four Olympic gold medals during her impressive 22-year career.
Ronda Rousey, Wrestling and Martial Arts
Ronda Rousey became a household name at the 2008 Summer Olympics when she took home a bronze medal and became the first American woman to receive an Olympic medal in judo.
Rousey claimed another first in 2012 when the UFC signed her as the first woman fighter in the previously all-male promotion, paving the way for women to compete at the highest level of mixed martial arts. She went undefeated for nearly three years as the UFC women’s bantamweight champion and changed the perception of combat sports, becoming a role model for young men and women around the world.
A 6th degree black belt, Rousey joined the WWE as a full-time wrestler in January 2018, and now "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey, part of the Raw brand, is one of WWE's most popular performers.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track and Field
Sports Illustrated called Jackie Joyner-Kersee the "Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century," and she’s got the resume to prove it.
Hailed as one of the world’s paramount athletes in the long jump and heptathlon, Joyner-Kersee holds three Olympic gold medals, one silver and two bronze at four separate Olympic Games.
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, she became the first woman to win sequential heptathlon medals in back-to-back Olympics. Joyner-Kersee went on to defend her heptathlon title at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Pat Summitt, Basketball
The University of Tennessee’s legendary women’s head basketball coach, Pat Summit, led her Lady Vols to eight NCAA basketball championships before she retired in 2012.
At the time of her retirement, she held the record for the most wins (1,098) as a college basketball coach across both male and female programs.
Over the course of her 38-year tenure as the Lady Vols' fearless leader, Summit did not have a single losing season and led her players to 38 consecutive seasons of postseason play.
She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and every single one of her players graduated with a degree.
Jessica Mendoza, Baseball
Jessica Mendoza was a legend on the softball field. A four-time First Team All-American outfielder at Stanford University and a member of the U.S. women's national team from 2004 to 2010, Jessica Mendoza now can be found in the broadcast booth for ESPN’s "Sunday Night Baseball."
In 2015, Mendoza became the first female broadcaster to sit in the booth for the College World Series, when she appeared with Kyle Peterson and Karl Ravech. This performance solidified her place on ESPN’s baseball coverage, and later that same year in October, Mendoza became the first female analyst for a nationally televised Major League Baseball postseason game when she called a Houston Astros-New York Yankees American League wild-card game.
Her role as the first female MLB television game analyst continues to grow bigger.
Lesley Visser, Sports Broadcasting
A broadcasting icon and visionary, Lesley Visser covered just about every sporting event on television and showed that women can be more than sideline reporters.
She was the first female NFL analyst and was voted the No. 1 female sportscaster of all time.
Visser also is the only sports broadcaster (male or female) to cover all of the following prestigious sporting events: the NCAA Final Four, NBA Finals, Monday Night Football, the Super Bowl, World Series, Triple Crown, U.S. Open and the World Figure Skating Championships.
Gayle Sierens, Sports Broadcasting
The first female sportscaster in the San Francisco Bay area, Gayle Sierens also was the first woman hired to be the main play-by-play announcer for an NFL regular-season game.
NBC Sports selected Sierens to call the Seahawks-Chiefs matchup on Dec. 27, 1987.
Sierens spent 38 years at WFLA-TV in Tampa, Fla., and won an Emmy Award for her news and sports reporting.
Michelle Wie, Golf
Michelle Wie began putting around the green at age 4.
She went pro at 15 after becoming the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event and the youngest golfer (among males and females) to place first in a USGA adult tournament.
In 2006, Wie became the first female to medal in a qualifying contest for the Men’s U.S. Open.
She continues to compete against both genders.