5 Women Who Have Changed the World of Health & Fitness

Women’s History Month, celebrated every year in March, is drawing to a close. Corresponding with International Women’s Day on 8 March, Women’s History Month is dedicated to championing women’s causes around the world and celebrating the contributions of women to history, society, politics, culture, and more. 

To round out Women’s History Month, we’d like to share the achievements of some of the most important and influential women in the world of sports and fitness.

Kathrine Switzer

Image: Sky Sports

Kathrine Switzer is an American runner who rose to fame in 1967 for being the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor. At the time, it was generally believed that women did not have the physical ability and endurance required to run 26.2 miles. Just a year earlier, Roberta Gibb had been declined entry to the race but ran it anyway by sneaking onto the course and running without a bib. 

“I think it’s really important for me to say that when I ran that race I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I wanted to run a marathon, and I wanted to run Boston because my coach, Arnie Briggs, had run it 15 times,” Switzer told Andy Frye of Forbes

On the day of the race, Switzer had a male entrant collect her race bib and wore a hooded sweatshirt to cover her long hair. When the hood slipped off, however, race official John “Jock” Semple chased after her and tried to rip off her race bib, knocking her coach out of the way when he tried to protect her. He was eventually knocked to the ground by Switzer’s boyfriend, and she completed the race in 4 hours 20 minutes. The incident made international headlines and in 1972, the Boston Marathon officially created a women’s race. 

Serena and Venus Williams 

Image: Olympics.com

The Williams sisters Venus (born 1980) and Serena (born 1981) are world-leading professional tennis players who have both been ranked in the world #1 position in both singles and doubles by the World Tennis Association. 

The sisters have played against one another numerous times in singles matches, but are nonetheless extremely close and enjoy a loving and supportive relationship off the court. They have also won more than 20 titles when playing doubles together. 

As well as their success on the court, both sisters are committed to their vision for a better and fairer world, supporting numerous charities and community causes. The Williams family also founded the Yetunde Price Resource Center, a non-profit that offers trauma-informed programs to support victims of violence. The organization was named after Venus and Serena’s older sister, who was murdered in 2003. 

Simone Biles 

Image: OIympics.com

Gymnast Simone Biles is a seven time Olympic medal winner and widely considered the greatest gymnasts of all time. She started gymnastics at the age of 6 and began her elite career in 2011, aged just 14. 

Biles won 4 gold medals and a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  At the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (held a year late due to the Covid-19 pandemic), Biles won a silver medal for the team event and a bronze medal in the balance beam competition, but then withdrew from the five further finals in which she was due to compete to focus on her mental health. She stated that she was suffering from a phenomenon known as “the twisties”, a loss of spatial awareness that can be hugely dangerous for an athlete. 

Some criticized her decision, and Biles was subject to abuse from some media outlets and members of the public. However, her decision to withdraw was also widely praised and started a much wider conversation about the role mental health can play in elite sports.

Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias 

Image: National Women's History Museum

Very few people can truly excel in even one sport. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, though, gained world-renowned status in multiple disciplines. 

Born to Norwegian parents in 2011 and growing up with five older siblings, Zaharias said she wanted to be “the greatest athlete that ever lived” at a young age. She excelled in numerous sports including track and field, golf, baseball, and basketball. 

Zaharias won two gold medals (for hurdles and javelin) and a silver medal (for the high jump) and set four world records at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. She remains the only track and field athlete, male or female, to win individual Olympic medals in separate running, throwing and jumping events. 

In 1935, she began to play golf and three years later, she competed in the Los Angeles Open. She would go on to become America’s first female golfing celebrity, dominating in the 1940s and early 1950s unti illness ended her career.

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