Author: Sebastian Scheplitz
It’s an outrage that women still face obstacles today that just don’t apply to men – particularly for women who have the drive, skill, and gumption to stand and be counted. That’s a fact.
Nevertheless, women have enjoyed opportunities on a scale that previous generations of women can only dream about – people today don’t define women by traditional gender roles they were once typically expected to fulfill unless it’s a choice they make on their own volition.
However, glass ceilings still exist to this very day, particularly in dysfunctional organizations with institutionally flawed cultures – including sports.
That’s why highlighting these influential female athletes who have and are currently breaking the glass ceiling in such a traditionally male-dominated sports industry makes their accomplishments even more awe-inspiring – these women are the exceptions to the rule.
We also note that this list is by no means a comprehensive list and that it is presented in no particular order.
How Is This Important to Sportsbook Content Marketing?
But before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear: this isn’t just mere knowledge for trivia night. Especially if you’re in the business of iGaming content marketing.
See, the social fabric of 2023 is vastly different from that of 1950.
We live in a world that values inclusion and diversity above all – and where identity plays an important role in marketing efforts. This is particularly true when you’re trying to create personalized iGaming or sportsbook affiliate content – we all know how personalization is one of the best iGaming content marketing strategies to leverage.
Why so? That’s because every new customer you’re trying to appeal to is seeking an emotional connection with your brand. And when you’re marketing to individuals who identify with the cause that these women have stood up for, that’s exactly what you achieve.
Moreover, using this deep knowledge of the greatest female athletes of all time in your marketing demonstrates your expertise, which will help you craft unique, tailored narratives with well-researched, accurate information to fine-tune your strategy to the hilt – while remaining woke and relevant to the changing pulse of the world we live in right now.
(If you want to check out our list of the 20 best male professional athletes of all time, head over to our blog post: The True GOATs of Professional Sports: Men Edition)
That said, let’s pay tribute to some of the greatest female athletes the sporting world has ever seen.
1) Serena Williams/Venus Williams
When we think about championship droughts, we often remember the infamous “Curse of the Billy Goat” – or the 71-year drought that the Chicago Cubs went without winning a World Series.
Or perhaps we think of the “Curse of the Bambino,” or the 86-year-long wait for the Boston Red Sox to win their first World Series since trading Babe Ruth in 1918.
Well, American male tennis players have been on a drought of their own, failing to win a men’s singles Grand Slam championship since 2003 – when Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick won the Australian Open and U.S. Open, respectively. Male American tennis has long been dead and buried.
But one American female tennis player and her equally talented sister have been representing the United States in a big way, dominating women’s tennis in the 21st century and overshadowing their male counterparts by a country mile – we’re talking, of course, about the dominant Serena Williams, who has won 17 singles Grand Slams, 13 doubles Grand Slams, and four Olympic gold medals.
Talk about a trophy cabinet for the ages.
We can’t put Serena on this list without her elder sister Venus, who won seven individual Grand Slams on her own. Venus was a great tennis player, no doubt – but Serena was and is a generational talent who has etched her name in the highest echelons of the sport and is one of the most famous athletes in the world.
2) Simone Biles
Simone Biles is, in every sense of the word, the undisputed female #GOAT of gymnastics and national treasure – and the scary thing is that she’s just 26.
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she became the first female U.S. gymnast to win four gold medals at a single Games. And she was the first gymnast to win three consecutive world all-around titles (2013-15).
With a combined 32 medals won in the Olympics and World Championships, she has demonstrated the rare combination of raw power, adroit finesse, and otherworldly flexibility to do things that other gymnasts simply can’t compete with.
Oh yes, Biles also became the first and only American gymnast to win a medal in every single Olympics event.
However, Simone Biles isn’t only making her presence felt in the sporting world as a pioneer (she already has three moves named after her) – her influence extends as an advocate for women empowerment and mental health by openly speaking out about her struggles, empowering others to seek treatment and reassuring them that it’s fine not to be okay.
Biles is a champion on and off the gymnasium – and she’s on pace to becoming one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time.
3) Steffi Graf
There is no way we could possibly create a top 20 female athletes list without “Fräulein Forehand” herself, the inimitable Steffi Graf – the first and only tennis player ever (really, we can’t overstate how remarkable this is) – to win a Grand Slam and the gold medal at the Olympics in the same calendar year.
That’s called a Golden Slam, friends.
And Steffi did it in such dominant fashion – she literally crushed the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and United States Open in 1988 with her forehand, dropping just a measly two sets on the way to achieving that improbable feat.
Steffi also holds the record for spending 377 weeks as the top-ranked #1 tennis player since the WTA began tracking it – a testament to her era of complete and total domination.
4) Billie Jean King
There are trailblazers and pioneers. And then there’s Billie Jean King. Billie Jean King deserves a category of greatness all to her own, not least for winning an eye-watering total of 39 Grand Slam championships in her long and storied career, but also for being a staunch advocate for women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights.
King has the scars to prove it. In 1973, she broke every stereotype about women in sports by competing – and prevailing – in the seminal “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match against former tennis champion Bobby Riggs. It proved that the diminutive King, and every female athlete, for that matter, can be just as tough as men if they want to be.
King continued to break barriers in the sporting world by organizing a meeting that would lead to the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and threatened to walk out of the 1973 United States Open if female tennis players were not to be paid the same as the men.
Later that year, the organizers of the U.S. Open agreed to offer equal prize money to female tennis players, becoming the first major tennis tournament to do so. To this very day, King is fighting for inclusion and diversity by founding the Billie Jean King Initiative in 2014, besides continuing her advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights.
5) Nadia Comăneci
Nadia Comăneci will always be synonymous with “perfection” by achieving a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal – which was then thought to have been impossible – at the age of 14. Comăneci’s perfect score was so unexpected that it wasn’t even possible to display a “10” on the scoreboard.
The Romanian gymnast demonstrated a rare blend of grace, raw talent, and focus for her age on her way to winning a total of nine Olympic medals in her relatively short but storied career.
Comăneci’s career was only cut short due to political reasons as the Ceaușescu-led Romanian government kept a tight rein on allowing her to compete overseas (either due to tit-for-tat political maneuvering or the fear of her defecting), forcing Comăneci to withdraw from the competition in 1984.
Comăneci has embarked on a distinguished career in leadership roles in the world of gymnastics. Who knows how many more medals Comăneci could have won had she not been prevented by her own country from doing so?
6) Lindsey Vonn
Not many other female alpine skiers have accomplished as much as Lindsey Vonn has, having 82 World Cup race wins under her belt while being one of only six distinguished female athletes to have won World Cup races in all five skiing disciplines. And she has the third highest super ranking of all skiers, men or women.
Serious injuries such as two torn knee ligaments and a broken ankle didn’t stop Vonn from becoming the winningest female alpine skier of all time. Period, end-of.
Vonn returned to competitive alpine skiing in January 2017 to become the oldest female athlete to medal at the World Championships at age 32. She did it again at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, and at the 2019 World Championships.
Lindsey Vonn called time on her decorated career as the all-time record holder for most women’s World Cup wins with 82 shortly thereafter, until her record was broken by Mikaela Shiffrin in 2023.
Vonn has long been the face of alpine skiing, elevating the sport’s profile, especially during the Winter Olympics. Vonn is one of the few true household names of winter sports, being one of just three winter sports professionals to have been named the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year.
Vonn continues to build her legacy through her work with the Lindsey Vonn Foundation.
7) Katie Ledecky
American swimmer Katie Ledecky has won more gold medals than any other female Olympic swimmer – or any American swimmer, for that matter. She has a trophy case that includes a whopping seven Olympic gold medals and a total of 19 gold medals from a variety of world swimming championships.
Ledecky is the winningest female swimmer of all time – and she’s still just 26. By the time she hangs up the goggles, we could be seeing the swimming #GOAT…for both sexes.
Ledecky first debuted at the 2012 London Olympics at the age of 15, and right away broke the record by becoming the youngest-ever Olympic swimmer to win the gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle event.
Ledecky has demonstrated a mastery in the pool that makes her a cut above the rest – including the men. She has won gold medals from 100-meter events to 1500-meter events, something not even the great Michael Phelps has accomplished, in both international and NCAA competitions.
Ledecky just might break every swimming record by the time she decides to call it a career – watch this space!
8) Ding Ning (丁宁 in Simplified Chinese)
Say hello to the #GOAT of table tennis. Ding Ning was the last female table tennis athlete to have won the Table Tennis Grand Slam – besides being an Olympic gold medalist, three-time table tennis World Cup winner, three-time world champion, and eighteen Pro Tours to boot.
Don’t get us started on Ding’s team accolades, because her hardware is enough to fill a Home Depot.
Ding rose to worldwide prominence as the ace of the Chinese national table tennis team that brought home the bacon at the 2012 London Olympics. The Chinese table tennis sensation retired in 2021 in order to pursue a degree in physical education as she prepares for her post-playing career.
In China, Ding is simply known as the “Queen,” with over 2 million followers on Weibo.
9) Saina Nehwal
Sometimes, you’re just innately better than anyone at certain things. Saina Nehwal is one of those athletes. The badminton phenom was so good that not even a string of career-threatening injuries could stop her from being one of the most dominant female badminton players in the world.
Nehwal has won 24 international titles, including 10 Badminton Superseries championships. She broke barriers by becoming the first Indian female badminton player to win a medal at the Olympics.
And not only that, she is also the first Indian to reach the BWF World Championships final, and the only Indian to date to win the BWF World Junior Championships. Nehwal also became the first Indian female and the youngest Asian to win a four-star championship in 2006.
Don’t get us started on the national accolades Nehwal has received from the Indian government. Such is her legacy to Indian sports – and female athletes, for that matter – that a biopic about Nehwal’s career is in the works.
A national treasure? You bet.
10) Lisa Leslie
Los Angeles Sparks #GOAT Lisa Leslie has etched a place for herself on the Mount Rushmore of women’s basketball by achieving greatness on every level of competitive basketball she participated in.
From high school and college to the pros and the international scene, Leslie would go on to win best player awards from high school, college, the professional leagues, and international basketball – not to mention becoming the first female basketball player to record a slam dunk during a WNBA game (even when she was dunking well into her sophomore high school years).
Leslie would go on to win three WNBA MVPs, two DPoY awards, two WNBA titles, a WNBA Finals MVP, and All-WNBA First Team selection for an unprecedented eight times. Leslie was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015 for her trailblazing contributions to women’s basketball.
11) Marta Vieira da Silva
Much in the same way a certain Edson Arantes do Nascimento is simply known as “Pelé,” Marta Vieira da Silva is known as “Marta” – and you know you’ve made it in the sports world when everybody knows you by one name.
Marta is considered the greatest female football player of all time, much as Pelé was for the men’s game. Marta has won literally everything there is to win in women’s football for both club and country, scoring 111 goals in 131 caps.
Marta was the first-ever football player to score at five different World Cups, and 2023 might very well see her score at an unprecedented sixth.
Oh, and can you guess who has the most World Cup goals in the tournament? No, it isn’t Pelé, Messi, Eusébio, or even Cristiano Ronaldo – it’s none other than Marta. Marta’s impact is felt just as much off the pitch as a United Nations advocate promoting diversity and gender equality.
12) Sheryl Swoopes
“Her Airness” is in the rare company of only three three-time WNBA MVPs and one of only three three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year winners. It’s amazing how four-time WNBA champion Sheryl Swoopes achieved as much as she did, considering she only played her first full WNBA season at age 27.
Being the first player to be signed in the WNBA, the star forward on the Houston Comets has led her team to three consecutive championships and was digging the groundwork for all women to break through on the basketball court.
On top of that, as a three-time Olympian, Ms. Swoopes earned gold medals at the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympic Games.
Swoopes doesn’t share Michael Jordan’s moniker for nothing – like MJ, Swoopes’ influence far extends outside the hardwood. After all, Swoopes was the first-ever female basketball player to get a Nike shoe named after her.
Guess what the name was? Air Swoopes. Just like Mike.
13) Mia Hamm
United States women’s soccer legend Mia Hamm was integral to the women’s soccer boom that gripped America in the 90s by leading Team USA to its groundbreaking Women’s World Cup win in 1999 – yes, that iconic photo with “the sports bra seen round the world” – after scoring the penalty that sealed the championship.
Hamm had “superstar” written all over her when she became the youngest player to get capped for the U.S. women’s national team at 15 years old.
She dominated the college soccer scene, leading the Tar Heels to five national consecutive championships, until her legendary career that saw her win two consecutive Women’s FIFA Player of the Year awards in the first two years they began handing them out.
Mia was the face that ran the place in women’s soccer throughout the 90s, rightfully becoming the first woman to be inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
14) Janet Guthrie
Danica Patrick gets all the plaudits today – and don’t get us wrong, Danica is an all-time great – but one woman by the name of Janet Guthrie had been competing in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 back when Danica was just a mere twinkle in her parents’ eyes.
Guthrie, a trained physicist who almost went on to become an astronaut, set the racing world ablaze with her dynamic energy and passion for the sport at a time when it was unheard of for a female athlete to have the nerve to compete – and actually try to win – at men’s motorsports.
Guthrie competed in her first Indianapolis 500 race in 1977 before bowing out due to a technical malfunction and finished ninth in 1978 despite driving with a broken freakin’ wrist. Talk about gumption.
Guthrie would go on to become a pilot, a flight instructor, an engineer, and a spokesperson for some of the country’s largest companies after her motorsports days.
15) Jackie Joyner-Kersee
The First Lady of American Athletics needs no further introduction, but we’ll do it anyway.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee dominated the Olympics for the United States in her illustrious 12-year career spanning from 1984 to 1996, winning an astonishing three gold medals, one silver medal, and two bronze medals when she retired from international competition.
Joyner-Kersee has also been recognized by many as one of the world’s greatest athletes due to her mastery over several athletic disciplines, particularly the seven-course heptathlon, where the “First Lady” holds the world record for over 30 years to this very day. How’s that for a testament?
Oh, and just for good measure – Joyner-Kersee scored over a thousand points and was an All-Conference basketball player for the UCLA Bruins back in college.
16) Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias
We often throw around terms like “game-changer,” “innovator,” and “trailblazer” so much that they tend to lose their meanings over time. But if there was one female athlete that personifies all three honorifics, it would be the incomparable Babe Didrikson Zaharias, considered by many as the greatest female athlete of the 20th century.
Zaharias set four world records at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics at the age of 21 and became the first and only athlete to win medals in at least one running event, one jumping event, and one throwing event at the Olympics – a feat that stands to this very day. Zaharias was also one of the first female multi-sport superstars.
In 1935, she took up professional golf, where she was instrumental in founding the LPGA tour, while winning 10 major championships and 48 golf competitions over her career, winning everything there was to win in the amateur and pro games. She was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame in 1951.
Zaharias broke gender barriers by becoming the first and only woman who played on a men’s basketball team, besides winning the AAU Title, and even pitched two shutout innings in an MLB exhibition game. Anything she touched, she excelled in.
She was still the #1 golfer in the world at the time of her untimely death in 1956 due to colon cancer, advocating for cancer awareness at a time when it was out of fashion to do so.
Glass ceiling, broken.
17) Mary D’Souza Sequeira
Mary D’Souza Sequeira is regarded as one of the greatest Indian female athletes that first rose to prominence by competing in 100 and 200-meter races at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Sequeira was a pioneer of women’s sports, excelling in a variety of athletic disciplines and sports in a highly patriarchal society, shattering the mold for Indian female athletes.
(It’s sad, however, that this is the only image on Getty Images about her achievements and that her accomplishments are not celebrated more.)
Sequeira won medals at the 1951 and 1954 Asian Games, besides being a prominent member of India’s first field hockey team. Sequeira also appeared at the 1953 and 1956 Hockey World Cups. The living legend from Goa was awarded the Dhyan Chand award, the highest award that the Government of India can confer for lifetime sporting achievements, in 2013.
18) Sara Takanashi (高梨 沙羅 in Japanese)
In the world of ski jumping, there is only one name that stands alone as the undisputed #GOAT, gender notwithstanding: Sara Takanashi. The diminutive Japanese ski jumper is the all-time World Cup winner with 60 wins, 109 podium finishes, and a four-time champion, smashing records on ski jumps everywhere she pleases.
Takanashi was the youngest World Cup winner in 2013 at the age of 15 years and 4 months (!), repeating the win at the 2014 World Cup and then again in 2016 and 2017. Takanashi is also the only athlete to win in every season of the women’s World Cup ever since the event was launched, and she literally owns every record there is to win.
At 26, Takanashi’s inspiring reign of terror has only just begun – and 2022 saw her increase her record World Cup win haul to 63.
19) Mikaela Shiffrin
We can’t talk about skiing without mentioning the undisputed #GOAT of alpine skiing: Mikaela Shiffrin. While skiing doesn’t necessarily receive as much attention as mainstream sports, Shiffrin’s career – which, as of today, includes 88 World Cup wins (the most by any alpine skier, male or female), 53 slalom race wins (the most by any alpine skier), and her legendary 2019 season where she rattled off 17 World Cup wins – is nothing short of extraordinary.
At age 28, “The Mozart of Ski Racing” is already the all-time winningest skier in the sport and is very well on pace to win as many as over 125 World Cup races by the time she decides to hang up the boots once and for all. Shiffrin has taken on the mantle and responsibility of being the face of alpine skiing – one of the few sports with no existing pay gap between genders.
2023 has been nothing short of legendary for Shiffrin. Two days before her 28th birthday, on the 11th of March ‘23, Shiffrin won her 87th World Cup race, breaking the all-time record of most World Cup wins held by Swedish slalom legend Ingemar Stenmark – which previously stood for 34 years.
Just a week later, Shiffrin broke Lindsay Vonn’s women’s world record for most World Cup podiums with 137. The Shiffrin Era will be one for all time.
20) Ronda Rousey
No one drew as many eyes to MMA as when Ronda Rousey was at the height of her unparalleled dominance and popularity in the UFC, putting women’s MMA on the map.
No one can take that away from her – she was arguably one of the sport’s biggest draws, showing that, yes, women can draw in the octagon (or any arena they choose to fight).
For all the haters: don’t ever forget that Rousey was a 2008 Olympics bronze medalist and won silver in the 2007 World Championships in Judo before she ever plied her trade in the UFC.
After her UFC career, Rousey has successfully transitioned to another competition: that of professional wrestling’s squared circle.
Yes, pro wrestling is predetermined. Yes, pro wrestlers don’t actually get in the ring to hurt each other…but there’s little doubt that the world of sports entertainment boasts some of the greatest athletes the world has seen.
Rousey called time on her storied MMA career after becoming the first female to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, the first female to win the first-ever women’s fight in the UFC, previously held the most successful UFC title defenses by a woman (until 2022), and became the inaugural UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion with a career record of 12-2 in the Octagon.
“Rowdy” Ronda Rousey has since been plying her trade and blazing a trail in sports entertainment, cementing her place in pro wrestling by becoming the first woman to headline the wrestling world’s first all-female main event at WWE WrestleMania 39 – on what is known as the sports entertainment’s grandest stage of them all.
So put some respect on her name.
The Future of Sports Is Female
Female athletes aren’t just strong – they’re trailblazers. All of them. They are reinventing the role of women and redefining the world of sport in their image while standing for gender equality, diversity, and tolerance.
Their influence goes far beyond their respective disciplines, transcending the world of sport to become cultural icons, paving the way for female athletes – and ALL women – worldwide.
Here’s a toast to every woman!
Header Image Source: Canva
How did you like Sebastian Scheplitz’s blog post “Iconic Female Athletes: The Top 20 GOATs of the Women Sports World”? Let us know in the comments if you have anything to add, have another content idea for iGaming blog posts, or just want to say “hello.” 🙂