There was a time where it was believed only men had what it takes to be an athlete. Thankfully, little by little, pioneering female athletes have emerged in different sports and left an indelible mark on sporting history – and society too.
Sport, initially the exclusive domain of men, has changed throughout history thanks to the milestones achieved by women. Some were victims of discrimination, but their struggle and achievements set a precedent and they themselves became an inspiration for many others. Interest in women’s sport has grown in recent decades, but there is still a long way to go to achieve real equality.
Sport as a competition has centuries of history; the Olympic Games began in Ancient Greece, where the physical feats of the participants were admired. But the popularisation of sport as a mass event did not take place until the second half of the 19th century. At that time, it was an eminently male domain: from football and rugby to tennis, gymnastics, and athletics. Led by tenacious pioneers, women gradually broke down barriers, achieved milestones and eliminated discrimination to achieve something that is commonplace today; a group of girls playing handball, a mother shooting a basket with her son or tennis lovers standing in front of the television to watch Serena Williams win another final.
Many women broke the mould in order to achieve equality or simply to be allowed to take part in sport. Kathrine Switzer’s name, for example, is inscribed in gold letters in the history of sport precisely for this reason. In 1967 she fought against all odds to get around the ban that prevented women from competing in a marathon. She and many others set a precedent by the mere fact of competing. Others went down in history for achieving excellence, such as Larisa Latynina with her 18 Olympic medals.
In celebration of this, we asked the women of SQN to share the sports personalities that have inspired them. Here’s what they said:
I’m going to be showing my age now but the first female athletes to inspire me were Nadia Comanceci, the Romanian gymnast who scored the first perfect 10 in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Sue Barker the British tennis player who was local to my home town in Devon and the first British woman to win the French Open in the same year and Fatima Whitbread, who broke the world record in the qualifying round of the 1986 European Athletics Championships in Stuttgart, and became the first British athlete to set a world record in a throwing event. Whitbread went on to win the European title that year, and took the gold medal at the 1987 World Championships. She is also a two-time Olympic medallist, winning bronze at the 1984 Summer Olympics and silver at the 1988 Summer Olympics.
I guess back in those days sport, and particularly female sport, did not have the following it has today thanks to broadcast and social media but for me, these women certainly presented role models on dedication and determination of applying yourself to a task and succeeding. Growing up I always wanted to work in sports but short of being a PE teacher, there were few careers apart from being a professional athlete that afforded that opportunity. Little was I to know however that my decision to focus on technology and languages as a career would miraculously transfer into sport when Nortel became a sponsor in Formula One and out of 100,000 employees I was asked to manage the program.
In todays’ world, so many those who have already been mentioned certainly set themselves apart and deserve the recognition they have received for the role models they have become to young girls and women all over the world. For me, the England women’s football team that recently became European Champions also deserve a special mention. Men’s football has failed to compete competitively on the world stage and yet here we are with the underfunded Lionesses dominating European football and being a true inspiration to so many.
A multi-lingual icon, speaking English, Bengali, French and Spanish, Reshmin Chowdhury was the first Bengali female sports presenter that I came across many years ago on the BBC.
In my formative teenage years, while I was desperately deciding what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be, Reshmin was an inspirational figure, presenting in a very-heavily male-dominated world of football and made the reality of pursuing a career in media much more plausible.
For many young Asian women growing up in the UK, pursuing a career in media is not the most conventional path, and it was difficult to find role models who proved it was possible.
Reshmin was the first journalist to interview Cristiano Ronaldo after he secured his world-record signing for Real Madrid; she’s presented for Eurosport, the BBC, across a range of sports from football to the Olympics, to Women’s Football. At BT Sport, she was a lead reporter for the UEFA Champions League and has co-presented the group stage draw for the Champions League. Now, she currently does live coverage of the Premier League for Talksport.
She’s covered some incredibly high-profile moments in the biggest game in the world and personally, it’s a real joy to see a Bengali women (and a Chowdhury at that) leading the way. She has not only inspired me but also a new generation of young Asian women who are now breaking through into the mainstream media space.
It’s incredibly difficult to narrow down one woman in sport that’s inspired me. Lee McKenzie was my window into motorsports; she was the main (and for what felt like a long time, only) woman I saw on television in the F1 paddock. She made motorsport accessible to me both as a fan and as a career option. Suzi Perry and Susie Wolff also had a ripple effect in where I am today.
Outside of my favourite sport, there are still so many names. Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player there has ever been, but the backlash, criticism, sexism and racism she has faced in her career is unlike anything her male counterparts have ever had to face. She is remarkable for many reasons, and her ability to inspire transcends the world of tennis. Williams’s strength of conviction, drive and ambition is something we can all aspire to. I loved watching Laura Kenny compete, and my admiration for her tripled with her open discussion about her recent miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy.
Sportspeople have a fantastic platform to inspire, but it’s those who use their voice and reach to speak out on topics – whether it be racial injustice, inequality, or the lack of research around the effects of the menstrual cycle and menopause in sports science, as Dina Asher-Smith and Eilish McColgan have recently – that I really respect and admire.
The sports personality that inspires me is Louise Goodman. She was the first woman that I remember seeing in the world of motorsport – presenting Formula 1 back when it was broadcast on ITV and now co-presenting on BTCC. As a young girl, it was great to see someone just like me on the TV rather than just men. I had the pleasure of meeting Louise in 2021 when I was wanting to start out my career in motorsport, and she gave me invaluable advice. It was advice that gave me the confidence to chase my dreams and I will keep that with me forever.
Simone Biles is another notable name in sport that inspires me. To become the most decorated gymnast in history at such a young age is an incredible accomplishment. Her sporting achievements aside, it was her attitude at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games where she chose herself over her sport on the world’s biggest stage. It was inspiring for her to speak so openly about the struggles she was facing, showing that it’s okay to prioritise your mental well-being.
Just as she has just retired and coinciding with Carrie, Serena Williams is a woman I look up to. The American tennis player’s sporting achievements are hard to match. She was an Olympic gold medallist in doubles and singles, won 39 Grand Slam titles, was world number one several times and held that position for more than 270 weeks. She won her first tournament when she was just four years old.
But for me the most impressive thing is how throughout her career, she has stood out for her ability to surpass herself, overcoming the obstacles of racism and the social and economic limitations that befell her in her childhood, coming from a humble family of 5 sisters in a suburb of Los Angeles (Compton, one of the cities with the highest crime and poverty rates in the United States). She trained with her father on public courts, overcame the death of one of her sisters (killed by a gun in her neighbourhood), studied art in Florida, designs and has her own clothing line, and heads a foundation that bears her name, which offers assistance to families affected by violent crime and provides education to young people who do not have access to it.
Serena Williams has not stopped leading by example, and still fights inequality today, highlighting that white female tennis players earn more money than their African-descended peers in the advertising world and proving that there is still progress sorely needed.
Perhaps a little more recent than the other suggestions, I would say Naomi Schiff is helping change the dynamic of inspiring female sports personalities. After seeing her start her W Series career and following her as she subsequently fell out of the sport, her ability to switch her racing career around into a juvenile but notable presenting career with Sky Sports is nothing less than exciting. Her position on the main Formula 1 broadcasts alongside a YouTube spinoff ‘Any Driven Monday’ shows her value to the Sky Sports F1 team both as a driver and a female.
With so much potential still left to fulfil, Naomi has already conducted the huge Lewis Hamilton interview regarding his experience of the 2022 Formula 1 season and his trip to where his ancestors were from across Africa, presented the car launch for the Mercedes W13 Formula 1 car alongside long-time Formula 1 presenter Natalie Pinkham and being invited to the Mercedes Factory in Brackley to share her story with the team for Black History Month. Her Rwandan heritage is also a huge driving factor in my nomination; as someone who is half Nigerien, finding a driver that you can relate to due to a shared African heritage is a rare thing in motorsport. The fact she has resiliently dealt with a mass of racist hatred online, much like many other black athletes, is no surprise but does demonstrate the strength people like us have to possess to be in the public eye.
I hope to continue to see Naomi flourish as she continues to build on her already successful racing and presenting careers and will continue to enjoy seeing her on my television screen throughout the coming Formula 1 seasons.
We hope you enjoyed our list. If there’s a fantastic woman you look up to we’d love to hear about her, let us know on our socials!
Remember: be the best woman you can be and never underestimate your influence on others.