40 years ago I was at the Montreal Olympics witnessing a young female athlete score the first 10 ever in gymnastics. When Nadia Comăneci achieved this first ever perfect score, the boards were not equipped to show her score of 10.00 and therefore showed up at 1.00 confusing me and the crowds of spectators around me. She had done the perfect routine and, over the course of the games, Nadia would go on to earn six additional tens. In 1976, Nadia Comăneci made history and set a world record for the most 10 scores at a single edition of the Olympic Games.
Watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics from Rio de Janiero on Friday night, and seeing all the hopefuls entering the stadium, I was reminded of that day in 1976 and it got me to thinking how many other women have achieved great moments in Olympic herstory during the summer games. With that thought in mind, let me introduce you to 12 fabulous female Olympians who made history.
Sarah Frances “Fanny” Durack Gately was an Australian competition swimmer. From 1910 until 1918 she was the world’s greatest female swimmer of all distances from freestyle sprints to the mile marathon. The 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm were the first to have women’s swimming and “Fanny” set a new world record in the heats of the 100 metre freestyle. She then went on to win the final thus becoming the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a swimming event. She was posthumously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an “Honour Swimmer” in 1967
Best known for her golfing and tennis skills & winning the Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Championship five times, Lottie Dod was also an expert archer won the silver medal in archery at the 1908 Olympics in London. The Guinness Book of Records named her as the most versatile female athlete of all time, together with track and field athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Lottie was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1983.
Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias was an American athlete who achieved a great deal of success in golf, basketball and track and field. At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, Babe Zaharias won two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field. In the high jump, she took silver and also won gold with an Olympic record throw of 43.69 meters in the javelin. She went on to become America’s first female golf celebrity and the leading player of the 1940s and early 1950s.
American Gertrude Ederle made her mark in the early Olympic games in swimming. She participated in the 1924 Olympics and won a gold medal in a team relay freestyle competition. Gertrude also won two bronze medals for other swimming relay races. Aside from her accomplishments in the Olympics, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926 and took her love of swimming to award-winning heights.
As a German/Austrian dual citizen, Ellen Müller-Preis wanted to fence for Germany in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics but was rejected by the German Federation. She went on to fence in those Olympics for Austria and won the gold medal for individual foil. At both the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the 1948 London Olympics, she won bronze medals. In 1956, at the age of 44, she reached the final round at the Melbourne Olympics and came in seventh. At one point, Prof. Müller-Preis was credited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the female with the longest Olympic span of any woman, competing from 1932 until 1956. Two Olympic Games were cancelled at that time due to World War II, 1940 and 1944. The record has since been broken.
Sprinter and hurdler Fanny Blankers-Koen won 4 gold medals in the 1948 London Olympics in the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the 80 meter hurdles and 4 x 100 meter relay. She accomplished this as a 30-year-old mother of two, during a time when many disregarded women’s athletics. Her background and performances earned her the nickname “the Flying Housewife”. In her career, she set or equalled 12 world records in events as diverse as the long jump, the high jump, sprint and hurdling events and the Pentathlon.
Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya, unhindered by the limits set on female competitors at earlier games, set a record for most medals won by a woman in one Olympics, with two golds and five silvers at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. She was the top performer among all athletes, men and women, at those games. Maria made one more international appearance as a part of the winning Soviet team at the 1954 World Championships and retired afterwards. She later went on to become a judge on the international circuit.
Wilma Rudolph was considered the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and competed in two Olympic Games. In the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, she was on the team that won the bronze medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay. In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic games. As the temperature climbed toward 110 °F (43 °C), 80,000 spectators jammed the Stadio Olimpico to watch Wilma run the 100 meter dash in a phenomenal 11 seconds flat.
At her first Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, Irena Kirszenstein Szewińska took a silver medal in the long jump and 200 metres. She also ran the second leg of the gold medal winning 4 x 100 meter relay team. At her second Olympics in Mexico in 1968, she won a bronze in the 100 meters and the gold medal in the 200 meters. She competed in the 3 events at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and came away with a bronze medal in the 200 meters. Irena won her final Olympic medal in Montreal in 1976, by winning the gold in the 400 meters. Between 1964 and 1980 she participated in five Olympic Games, winning seven medals, three of them gold. She also broke six world records and is the only athlete (male or female) to have held a world record in the 100 m, 200 m and the 400 m events.
British equestrian, Hilda Lorna Johnstone participated in the 1956, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games and was 70 years and 5 days old when she rode at the 1972 games in Munich, thus being the oldest woman ever to compete at an Olympic games. Her best finish was 5th place in the 1968 Mixed Dressage Team event. She competed in dressage until well past her eightieth birthday and was one of the inaugural inductees of the Royal Horse Society Hall of Fame.
Dara Grace Torres was the first swimmer to represent the United States in five Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008), and, at age 41, was the oldest swimmer ever to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team. She has won twelve Olympic medals (four gold, four silver, four bronze), one of three women with the most Olympic women’s swimming medals. She won at least one medal in each of the five Olympics in which she has competed, making her one of only a handful of Olympians to earn medals in five different Games. Today, she is a veteran celebrity swimmer for Swim Across America, a charitable organization that raises funds for cancer research.
Clara Hughes is a Canadian cyclist and speed skater, who has won multiple Olympic medals in both sports. She is one of the few athletes who have competed in both the Summer and Winter Olympic games. Clara won two bronze medals in 1996 at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and four medals (one gold, one silver, two bronze) over the course of three Winter Olympics – 2002, 2004, 2010. She is one of only five people to have had podium finishes in the both Winter and Summer versions of the games, and Clara the only person ever to have won multiple medals in both. Today, Clara Hughes is well-known for her advocacy and humanitarianism. She is an Athlete Ambassador for the Right to Play organization, and, in 2010, became the national spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk campaign for mental health.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the wonderful women that have had Olympic success nor those that have made an impact on the herstory of women in sport. I invite you to add any other women you think deserve to be remembered and honored in the comment section of this post.