From climbing the highest mountains on earth to swimming in brutal ocean conditions to running 26.2 miles at blistering speeds, women have proved time and again that they’re capable of achieving seemingly impossible physical feats. Discussed below are the 5 most powerful female athletes of all time.
The tennis superstar Serena Williams has achieved 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles with sister Venus, and four Olympic gold medals. In December 2019, the Associated Press named her the Female Athlete of the Decade, writing, “Serena Williams dominated the decade, on the court and in conversation.”
Along the way, she’s kept it refreshingly real. Since giving birth to her daughter, Alexis, in 2017, she’s been candid about the pressures and frustrations of motherhood. In 2018, Williams opened up about the life-threatening complications she faced following Alexis’s birth, raising awareness for the maternal mortality crisis facing black women in America, in the process
Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei became the first woman to summit Mount Everest in 1975, shattering the gender barrier in her sport by climbing the world’s tallest peak. But Tabei, who six years earlier had founded the first women’s climbing club in Japan during an era when most such groups were men-only, wasn’t all that impressed. “I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest,” she allegedly said. “It’s only a mountain.”
More women than ever are following in her footsteps, with women representing 20% of Everest climbers in 2019 the most ever in history. After Everest, Tabei went on to scale many more enormous mountains and, in 1992, became the first woman to have stood atop the Seven Summits, the tallest peaks on the seven continents. This OG pioneer of women’s mountaineering died in 2016 at age 77 after summiting the highest peaks in more than 70 countries.
With a jaw-dropping 55 medals (including 41 golds) to her name, swimmer Trischa Zorn is the most decorated Paralympian. Blind since birth, Zorn began swimming at age 10 and burst onto the Paralympic scene at the 1980 Games, winning seven gold medals and setting three world records. Eight years after she retired from the sport, Zorn was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2012, becoming the first American woman to receive such an honor.
In 2002, Lisa Leslie demolished a gender barrier in basketball when she became the first woman to slam-dunk in a WNBA game. The seriously talented athlete is also a four-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time MVP of the WNBA, two-time FIBA World Cup gold medalist, and 2002 World Cup MVP.
Competitive surfer Bethany Hamilton was just 13 years old when she lost her arm in a shark attack in Kauai, Hawaii. The 2003 incident, which made international news, transformed the young teen into a symbol of resilience and inspiration, especially when Hamilton hopped back onto her board for competition less than one month after the incident. Two years later Hamilton became a national champion. Her story inspired a 2011 Hollywood film (Soul Surfer) and a 2019 documentary (Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable).