Greatest female athletes of all time
Despite the fact that Title IX ensures female athletes receive the same opportunities as their male counterparts, there are still major discrepancies in pay, facilities and exposure. What's more, female athletes often come of age discouraged by the prevalence of sexist phrases like "play like a girl," and the awareness that most people in the sports world somehow expect less of them. So, when female athletes arise who not only challenge, but shatter stereotypes of what women can do, they captivate the entire world. This is a list of those extraordinary women.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is often referred to as the First Lady of American athletics. She competed in four Olympic Games for the United States from 1984 to 1996, earning medals in both the women's heptathlon and the women's long jump. When all was said and done, Joyner-Kersee earned an astounding three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals.
Here, she jumps to her second gold medal in the Seoul Olympic women's long jump final, September 19, 1988, setting a new Olympic record at 7.40.
By CBS News Staff Writer Christina Capatides
Serena Williams is considered by many to be the best tennis player of all time. Ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association for the first time on July 8, 2002, she has since achieved this ranking six times. On Feb 18, 2013, she became the oldest No. 1 player in WTA history. As of July 2016, she maintains that top spot at the age of 34.
Williams holds an incredible 94 WTA career titles. With 22 Grand Slam titles, she is also the only tennis player of either gender to have ever won singles titles at least six times in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. In 2016, those 22 Grand Slam titles ties her with Steffi Graff for second place for most Grand Slam titles.
Adding to a long list of incredible achievements, the tennis superstar now owns more victories in Grand Slam matches than anyone in tennis’ Open era with her 308th win at the U.S. Open on September 5, 2016. She surpassed Roger Federer with her 308th win.
Legendary U.S. striker Mia Hamm is responsible in large part for the surge in popularity women's soccer experienced in America in the 1990's. She led Team USA to its historic win at the 1999 Women's World Cup and was named the Women's FIFA World Player of the Year the first two years the award was given.
Until 2013, Hamm held the record for most international goals scored by any player, male or female, in the history of soccer with 159. She has been inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
ESPN commentator and former sportswriter for the Washington Post Michael Wilbon called her, "Perhaps the most important athlete of the last 15 years."
American alpine skier Lindsey Vonn has represented the United States at three Olympic Games (2002, 2006 and 2010), and earned two Olympic medals (gold and bronze). She is already the most successful ski racer in American history with 67 World Cup racing victories.
Vonn is one of only two female skiers to win four World Cup championships. And she is one of only six women to have won World Cup races in all five disciplines of alpine skiing (downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and super combined).
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Mildred Babe Didrikson Zaharias was one of the most versatile female athletes the sports world has ever known. Thrust into the national consciousness at the 1932 Olympic Games, Didrikson took both the 80 meter hurdles and javelin titles, finishing second in the high jump event as well.
Didrikson was also an All-American basketball player, but her more lasting fame came when she took up golf and won the Women's Amateur title once and the US Open thrice, the third time in 1953 after battling the cancer from which she ultimately died in 1956.
Here, Didrikson throws the javelin to win a gold medal in Women's Track and Field at the 1932 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
American race driver Danica Patrick is the most successful woman in the history of Indy Car racing. In fact, she is seen as a sort of pioneer for women in the sport.
In 2005, she became the fourth woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the first woman to ever lead it. She is also one of only two women to ever complete both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Her win at the 2008 Indy Japan 300 marked the first time a woman had ever won an IndyCar Series Race. In 2013, she became the first female NASCAR driver to ever win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole.
She was voted Rookie of the Year in 2005 for her inaugural IndyCar Series season, driving the No. 10 car for Stewart-Haas Racing ever since.
Bille Jean King
American tennis player Billie Jean King competed professionally from 1959 to 1983. During that time, she won 39 Grand Slam titles (12 singles, 16 women's doubles, and 11 mixed doubles). For a number of years in the 1970's, King was the No. 1 ranked female tennis player in the world. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
A prominent advocate for gay and women's rights, King has also been named Time magazine's Person of the Year and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1990, Life magazine even named her to its list of the "100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century." She was one of only four athletes and the only female athlete to make the list.
King is perhaps most famous, however, for defeating Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" on September 20, 1973. In fact, not only did she win the match, she won every set decisively (6-4, 6-3, 6-3); leading the London Sunday Times to call her victory "the drop shot and volley heard around the world." An estimated 50 million people tuned in to watch worldwide, as King obliterated the stereotypes of women as athletically inferior to men and less able to handle high-pressure situations.
Clocking in at six feet, five inches, Lisa Leslie was the most dominant player in the Women's National Basketball Association for years. A three-time league MVP, the ambidextrous center led the United States to four Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2008.
Leslie, who played college ball at USC and professional ball with the Los Angeles Sparks, is the WNBA's all-time leader in rebounds. She was also a first-team all-league selection a record eight times.
Lisa Leslie was able to dunk the ball by her sophomore year in high school and once scored 101 points in a single high school game. She was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Here, she records the first ever slam dunk in women's professional basketball during a game against the Miami Sol on July 30, 2002.
Michelle Akers played on the U.S. Women's National Team from 1985 to 2000, leading Team USA to its first two Women's World Cup victories in 1991 and 1999. She also won the Golden Boot at the 1991 Women's World Cup for scoring a whopping 10 goals.
Akers played as both a midfielder and a forward during her storied career. She has since been both inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame and been named FIFA Female Player of the Century.
American speedskater Bonnie Blair competed in four Olympics; winning six medals, five of which were gold. As such, she is one of the top female skaters of all time and one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history.
Here, Blair skates to a first place finish during the 500 meter speedskating competition at the Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, February 19, 1994.
American golfer Nancy Lopez competed professionally from 1977 to 2003, and she is credited with singlehandedly saving the Ladies Professional Golf Association from the identity crisis it was suffering in the late 1970's. She burst onto the scene at the age of 21 and won five consecutive tournaments that year. Fellow players, the press, fans and sponsors recognized the star in their mist and hitched a ride on her coattails.
During her epic career, Lopez won a staggering 48 LPGA Tour events, including three Women's PGA Championships. She was the LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 1978, a four-time LPGA Tour Player of the Year, and a two-time Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.
Lopez was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1987. She was also the youngest woman to ever qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame and had to wait six months for her induction to be finalized, so that she could meet the qualification for admission of having been on tour for 10 years.
Born in Norway in 1912, Sonja Henie is widely considered the greatest female figure skater of all time. She won three Olympic titles in Ladies' Singles (1928, 1932, 1936), 10 consecutive world championships (1927-1936), and was a six-time European Champion (1931-1936). In fact, she has more titles to her name than any other female figure skater in history.
After turning professional, Henie starred in 10 movies, became a U.S. citizen, and divorced twice before marrying her childhood sweetheart, Norwegian shipowner Niels Onstad. She died of leukemia at the age of 57, while flying from Paris to Oslo for treatment.
American Tracy Caulkins is widely considered one of the best competitive swimmers of all time.
A three-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion, Caulkins has won 48 national championships and set American records in all four major competitive swimming strokes (butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle). Over the course of her career, Caulkins set five world records and 63 American ones; more than any other American swimmer of either gender.
Legendary Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci captured four Olympic gold medals during her professional career. In 1976, she won the gold in three separate events: balance beam, uneven bars and general competition. In 1980, she added two more gold medals to her collection for the balance beam and floor exercise. Comăneci was also the first female athlete to ever score a perfect 10 in an Olympic gymnastics events.
In 2000, the Laureus World Sports Academy named her one of the Athletes of the Century.
Here, a 14-year-old Comăneci competes on the uneven bars at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. This is the performance that earned her that historic perfect score.
Misty May & Kerri Walsh
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings are widely considered the best female beach volleyball team of all time. They won three consecutive gold medals at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Incredibly, they won 21 consecutive Olympic matches, during their 11-year run together, only losing a single set to Austria in 2012.
Here, the dominant American pair celebrate their victory against April Ross and Jennifer Kessy in the finals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Germany's Steffi Graf is the first and only tennis player (male or female) to ever complete a Golden Slam. That means, she won all four Grand Slam titles, as well as the gold medal in singles at the Olympic Games, in the same calendar year.
That year was 1988 and Graf lost just one match on her march to the historic title. In fact, dominating the competition with her signature forehand, Graf dropped only two sets on her path through the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open that year.
She was ranked the No. 1 female singles player in the world for a record 377 total weeks. That is the longest period any player of either gender has held the top rank since the WTA began handing it out.
American figure skater Peggy Fleming earned five U.S. titles and three World titles, but she is most famous for winning the gold medal at the 1968 Winter Olympic Games... and not just because it was the only gold medal the U.S. Olympic Team won that year.
In 1961, the entire U.S. figure skating team was killed when Sabena Flight 548 crashed en route to the World Figure Skating Championships. It was an unthinkable tragedy that rendered Peggy Fleming's gold medal in the 1968 Olympics all the more important. It marked the Unites States' return to dominance in the sport, and it was a much needed symbol of resilience for the country as a whole.
In the 1960's, Wilma Rudolph was considered the fastest woman in the world. Her story is one of beating impossible odds. Born premature at just four-and-a-half pounds, she spent most of her childhood in bed after contracting polio, scarlet fever and pneumonia twice. Rudolph then lost the use of her left leg due to polio and was fitted for a metal brace at age six. Her siblings took turns massaging Rudolph's crippled leg every week, until she was miraculously able to shed her brace at age 9.
After that, she became one of the best athletes the world had ever seen and went on to represent the United States in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. Rudolph earned four medals (three gold and one bronze) in the 200m, 100m and 4x100m races at her two Olympics.
Here, she crosses the finish line of the Olympic 100m event in first place, establishing a new world record, September 2, 1960. A literal trailblazer, she was the first woman to ever run the 200m event in less than 23 seconds.
Mixed martial artist and judoka Ronda Rousey is the current and first ever UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion. In 2008, she also became the first ever U.S. woman to earn an Olympic medal in Judo.
As of March 2015, Rousey is undefeated in mixed martial arts with an 11-0 record and she doesn't seem to have any significant competition among female MMA fighters. In fact, there has been much debate about whether she should be allowed to fight men. In July 2015, she won both the Best Female Athlete and Best Fighter Awards at the ESPYs, beating out a group of all-male contemporaries for the honor of the year's best fighter.
American Chris Evert was one of the most dominant women in tennis, during the 1970's and 80's. She won 18 Grand Slam singles championships and three doubles titles, earning the year-end ranking of No. 1 female singles player worldwide in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, and 1981.
Evert still holds a number of impressive world records, as well. She reached 34 Grand Slam singles finals, which is more than any other player, male or female, in professional tennis. Evert's career winning percentage in singles matches is 89.96 percent. Her career winning percentage in singles matches on clay courts is an even more staggering 94.55 percent. Both of these percentages are the highest recorded by any player, male or female, in the history of professional tennis.
Joan Benoit Samuelson
Like several of the other stars on the list, Joan Benoit Samuelson discovered her sport of dominance in a roundabout way. She took up long-distance running to combat a leg injury she suffered while skiing, and never looked back.
Samuelson won the gold medal in the Women's Marathon event at the 1984 Summer Olympics, the year the event was introduced. As such, she is the first woman to ever do so. Samuelson also holds the records for fastest times ever recorded by an American woman at the Chicago Marathon and the Olympic Marathon. She held the record for fastest time by an American woman at the Boston Marathon, as well, for 28 years. In 1985, she was given the James E. Sullivan Award for top amateur athlete in the United States.
American striker Abby Wambach has scored more goals than any other player ever on the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team. In fact, at 184 goals, she holds the world record for most international goals scored by any soccer player in history, male or female.
A member of Team USA from 2001 to 2015, Wambach has led the United States to two Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2012, and a Women's World Cup victory in 2015.
In 2012, Wambach was named the FIFA World Player of the Year; the first American woman to win the award since Mia Hamm ten years earlier. In May 2015, she was then honored as part of Time magazine'slist of the 100 most influential people in the world. It would be difficult to overstate her contributions to the game.
Mary Lou Retton
Mary Lou Retton was the first American to ever win the all-around gold medal in gymnastics at the Olympic Games.
Inspired by watching Nadia Comăneci on television as a child, Retton took up gymnastics and sought out Comaneci's coaches, Béla and Márta Károlyi, to train her. A knee injury forced her to undergo surgery just five weeks prior to the 1984 Summer Olympics. Retton, however, battled back and stunned the world with her performance at the Games.
She won the gold medal in the individual all-around competition, two silver medals in vault and the team competition, and two bronze medals in the uneven bars and the floor exercise. Consequently, Retton became one of the most popular athletes in the United States, male or female.
Here, she performs her floor routine at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, August 5, 1984.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Martina Navratilova is the only tennis player of either gender in the history of the sport to have been ranked No. 1 in both singles and doubles for over 200 weeks in a row. She was ranked the top year-end female player seven times, including a world record five consecutive years. She won 18 singles Grand Slam titles and holds the record for major women's doubles titles at 31.
Navratilova has won the Wimbledon singles title nine times, which is more than any other female player in history. She also shares the record for most total Wimbledon titles with Billie Jean King at 20.
Navratilova is one of only three players, male or female, to have ever completed a Career Boxed Set. That means, she has won all four Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles... an absolutely astounding feat.