Collage of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Dina Asher-Smith and Billie Jean King.

Female athletes: 15 of the greatest and most inspirational women in sport

Posted by for Strong Women

From Serena Williams to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, these are the best female athletes of all time who have broken history and inspired a generation of women. 

There’s nothing like an Olympic year to get people feeling excited about sport. With gymnasticsfootballrunningswimming and countless other sports about to take centre stage, it’s set to be an inspiring summer of record-breaking female athletes on screen.

If you’re wondering whose PBs this year’s crop of athletes are looking to beat, you need to look back at the women who came before them – the GOATs. Amazingly, some of those who competed years ago still retain world records, while others have gone down in the history books for charting the path for future stars.

There are countless women out there who are responsible for encouraging generations of women to play, run, jump, flip, dive and kick. Here, we’ve rounded up 15 of the greatest and most inspiring sportswomen ever, from Serena Williams to Dina Asher-Smith.

  • Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce

    Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce ran a 10.63 second 100m sprint earlier in June 2021, making her the second fastest woman of all time and the fastest woman alive. All eyes are now on the Jamaican runner ahead of Tokyo 2021. 

  • Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee

    Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee at the 1992 Olympic games.
    Best female athletes of all time: Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee

    In 1986, American heptathlete Joyner-Kersee became the first woman to score over 7,000 points in a heptathlon event. Two years later, at the the Seoul Olympic Games, she set the still-standing heptathlon world record of 7,291 points. With six Olympic medals to her name, she’s widely regarded as one of the best track and field athletes of all time. 

  • Dina Asher-Smith

    Dina Asher-Smith running during a competition.
    Best female athletes: Dina Asher-Smith

    The fastest British woman in recorded history, Asher-Smith has broken record after record. Most recently, she set a new world record in the 60m, clocking a win at 7.08 seconds at the World Indoor Athletics Tour in January 2021. 

  • Megan Rapinoe

    Megan Rapinoe on the football pitch in team USA kit.
    Best female athletes: Megan Rapinoe

    Megan Rapinoe won gold with USA Women at the 2012 London Olympics as well as the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cups. Off the pitch, she’s been a key figure in the USA Women’s equal pay dispute – fighting for female players to be paid equally to their male counterparts.

  • Simone Biles

    Biles is the most decorated American gymnast of all time, and the world’s third most decorated gymnast – at just 23 years old. She became the first female athlete to land the Yurchenko double pike in a competition earlier this year. 

  • Lottie Dod

    Lottie Dodd holding a tennis racket
    Best female athletes: Lottie Dodd

    Dodd won the Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Championship five times. Her first victory happened in 1887 when she was only fifteen; she still remains the youngest ladies’ singles champion. The Guinness Book of Records has named her as the most versatile female athlete of all time, given that she also played for the England Hockey team and won a silver in archery at the Olympic Games. 

  • Serena Williams

    While as prolific for her work off the court as on, her tennis career has broken record after record. Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most by any player in the Open Era and four Olympic gold medals. When not smashing records with her racquet, she’s busy being one of the most powerful female voices in sport fighting for equality

  • Tegla Loroupe

    Tegla Loroupe on the podium after winning her race.
    Best female athletes: Tegla Loroupe

    Loroupe was the first African woman to hold the marathon world record, which she broke in April 1998 and held until 2001. The Kenyan runner still holds the world records for 25 and 30 kilometres, as well as being a spokesperson for women’s rights and peace. 

  • Lucia Rijker

    Lucia Rijker throwing a punch during a boxing tournament.
    Best female athletes: Lucia Rijker

    Dubbed “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World”, Riker is considered the greatest female boxer of all time. The Dutch athlete won four world titles and amassed a 36-0 record as a kickboxer, while also having short careers in judo, fencing and softball. 

  • Billie Jean King

    Billie Jean King playing at wimbledon in 1973.
    Best female athletes: Billie Jean King.

    As if holding the world number one ranking in women’s tennis for six years, 39 Grand Slam tennis titles and 20 career victories at Wimbledon aren’t enough, King has also changed sport for the women who followed. In 1973, 90 million people watched King defeat Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes, and changed attitudes towards and representation of for female athletes. 

  • Katinka Hosszú

    Katinka Hosszú at a swimming competition.
    Best female athletes: Katinka Hosszú

    Known as the Iron Lady, Hosszú was the first swimmer of any gender to hold world records in all five individual medley events at the same time. She holds two-thirds of the national records in her home country of Hungary and, in 2014, became the first race-prize dollar millionaire in swimming history.

  • Sarah Storey

    Sarah Storey wearing her Rio 2016 medals and waving to the crowd.
    Best female athletes: Sarah Storey

    Storey is Great Britain’s most decorated Paralympian. Beginning her career as a swimmer, she won two golds, three silvers and a bronze in 1992, before moving into cycling. At the 2010 Commonwealth Games she became the first disabled cyclist to compete for England against non-disabled cyclists, and at the Rio Paralympic Games in 2016 she took home three gold medals. 

  • Florence Griffith Joyner

    Florence Griffith Joyner running in a one legged cat suit.
    Best female athletes: Florence Griffith Joyner

    The fastest woman of all time, Joyner’s records for the 100m (10.54 seconds) and 200m (21.34 seconds) still stand 20 years later. She became a pop-culture icon after her retirement for her love of fashion (check out that running suit) as much as her unbeatable run times. 

  • Mildred 'Babe' Didrikson Zaharias

    'Babe' Didrikson Zaharias swinging a golf club.
    Best female athletes: 'Babe' Didrikson Zaharias

    One of the most multi-talented athletes of the 20th century, Didrikson Zaharias competed in basketball, track and field and golf. At the 1932 Olympics, Didrikson Zaharias set four world records, winning two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field. After retirement, she took to golf and competed in the 1938 Los Angeles Open – a competition no other woman could compete in for six decades after.

  • Paula Radcliff

    Paula Radcliff with her medal after the London Marathon.
    Best female athletes: Paula Radcliff

    The three-time winner of the London Marathon and New York Marathon, Radcliff was the fastest female marathoner of all time. She held the women’s world record of 2:15:25 for 16 years until 2019, and has been inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame. 

Images: Getty / Tennis Hall of Fame

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).