Inspiring Women in the World of Sport

By Rose Julien

Shedding some light on the female athletes who have inspired and impacted countless

I recently found myself at Stansted Airport, specifically in one of its bookstores. While browsing through the various sections, I came across the Sports Biography section and noticed something peculiar. Out of the forty-five books displayed, there wasn’t a single book about a female athlete.

It is not to say that Joe Simpson’s accomplishments are anything less than truly admirable, or that Jenson Button isn’t a very talented race car driver. It is beyond me to disagree that Pep Guardiola was anything less than a phenomenal player. But where are the biographies about Kristin Harila, who holds the record of the fastest true-summit ascent of the 8000ers? How about a book detailing Maria Teresa de Filippis’ push for inclusivity which resulted in the extension of Formula One racing to women? Where are the biographies about Aitana Bonmatí, Ballon d’Or 2023, or Mary Earps, crowned the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2023? Women have been breaking records, pushing boundaries, and achieving incredible things across all sports disciplines yesterday and today, and they will continue to do so tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Of course, female and male success in the world of sports are not exclusive to one another, but representation matters, and one can only wonder where the female representation is when staring at a section in a bookstore which offers none.

To counter my disappointment at this underwhelming bookshelf non-sighting, I asked three people in my entourage to tell me who their favourite female sportsperson is, and why. By sharing this list, I hope to remind readers of the prevalence of women achieving great things in the sports world, even if they are not always celebrated as loudly as they might deserve to be. 

It will come as no shock to anyone that Serena Williams was mentioned not once, but twice. One of the most successful and iconic tennis players of all time, Serena Williams has had an illustrious sports career spanning over two decades. Throughout her career, she has won countless titles and awards including 23 Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, four Olympic gold medals, and numerous other championships. Her powerful serve, lightning-fast reflexes, and unwavering determination have earned her a spot in the history books as one of the greatest athletes of all time, and an inspiration to female and black and ethnic minority athletes across the globe.

However, it isn’t just Williams’ achievements on the court that are inspiring. Indeed, Williams has often spoken out against body shamers and encourages women to embrace their bodies as they come and evolve. Fourth-year student and gym enthusiast, Alexandra, says: “Serena Williams is a big inspiration to me. She’s the first high-performance athlete I saw who was at the top of her game, as well as being a bigger girl physically both in terms of height and build. A lot of female athletes you see are smaller muscular women, but Serena is a legend who dominated her sport and fully embraced her muscular build. It’s great to see representation of strong female bodies that don’t mirror the more advertised female athlete body which tends to be petite and lean”. 

To read more about Serena Williams and her inspiring career both on and off the courts, you can read her autobiography titled Queen of the Court, published in 2010. Publisher Penguin Random House also announced in 2023 that they would publish a memoir written by Williams detailing her extraordinary life, as well as “celebrating body diversity and expanding the confines of style in sports and pop culture”.

To Rael, a water polo player most often found doing laps in the swimming pool, the female athlete who inspires him the most today is Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill. A slightly lesser-known name, Ennis-Hill is a retired track and field athlete known for heptathlons, pentathlons, and the 100m hurdles. She has nine gold medals to her name, including an Olympic medal and three from the World Championships. She is renowned for her incredible achievements in the heptathlon, a discipline in which she held the highest world ranking in 2009, 2010 and 2012. The female heptathlon is a 7-event athletic contest which consists of hurdle runs, a high jump, a shot put, a 200-metre sprint, a javelin throw, and an 800-metre run. Heptathletes are renowned for their mental resilience and discipline, as well as being Swiss-army knife athletes – brilliant in different disciplines, which requires a combination of excellent cardio and strength. 

Ennis-Hill embodies the essential work ethic and strength of character of a heptathlete in many ways. To begin, she only stands at 5 feet 5 inches. and weighs 57 kg, making her an unlikely talent in a sport normally dominated by taller competitors. Despite being told by her coach that she was too short for world-class level competitions, Ennis-Hill’s work ethic never allowed her to give up and she quietly redefined what the heptathlete should look like, even captaining the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team in 2010. Rael says that to him, this inspiring work ethic shone through brightest in 2008 when Ennis-Hill broke the bones in her right foot, an injury which forced her to pull out of the Beijing Olympics. However, a year later, Ennis-Hill was back and even completed the long jump on her weaker foot at the World Championships in Berlin. Her unrelenting spirit and resilience paid off, and she won gold at the event.

To read more about Jessica Ennis-Hill and her inspiring achievements and incredible dedication to the sports world, you can read her biography Unbelievable: From My Childhood Dreams to Winning Olympic Gold which was published in 2013 by Hodder. 

The last athlete on this list is Dame Ellen MacArthur, a sailor who my mother looked up to when she was younger. To her, MacArthur was inspirational because she was “strong and admirable in what she achieved – in this instance crossing an ocean alone on a boat”. Indeed, when reading about the sailor, it is hard not to be impressed by her bravery and independent streak. MacArthur is best known for her sailing achievements between 2000 and 2009. 

From 2000-2001, MacArthur participated in the Vendée Globe sailing competition, a single-handed, solo, nonstop world yacht race. She was the youngest competitor at the time and came in second place ahead of big names such as Roland Jourdain and Mike Golding. This was only three years after the Vendee Globe was completed by a woman for the first time. Therefore, although she was not crowned the victor, this was a massive achievement as MacArthur set a world record for single-handed, non-stop, monohull circumnavigation by a woman. Two years later, she captained a first attempt to complete an around-the-world record although her team had to quit as the mast of their yacht broke in the Southern Ocean. In 2004, she set out on her own to break Francis Joyon’s record in solo, non-stop sailing around the world. She finished her travel on 7 February 2005 after 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds spent alone at sea. Her efforts were not in vain as this broke Joyon’s record by a full day and eight hours. 

To learn more about Dame Ellen MacArthur, you can read her 2002 autobiography, Taking on the World, her 2005 memoir, Race Against Time, detailing each day during her record journey, or her 2010 autobiography, Full Circle


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