All around us, women are rising up, as we have been for centuries. But perhaps one of the most physical displays of perseverance in the face of inequality is in the arena of athletics. Here, women must quite literally find the strength necessary to break records and defy patriarchal norms, overcoming barriers of sexism and in many cases, many other layers of adversity. Here are some of our favorite contemporary female athletes who inspire us to keep pushing hard.
1. Mira Rai
27-year-old Mira Rai is kind of a sensation right now, especially after being named the 2017 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. The petite, high-altitude ultra-runner grew up in the mountains of Nepal, where her family tended livestock. In a country where her opportunities are extremely limited because of her gender, Rai spent much of her childhood helping her parents with labor-intensive farm chores.
At 12, she dropped out of school, and at 14 joined a group of Maoist rebels without her parents’ permission. After returning home several years later to care for her family, she ventured to Kathmandu. While jogging in the hills, she met a group of runners, which led her to unexpectedly begin her first trail race the next day. In the last two years, she’s gone on to win many races across the world.
2. Maya Moore
As a WNBA player, Moore started her career with recognition. She was the first overall pick for the 2011 draft, then went on to 2011 Rookie of the Year, as well as several WNBA championships and MVP awards in the years that followed. She also won both the EuroLeague and Spanish League title in 2012. Oh, and she has two Olympic gold medals. Oh, and she’s the first female to sign with the Jordan brand. What else do you need to know?
Born in Missouri, Moore and her three sisters were raised by a single mother. Moore first started playing basketball when her mother put a hoop on the backdoor of the apartment. Now, at 26, Moore shows little interest in adding dating to her busy schedule, and doesn’t talk much about her personal life.
3. Simone Biles
This 4’ 8”, 19-year-old gymnast stole our hearts during the 2016 Olympics with her signature move, “the Biles.” According to Bustle, the move is a “tumbling double half layout, complete with full twist.” Whatever that means, right? Anyway, it’s pure gold to watch in action, and apparently the judges thought so, too — Biles took home four gold medals and a bronze, setting the record for the most medals in women’s gymnastics in a single game.
Before moving in with her grandparents, Biles and her three siblings spent time in foster care after her mother and father left the picture due to their struggles with addiction. At six, her grandparents adopted her, and shortly thereafter she began doing gymnastics. By the time she reached her mid-teens, she was competing and winning medals.
4. Rafaela Silva
When the 24-year-old Brazilian Judo fighter took home gold at the 2016 Olympics, it meant more than just the prize — her win was also about earning respect for where she came from. Until the age of eight, Silva grew up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, also known as the “City of God.” It’s a rough place that sees little government intervention, but her victory brought hope to its residents.
The victory had even more impact when taken into consideration alongside her disqualification at the 2012 London Olympics, according to the Washington Post. Silva had been kicked out of the tournament after executing a newly-illegal move, which was responded to by the Brazilian public with a barrage of racist slurs on her social media account. The trolling affected her so deeply that she almost gave up judo, but after struggling for several months, she eventually returned stronger than ever.
5. Yusra Mardini
— UNHCR United States (@UNHCRUSA) January 18, 2017
Another Olympian, this time from 2016’s debut Team Refugee: 18-year-old competitive swimmer Yusra Mardini. Mardini is from Syria; and when crossing the Aegean Sea to safety, the boat she shared with 19 other passengers started to sink. She and her sister jumped into the water and started to swim the boat to land. They swam for three and a half hours before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos.
Eventually Mardini found refuge in Berlin, where she was discovered by a coach who saw her swimming at a local pool. At Rio, she won her heat but didn’t qualify for the final round, but she hopes for more in Tokyo in 2020.
6. Bethany Hamilton
Hamilton, now 26, always loved the water, especially surfing. But it’s challenging enough on its own to make this passion into a career without the unexpected barriers Hamilton ultimately had to face. In 2013, when surfing off the coast of Kauai with her friend and her family, Hamilton was lying back on her surfboard, dangling her arm in the water. Suddenly, she felt a tug on her board — a 10-foot tiger shark, who ended up taking one of her arms with her. Never stepping foot in the ocean again? Yeah, me neither.
Or at least, that’s what many of us would have said. But for Bethany, it only took about three weeks for her to get out to the water again, board in hand, and then three tries before she got up on her board — with one arm. She went on to see success with her surfing career, plus a book, a movie, and many different appearances on TV shows.
7. Adriene Levknecht
Diving into more extreme outdoor sports means high stakes — life or death, in fact. For 27-year-old kayaker Adrienne Levknecht, her relationship with whitewater has gotten her through the tough things, including the death of a friend as a result of a kayaking accident and her own losses at the World Championships. She’s well-decorated in the niche world of freestyle kayaking, including 2012 Female Paddler of the Year. And she’s also a teacher — she now works for a program called First Descents, a program that gives intensive one-on-one kayaking classes to cancer survivors.
8. Lhakpa Sherpa
— Royal Mountain (@royalmt_nepal) May 24, 2016
Mountaineering also leaves little margin for error; but when it comes to Mt. Everest, it’s all about the end goal: the summit. Lhakpa Sherpa is what Outdoor Magazine calls a “housewife” — she lives in Connecticut and takes care of the kids, mostly. But simultaneously, the native Nepali holds a record for being the woman with the most successful summits of Everest.
The time spanning her first and most recent summit marks a difficult period in Sherpa’s life. Recently, she divorced her husband of 12 years (another climber) on the grounds of domestic abuse. She had grown up in the mountains of Nepal, then worked on the mountain for numerous years; but after moving to Connecticut to be with her husband and raise a family, her life changed drastically. For 12 years, she’d lived in a country where she didn’t speak the language; and because she hadn’t had access to education as a child, she couldn’t read in any language.
For a long while, Sherpa held six summits, which still would have been a record. But this past summer, after her divorce, she completed her seventh summit.