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Memorable moments in women's sports history

Billie Jean

vs. the male chauvinist pig

Sept. 20, 1973

The event itself — a tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs — felt like a light-hearted playground match with tongue-in-cheek trash talk, teasing between men and women in middle America who weren't even tennis fans, and a $100,000 winner-take-all purse. But make no mistake, this was a huge moment for women's sports and more important and serious than it appeared on the surface. In retrospect, it was a seminal moment in women's sports. Despite incredible pressure to win this battle of the sexes, King crushed Riggs in three straight sets at the soldout Houston Astrodome as 50-million people across the world watched on television — still a record for a tennis match.

Nixon's autograph

July 23, 1972

Seems weird to say this, but one of the most critical moments in women's sports history didn't take place on a playing field or court, and it wasn't even a performance by a woman. It was something that President Richard Nixon did in less than two seconds. It was when he signed Title IX into law. It stated, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any education program or activities receiving Federal financial assistance." In other words, the girls get to play sports as much as the boys. And the effect? Female participation in sports jumped from 300,000 to more than 3-million.

The original Danica

May 29, 1977

Danica Patrick is one of the most popular athletes today and the leading lady of IndyCar. But she wasn't IndyCar's first female driver. Credit for that goes to Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1977. The same year, she qualified at the Daytona 500. Also, here would be the appropriate time to give a nod to Shirley Muldowney, who became the first woman to win a National Hod Rod Association event on June 13, 1976.

The Babe

July 16, 1932

When sports fans say "The Babe,'' they usually mean Babe Ruth. But the other Babe also can be considered one of the greatest and most influential athletes in history. We're talking Babe Didrikson, who burst onto the sports landscape in 1932 when she set world records in the javelin, 80-meter hurdles, high jump and baseball throw on the same day! Didrikson would go on to win two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics and 10 majors on the LPGA Tour. On the short list of the greatest athletes (man or woman) ever.

The pose

July 10, 1999

If one image perfectly captures women in sports, it's U.S. soccer star Brandi Chastain celebrating after scoring the winning penalty kick to lead the Americans past China in the 1999 World Cup before 90,185 at the Rose Bowl — still the largest crowd ever to attend a women's sporting event. Chastain's pose in her sports bra encompassed power, passion, dedication and femininity and was the exclamation point of perhaps the greatest game in women's sports history.

The big swim

Aug. 6, 1926

Gertrude Ederle was only 19 when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel — weather forced her to swim the equivalent of 35 miles to cover the 21-mile distance. Only five men had done it before her. And none did it faster. Despite swimming into a rough tide, Ederle's time was 14 hours, 31 minutes — nearly two hours faster than the channel record. One of the first signs in sports that anything a man can do, a woman can do, too. And sometimes even better.

Nancy vs. Tonya


Okay, not a moment any of us can be proud of, but the soap opera between figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding before the Lillehammer Olympics remains one of the most compelling sports stories in history and cannot be ignored on a list of memorable women-in-sports moments. In a nutshell, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Harding, bottom right, was trying to beat out girl-next-door Kerrigan at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. In a plot straight out of a bad Lifetime movie, Kerrigan was whacked on the leg by a thug hired by Harding's then-husband, who then testified against Harding. Harding eventually pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation and now lives in sports infamy. How big of a deal was it? Harding was on the cover of both Newsweek and Time.

The horror of sports

April 30, 1993

In 1993, Monica Seles was the best women's tennis player in the world, having won three straight French Opens, as well as the U.S. and Australian opens. But her career, and our view of sports, changed forever when Seles was attacked by 38-year-old Gunter Parche, who stabbed her during a match in Germany in hopes that his favorite, Steffi Graf, would become the world's top player. Seles' career was never the same and Graf became the world's top female player. In addition, the frightening moment showed how obsessed sports fans can be.

The wild blue yonder

May 20-21, 1932

One could argue that a pilot is not actually an athlete. But there's no question Amelia Earhart inspired a nation when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic nonstop. She flew solo from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, to Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 13½ hours. In August, she became the first woman to cross the U.S. solo when she flew from Los Angeles to Newark, setting a women's nonstop transcontinental speed record. In 1937, Earhart disappeared 22,000 miles into her attempt to go around the world. She was never heard from again, but has never been forgotten.

Best ever?

1988 Olympics

Who is the best female athlete ever? Many would say Jackie Joyner-Kersee. At the 1988 Olympics, Joyner-Kersee scored 7,291 point in the heptathlon, a world record that stands to this day. Then for the icing on the cake: Five days after winning gold in the heptathlon, she set an Olympic record in the long jump. For good measure, she again won the gold in the heptathlon in the 1992 Olympics, solidifying her standing as, perhaps, the greatest female athlete of all time.

The women's Final Four is at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. Danica Patrick is racing through the streets of St. Petersburg. So with that, we take a look at some of the most memorable moments in women's sports history. ¶ We can't include them all. The list does not diminish the amazing feats by Wilma Rudolph or Mary Lou Retton or the UConn and Tennessee women's basketball teams. We haven't forgotten Bonnie Blair or Martina Navratilova or Nancy Lopez or the thousands of others who have shaped the sports landscape for both women and men, boys and girls. ¶ And, mind you, these might not be the greatest moments, but the ones that made news, stood the test of time, influenced future events and generations and, well, were memorable.

Memorable moments in women's sports history 04/05/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2008 6:42pm]
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