Iconic British Sportswomen

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Stylist Team
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As Team GB's women continue to rack up an unprecedented Olympic medal collection take a look at some of the country's finest sportswomen before them, from world-record breaking Olympians like Dame Kelly Holmes and tennis legend Virginia Wade, to determined boxer Jane Couch, multi-award winning golfer Laura Davies, unbeaten triathlete Chrissie Wellington and more.

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Words: Anna Pollitt, photos: Rex Features

  • Denise Lewis


    Before Jessica Ennis came Wolverhampton-born Lewis, who grabbed gold for Britain in the heptathlon at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Now a regular BBC Sports pundit and Strictly Come Dancing alumni, the 40-year-old is acting as an Olympics ambassador during the 2012 Games.

  • Tanni Grey-Thompson

    Wheelchair racer

    One of the UK's greatest Paralympians, Cardiff-born Baroness Grey-Thompson holds over 30 world records, has won 16 Paralympic medals - including 11 golds - and is a six-time London Marathon winner. The 43-year-old who was born with spina bifida, retired in 2005 and is now a crossbench peer.

  • Tessa Sanderson

    Javelin thrower and heptathlete

    Famous for an enduring rivalry with fellow Olympic javelin thrower Fatima Whitbread, Sanderson competed in no less than six Olympic Games from 1976 to 1996, taking gold in Los Angeles in 1984. Awarded a CBE in 2004, she now runs a foundation that helps discover and train future athletes.

  • Fatima Whitbread

    Javelin thrower

    Long before she joined the likes of Freddie Starr and Peter Andre in the celebrity jungle, London-born multiple-medal winner Whitbread, broke the javelin world record with a throw of 77.44m in 1986. The feisty sports star was known for celebrating her silver and bronze Olympic medal wins with a cheeky wiggle and for her fierce rivalries with fellow Brit Tessa Sanderson and German rival Petra Felke. She has spoken openly about a traumatic early childhood, which turned around when she was adopted at the age of 14 by her javelin coach, Margaret Whitbread.

  • Kelly Holmes

    Middle distance athlete

    The record-holding Olympian from Kent took a diverse career path, including jobs as a shop assistant, carer, and army lorry driver, before finally becoming a professional athlete in 1997 at the age on 27. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, she became the first Briton in 84 years to race home to gold in both the 800m and 1500m - a feat that not even her childhood hero Sebastian Coe had managed. She was made a Dame in 2005.

  • Chrissie Wellington


    The unstoppable "Chrissinator", from Suffolk, is a four-time World Ironman Champion who beat her own personal best by 2.17 minutes last year. The 35-year-old, who has beaten anorexia and bulimia, is the only triathlete of either gender to have won the World Championship less than 12 months after turning professional.

  • Ellen MacArthur


    Derbyshire-born MacArthur's unshakeable dedication to her craft began as a youngster when she saved up her school dinner money for eight long years to buy her first boat - an 8ft dinghy. In 2005, at the age of 28, she broke Francis Joyon's solo record for sailing non-stop around the world by one day, 8 hours, 35 minutes, 49 seconds. In the same year she was made Britain's youngest Dame.

  • Mary Rand

    Track-and-field athlete

    The first-ever British female to win an Olympic gold medal in a track and field event, Somerset-born Rand romped home in the long jump at the 1964 Games by breaking the world record. While the women's triple jump was not formally recognised until 1990, Rand also held the unofficial record in the event from 1959 to 1981.

  • Ann Packer

    Sprinter, hurdler, long jumper

    "I knew nothing about the event but being so naive was probably to my advantage; it meant I did not have any limitations in my head regarding what I should or could do. Ignorance proved to be bliss."

    Forty years before Dame Kelly Holmes claimed an 800m gold, the event was won by Packer at the Tokyo Olympics, despite the Oxfordshire-born athlete having raced it only five times before. Her favoured event was the 400m, which she took silver in, and she took the 800m race on a whim.

  • Sally Gunnell


    The best British female athlete of the 90s, Gunnell, who hails from Essex, took gold in the 400m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and set a world record in the event at the World Championships a year later. Although her 52.74 time is no longer a world record, it remains a British best.

  • Paula Radcliffe

    Marathon runner

    Childhood asthma and aneamia did not prevent Chershire-born Radcliffe from taking up running aged seven and the multi-marathon winner is currently women's world record holder with her incredible time of 2:15:25 hours.

  • Mary Peters

    Pentathlete and shot putter

    Peters won gold in the women's pentathlon for Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the 1972 Munich Olympics, setting a world record score. Representing Northern Ireland at every Commonwealth Games between 1958 and 1974, she also took two pentathlon golds and a gold and silver medal for the shot put. Peters, who was born in Lancashire and moved to Belfast as a youngster, was made a Dame in 2000.

  • Jane Couch


    Nicknamed the Fleetwood Assassin after her Lancashire hometown, Couch fought for two years to be recognised as a boxer by the British Boxing Board of Control, which claimed that PMS made women unstable to fight in the ring. She persevered and in 1998 she finally became the sport's first officially licensed female. The multiple world-title winner was awarded an MBE in 2007.

  • Virginia Wade

    Tennis player

    Bournemouth-born Wimbledon legend Wade won three Grand Slam singles championships and four Grand Slam doubles championships. Her 1977 Wimbledon victory in the women's singles championship makes her the last Brit to have won a Grand Slam singles tournament.

  • Laura Davies


    Britain's best ever female golfer, Coventry-born Davies has turned the eyes of the world onto the LPGA with a glittering 27-year career. With 81 professional wins worldwide, she is one major victory away from entering the World Golf Hall of Fame.

  • Rebecca Romero

    Rower and cyclist

    Surrey-born Romero is the first Briton to win Olympic medals in two different sports. She scored silver in rowing at the 2004 Athens Games and retired two years later with a back injury. Undeterred, she took up track cycling and won gold in the 3km Individual Track Pursuit Event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Astonishingly, this year she tried her first Ironman triathlon, coming sixth overall.

  • Louise Aitken-Walker

    Rally car driver

    In 1983 Berwickshire's Aitken-Walker becomes the first woman to win a national rally outright and in 1990 became the first ever British driver to win a world title, the Ladies World Rally Champion. Readers of Autosport voted her National Driver of the Year (87) and in 1992 she was awarded an MBE.

  • Jayne Torvill

    Ice dancer

    One half of the world-famous 1980s ice-skating duo Torvill and Dean, the Nottingham insurance clerk gave up her day job to follow her dream in 1980 after coming in a respectable fifth place at that year's New York Winter Olympics. Four years later, at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, watched by a UK audience of 24 million, the pair won gold with 12 perfect 6.0 marks. They took Olympic bronze 10 years later at Norway's Winter Olympics.

  • Lily Parr


    The only woman ever to have entered the English Football Hall of Fame, St Helens native Parr excelled in the sport during World War I. Along with female colleagues from the Preston munitions factory where she worked, Parr drew crowds of 53,000 at Goodison Park in 1920. She played from 1919 to 1951, scoring more than 900 goals in her profesional career.

  • Lottie Dod

    Tennis player

    A pioneering British female athlete, Merseyside sportswoman Dod was named by the Guinness Book of Records as the most versatile female athlete of all time for her astonishing achievements in a variety of sports. A five-time winner of the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles Championship in the late 1890s, she also took an Olympic silver medal for archery in 1908, won the British Ladies Amateur Golf Championship in 1904 and twice played for the England women's national field hockey team. Her 1887 Wimbledon victory at the age of 15 means she is still Britain's youngest ladies' singles champion.