As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I want to celebrate the many sportswomen who fearlessly break down barriers for women and girls around the world. The striking disparities at the NCAA Division-I Basketball Tournament this past weekend are a painful yet unsurprising reminder of the ongoing fight against gender inequality in all levels of athletic competition.
While individuals are quick to condemn injustices such as these, countless girls grow up unintentionally believing a plethora of stereotypes — sports are just a means to achieving a socially acceptable body type, mothers don’t have a place in the sporting arena, women can’t come back from injury in the same way men can, just to name a few.
It’s easy to become lost in these disparities, and it’s difficult to imagine a world without them, but thanks to professional athletes who constantly use their platforms as forces for good, every day I become a little more hopeful for women in sports.
Dina Asher-Smith, Serena Williams and Chloe Kim all embody this fighting spirit. Although they all elevate women in more than just one way, to me, each of them represents a different achievement. From inspiring younger generations to defying stereotypes to mastering the longest of comebacks, these are just three of the many women who push me to be a better version of myself both in and out of sports.
When Asher-Smith competes it’s nearly impossible not to cheer for her, even if you planned to root for the person in the lane beside her. Her presence entails more than British records, a World Championship title and an Olympic medal; it comes with a huge smile, a positive attitude and unconditional gratitude. To this reigning world champion, she’s “just Dina, [who] run[s] fast,” but to so many young women and girls around the world, she is much, much more.
In her recent piece for The Players’ Tribune titled “Who We Elevate,” Asher-Smith shares an encounter with an 8-year-old girl who expressed concern about “getting fat” and believed she needed to start exercising to lose weight. While physical exercise is certainly a positive way to maintain a healthy lifestyle, this question posed by a child highlights an unnerving truth for many young women: the constant pressure to fit an aesthetically pleasing stereotype.
In the article, Asher-Smith expresses her concern for these kinds of pressures, and she argues that society and the media promote images of “marketable body types” rather than merely recognizing women for their accomplishments regardless of what they look like. Instead of receiving equal recognition for equal performance, many women and girls lose sight of the fact that sports are meant to be a fun opportunity to set goals and challenge oneself in a positive way.
Asher-Smith dedicates her time to educating young women and motivating them to push past boundaries and the aesthetically pleasing “ideal.” She reminds us that being sweaty, muscular or seemingly overweight does not mean that we are any less worthy of recognition. When Asher-Smith takes the stage this summer at the Tokyo Olympics, fans will cheer her on, not just for her record-breaking sprints, but also for her commitment to inspiring girls to seek the recognition they deserve.
Like Asher-Smith, Williams has long spoken out against the harmful rhetoric that promotes a singular ideal body type. When it comes to being a role model for women, the 23-time Grand Slam winner has practically done it all: challenged a gender-biased umpire, survived pulmonary embolisms and a hematoma, stood up against racist and sexist abuse, pulled off comebacks in matches that many considered unwinnable, won more Grand Slam singles titles than any man and so much more. But what I want to highlight here is her role as an inspiration to mothers and “older” women in sports.
When Williams announced in 2017 that she was having a child, many believed her tennis career was over. For many professional athletes, competing into their mid-30s is in itself an achievement, never mind having a child and suffering serious medical setbacks. If there is anyone who proves that anything is possible, though, it’s Williams.
Since her pregnancy, Williams has returned to a top-10 ranking and set the record for oldest Grand Slam finalist in the Open Era, reaching two Wimbledon finals and two U.S. Open finals. She won her first singles title as a mother and became the first female professional tennis player with at least one title in four different decades.
For women across the world, Williams is an inspiration and a reminder that age is just a number and that women can be athletes and mothers rather than athletes but mothers. Most importantly, she motivates women to aim for goals with confidence and to know that limits are mere figments of one’s imagination. Her message is clear: If the barrier wasn’t broken for you, go and break it yourself.
Earning an Olympic gold medal at 17 is no small feat. Neither is becoming the first person to land back-to-back 1080 spins in a women’s snowboarding competition just two years earlier. However, if you’ve seen Kim compete, you’ve noticed that she doesn’t seem to let any of these pressures get to her. She always looks calm and effortlessly in control of her performances.
Despite being only 20 years old, the eight-time X Games medalist has the mentality of a veteran, attributing her success to the motto, “Never give up,” which she learned from her hardworking parents who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea.
Staying true to this motto, however, was not without its challenges. One year after she became the youngest woman to win the halfpipe at the Olympics, Kim announced that she had broken her ankle. She proceeded to take 22 months off competition to rehab her ankle and attend her first year at Princeton University. While many may have considered this hiatus far too long and unconventional to return, Kim proved that pushing past setbacks and embracing life changes does pay off.
Her impressive snowboarding comeback saw her win the 2021 Laax Open. Her performance was especially impressive because Kim’s first run saw her in the penultimate position after a fall. Instead of letting negative thoughts deter her, Kim took this setback as motivation to perfect her second run and propel herself to first place. She then went on to win her second world cup event of the season at the U.S. Grand Prix in Aspen.
As she looks to claim her second Olympic gold medal in 2022, girls all over the world will look to Kim as a role model to push them to “never give up” on their dreams, regardless of their age, injuries or uncommon life paths. Kim’s long break and subsequent victories teach us all a lesson — there is not just one singular path to success. Do what makes you happy, even if it’s unconventional, and your passion and hard work will get you far.