I grew up in a family that was all about sports. Soccer practice Mondays and Wednesdays, tennis Tuesday and Thursdays, and weekends spent carpooling around California with teammates, soccer moms, and soccer dads. For me, sports were pivotal in helping me learn to socialize, set goals, and work to achieve them. Not to mention it was tons of fun!
On that note, I’d like to recognize some of the world’s most influential athletes who are not only exceptionally talented but who have also used their fame to take a stand and create impact.
1. Billie Jean King - champion of social change and sexual equality.
Former professional tennis player, King won 71 singles and 21 doubles titles, including a record 20 Wimbledon titles. Remaining one of the most illustrious players in tennis history, she is also a life-long advocate for social change and gender equality. She is a founder of Women's Tennis Association, World Team Tennis (with former husband Larry King), and the Women's Sports Foundation. To top it off, King is regarded as a pioneer for being the first prominent professional female athlete to come out as a lesbian, paving the way for future athletes to come.
2. Martina Navratilova - exceptional athlete and a life-long human rights activist.
Navratilova was world No. 1 for a total of 332 weeks in singles, and a record 237 weeks in doubles, making her the only player in history to have held the top spot in both singles and doubles for over 200 weeks. She and King each won 20 Wimbledon titles, an all-time record.
Navratilova is another great example of a woman who decided to use her fame to promote justice. In 1981, shortly after becoming a United States citizen, Navratilova came out publicly about her sexual orientation, and today she’s involved with various charities that benefit animal rights, underprivileged children, and LGBT rights. In 2010 she took it to another level- a climb to Mountain Kilimanjaro to raise money and awareness for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation left her hospitalized due to complications from the altitude.
3. Esther Vergeer - paralympic tennis player, with 10 years of unbeaten performance.
Esther Mary Vergeer is a retired Dutch wheelchair tennis player who remained undefeated since January 2003 and ended her career on a winning streak of 470 matches. She was nominated five times for the Laureus Award for Sportsperson with a Disability of the Year, winning it twice, in 2002 and 2008. Off the court, Vergeer is an entrepreneur. She started a sports-marketing company and is the tournament director of a pro wheelchair tournament tied to the men's ATP event in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I love that she started her own charity, too- the Esther Vegeer Foundation, aimed at bringing athletic opportunities to children around the world who have physical limitations.
4. Lindsey Vonn - No. 1 ski racer, willing to challenge herself against men.
With her Olympic gold and bronze medals, two World Championship gold medals in 2009 (plus three silver medals in 2007 and 2011), and four overall World Cup titles, Vonn has become the most successful American ski racer in history and the first American woman to win gold in the downhill. Having won all of the top crowns in women’s downhill ski racing, Lindsey Vonn has set her sights on a new goal: competing against men. Ya girl! Sadly, just a few months after her request, the International Ski Federation (FIS) blocked her bid to challenge the sport's top male skiers, but Vonn is looking into pursing legal action.
In 2010 Vonn received the Laureus World Sports Awards Sportswoman of the Year, and was honored as the USOC's sportswoman of the year. When not skiing, Vonn is involved with the Wings for Life foundation, which funds spinal cord research, and Wounded Warriors, a foundation that helps injured veterans.
5. Danica Patrick - fast and furious, first woman in “men’s sport”.
Danica Patrick is a female race car driver in an industry that is typically thought of as a boys club. Her win in the 2008 Indy Japan 300 is the only women's victory in an IndyCar Series race and her third place in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 was the highest finish ever there by a woman. In 2013, she became the first female NASCAR driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole, turning in the fastest qualifying lap since 1990 in qualifying for the Daytona 500.
6. Sadaf Rahimi - first woman to compete in boxing and represent Afghanistan at Olympic Games.
Sadaf Rahimi made history by being the first female boxer from Afghanistan to be invited to the 2012 London Olympics and being the first female boxer in the national team. Just a week before the competition, International Boxing Association (AIBA) revoked Rahimi’s invitation, citing concerns about her safety in the ring. A bump in the road won’t stop this young athlete. She’s still looking forward to competing in other international events and holds out hope that with a few more years to train, her chances in Rio 2016 will be even better.
Check out The Boxing Girls of Kabul- Rahimi and others were featured in this award winning documentary.
7.Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani - young and fearless, first woman to represent Saudi Arabia at Olympic Games.
An 18-year-old judo fighter has become the first female athlete to compete at the Olympics for Saudi Arabia. She was only able to compete in judo after a compromise between Olympic organizers, the International Judo Federation and Saudi officials that cleared the way for her to wear a modified hijab.
In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed April 6th as the International Day of Sports for Peace and Development, to celebrate the contribution of sports and physical activity to education, human development, healthy lifestyles and a peaceful world.
Today, in many countries girls are not allowed to play sports. They are marginalized and excluded. Often, girls’ participation in sports is against cultural views about what is acceptable for a female. Why? Because sports can and do empower girls and women, creating a safe space for them outside of home and can even change the role of women in society in the long-term.
Besides that, sports are associated with all sorts of benefits for girls’ development. It can contribute to lower teenage pregnancy rates, better grades and higher self-esteem. Girls who plays sports develop essential social, personal and physical qualities - like ambition and strength, that help them to succeed in life.
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