In 2011, female athletes are extremely popular and, more importantly, well respected. But this wasn’t always the case. For the last century or so, female athletes have had to put in a lot of hard work and perseverance to get the respect they deserve. And in some cases, this meant women actually competing against men in the very sports that they supposedly dominated.
Today, Total Pro Sports brings you a list of 9 kick-ass female athletes who dared to take on the impossible by competing against men. They didn’t always win (though sometimes they did), but they held their own and proved to the world that they had to be taken seriously.
9. Danica Patrick (Auto Racing)
In auto racing, women don’t suffer from a particularly large physical disadvantage. Yes, riding in a burning hot car for hours while holding onto the steering wheel for dear life is physically exhausting, but the physical capacity required is fairly low compared to other professional sports. Nevertheless, auto racing has always been a macho sport dominated by men. So Danica Patrick’s career still counts as a pretty big breakthrough. She’s not quite a perennial champion, but she won the 2008 Indy Japan 300 and finished 3rd in the 2009 Indy 500. There’s a lot of good male drivers who haven’t finished 3rd at Indy.
8. Diane Crump (Horse Racing)
It’s been said that a woman named Lula Olive Gill competed as a jockey in California as early as 1906. However, that fact is hard to verify and, if true, the race probably wasn’t a high-level event. The first female jockey to compete in a Thoroughbred race at a parimutuel track (i.e. a race track where people place bets…you know, the good kind) in the United States was Diane Crump. On February 7, 1969, at the Hialeah Park Trace Track in Florida, Crump rode a 48-1 long shot horse to a tenth place finish. It’s not exactly Seabiscuit, but it was pretty momentous.
7. Madge Syers (Figure Skating)
Today, there are a number of sports that are often considered “women’s sports.” This classification is condescending to both women and men—the former because it implies that it is a sports that they must settle for, the latter because it implies they are somehow less “manly” than those who play “men’s” sports. Nevertheless, I suppose the idea of a “woman’s sport” is preferable to the idea that used to prevail, which was that women shouldn’t participate in sports at all.
Figure skating was no exception. Around turn of the 20th century it was, like all sports, the domain of men. That is, until Madge Syers became the first women to compete against men at the 1902 World Figure Skating Championships. At the time there was no women’s competition, but she noticed that the rules for entry into the de facto men’s competition did not actually stipulate the gender of competitors. So she entered, they couldn’t legally kick her out, and she won the silver medal.
But that’s not the end of the story. Apparently, just about every observer thought she performed far better than everyone else and deserved the gold medal. This included the guy who actually did win the gold medal—a Swede by the name of Ulrich Salchow. Legend has it he took the gold medal from around his neck and gave it to the deserving Syers.
How have they not made a movie about this?
6. Seana Hogan (Ultra Cyclist)
Ultra cycling, as you might have guessed, is long-distance endurance cycling. Unlike events in traditional cycling, in which competitors race hundreds or thousands of miles of many days, in ultra cycling events the cyclists just keep on going. For days.
Seana Hogan is a legend in the sport, and not just among the women. Yes, most of her records and wins are in the woman category, but not all of them. In 1995 Hogan was the overall winner at the Furnace Creek 508. Perhaps most impressively, she holds the distinction of setting the overall ultra cycling record time for the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1996, she rode that in an incredible 19 hours 11 minutes. To this day, no one (man or woman) has ridden that route faster.
5. Billy Jean King (Tennis)
Tennis legend Billy Jean King wasn’t really looking to compete against men. She just wanted to compete and be respected. But when retired pro Bobby Riggs made a big deal about how women’s tennis was and starting challenging women’s players to prove him wrong, King stepped up to the challenge. She accepted an invitation to play Riggs in a $100,000 winner-take-all match in 1973 dubbed, appropriately, the Battle of the Sexes.
The match was played on September 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome. There were 30,000 people in attendance, and another 50 million viewing watching on TV around the world. And of course, what they saw was Billy Jean King defeat the pompous Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
4. Katie Hnida (College Football)
Katie Hnida wasn’t the first woman to compete in NCAA football. She was actually the second. A woman named Ashley Martin beat her to the punch, playing for the Division I-AA Jacksonville State University Gamecocks as a kicker in 2001. However, Hnida is the first woman to score points in college football’s highest division (Division I-A). She accomplished the feat on August 30, 2003, by kicking two extra points for the University of New Mexico Lobos. (And yes, she also played for Colorado before transferring to New Mexico, but she never scored for the Buffalos.)
3. Jackie Tonawanda (Boxing)
As a child growing up in New York, Jackie Tonawanda loved boxing and didn’t understand why women couldn’t do it. So she set out to change that. In 1975, she took the New York State Athletic Commission to court over their refusal to allow women’s bouts. The judge sided with Tonawanda, explaining, “this court will not hold that women should be precluded from a profession exploiting whatever skills they may have in the sport of boxing merely because they are women.”
With women now legally allowed to box, Tonawanda got into the ring. And she didn’t waste any time validating herself. In 1975, at Madison Square Garden, she took on kickboxer Larry Rodania…and KO’d him in the second round.
2. Babe Zaharias (Golf)
When Annika Sörenstam played in the Bank of America Colonial tournament back in 2003, she became the first woman to compete in a PGA event…since Babe Zaharias did it in 1945. Of course, unlike Annika, Babe actually made the cut in several men’s tournaments
But competing against men in golf is actually the least of Zaharias’ achievements. She played organized baseball and softball, was an All-American basketball player, and she won 2 gold medals and 1 silver medal in track & field at the 1932 Olympics.
Jackie Mitchell was a pitcher for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts in 1931. From the team’s point of view, she was there mostly as a publicity stunt. But she took her pitching damn seriously. And on April 2, 1931, when her team played an exhibition game against the mighty New York Yankees, the 17-year-old Mitchell proved how serious she was by striking out Babe Ruth AND Lou Gehrig back to back. On 7 pitches. As you can imagine, The Babe was not exactly a good sports about it.