Advice, Guides & Inspiration

The World’s Greatest Women’s Athletes

Serena Williams

Serena Williams, For the Win

This International Women’s Day, we’re toasting to the trailblazers.

Little known fact: 7 of the 10 most popular Google searches related to “female athletes” currently include some (slightly ruder) variation of “attractive” or “wardrobe malfunction.” Well, all those late-night Googlers can carry on as they wish, but we at Let’s Do This tend to think about something a little different when it comes to the female athletes on our team.

We happen to think female athletes are pretty…. strong. And cool. And tough, and fun, and damn impressive. So for this International Women’s Day, we’re taking a moment to celebrate those top 10 Google searches and all the female athletes who continue to rise above them. This one’s for the trailblazers.


Top female athlete, Babe Didrickson
Babe Didrickson, Dallas News

1. Babe Didrickson

One of the original Greats, Babe Didrikson was famous for being good at pretty much everything. Track: Two Olympic Gold Medals, four world records, one team track championship won singlehandedly as the only member of the team (U.S. women’s track and field championships, 1932). Golf: 14 tournament wins in a row (still the longest streak ever recorded) and the first woman to play the LA Open. Basketball: All-American Status. And we’re not even getting started on her stint pitching in Baseball, where she still holds the record for the farthest throw by a woman.

Women in the 1930s were not meant to be sporty; Didrikson was attacked by the press for everything from being a man in disguise to a woman forced into sports by her inability to catch a man. But her famous confidence never faltered. She remains widely regarded as one of the best all-around athletes of all time.


First female Boston Marathon runner Kathrine Switzer
Kathrine Switzer, CHAARG

2. Kathrine Switzer

She wasn’t the fastest, but she was the first. In 1967, when women weren’t allowed to run more than 1,500 metres in sanctioned races, Kathrine Switzer enrolled as K.V. Switzer and became the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon.

The story and its photos remain famous; when race manager Jock Semple found out halfway through and tried to rip off her bib, her 250-pound boyfriend pushed him out of the way and she went on to finish at 4 hours and 20 minutes. After being consequently barred from racing events, she became an activist and saw the Boston Marathon open participation to women in 1972.  

Switzer has been to every Boston Marathon since (except for two), and she remains an icon for female runners and athletes all over the world. As she says herself,

“When I go to the Boston Marathon now, I have wet shoulders—women fall into my arms crying. They’re weeping for joy because running has changed their lives. They feel they can do anything.”

Paula Radcliffe, RadioTimes

3. Paula Radcliffe

As the fastest female marathoner of all time, Paula Radcliffe is walking proof of Kathrine Switzer’s great legacy. She claimed her world record of 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon, and has claimed no less than 8 marathon wins in total from across the world (one just 9 months after having her first child). 

She was a natural-born athlete, its true; at age 17 and little training, her VO2 Max of 70 was already higher than any known woman’s . But most who know her credit her successes to indomitable toughness. Her unbelievably high pain tolerance and resilience in the face of injury and illness are famous (remember the, uh, toilet incident of the 2005 London Marathon).

The London Marathon’s elite director still cites the “Paula Effect” that took hold after her world record. “You could hardly buy a pair of women’s running shoes because most shops had sold out…Paula made something that was slightly eccentric for women to do entirely normal.”

Top women's tennis player Serena Williams
Serena Williams, USA Today

4. Serena Williams

What to say about Serena Williams that hasn’t been said? Like Babe Didrikson and many predecessors, she’s well acquainted with the best and worst of the press. But amidst the noise of racket smash controversies, it’s worth reminding ourselves of her four Olympic Golds and unbelievable 39 Major Titles. Her 23 Grand Slam titles are an Open Era record – and by the way, one was claimed while pregnant, and another as the oldest women ever to win. She’s also made a point of proving that you can absolutely be a mother, wife and career woman at the same time. She even brought her husband along with her on her post-pregnancy training plan, running a Spartan Race with him and having a good laugh along the way. 

Her extraordinary athletic record aside, Williams will undoubtedly go down in history for her philanthropy and activism as a black woman in sports. Regardless of where you fall in them, the debates she continues to ignite over race and sex in tennis have made a lasting impact on broader society – as have her achievements as role model for African American athletes. 

Top female swimmer, Katie Ledecky
Katie Ledecky, Team USA

5. Katie Ledecky

We’re closing the list with someone who makes Firsts look easy, and is just getting started. At 21 years old, swimming champion Katie Ledecky holds 3 world records, and is without question the fastest female swimmer in the world. She boasts 5 Olympic golds and 14 Championship golds — the most in history for a female swimmer. And that first Olympic gold? Won when she was just 15. 

But here are some facts that may surprise you; swimming never came naturally to her. In fact, she only started swimming as a way to make friends – and she still counts those childhood memories as her favourite memory of all time in the water.

The self-professed secret to her success? Goal-setting. That’s it. Specifically, “setting scary goals…and then going out and chasing them.”


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