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Play Like a Girl: Female Athletes Who Dominate Their Male Counterparts

Play Like a Girl: Female Athletes Who Dominate Their Male Counterparts


Katie Hnida kicker colorado buffaloes

A Division I female kicker? How about a woman playing goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning? It’s not often that female athletes reach the top level of sports and compete side by side next to their male counterparts. However, when they do, they are doing so against all odds, blazing new trails, and defying conventional wisdom.

Here are 30 female athletes who dominated while breaking barriers.

Jen Welter

Out of all the sports, football is the one most dominated by men. But that didn’t stop Jen Welter from breaking through to the NFL. In 2015, Welter joined the Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coaching intern for the team’s preseason.

Jen Welter arizona cardinals

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Her hiring made her the first female coach in the NFL. Despite sticking out like a sore thumb, players reacted to Welter’s presence very well and viewed her like everyone else- a coach trying to help the team be the best it can be. After her NFL stint, Welter continued coaching. In 2018 she became a defensive specialist with the Atlanta Legends of the Alliance of American Football.

Jackie Tonawanda

Jackie Tonawanda was a fighter in and out of the ring. In the ring, Tonawanda had fast hands and a powerful punch. The problem was she wasn’t allowed the opportunity to display those skills. That’s because of sexist laws that prevented women from competitive boxing. After a lengthy battle in court, Tonawanda emerged victoriously and paved the way for women in combat/fighting sports.

jackie tonawanda boxer

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In 1975, Tonawanda made history by knocking out Larry Rodania in a boxing match at Madison Square Garden. The fight, however monumental, has come under scrutiny for its legitimacy. Some critics suspect the fight was staged with Tonawanda being a predetermined winner.

Manon Rheaume

The Tampa Bay Lightning were an expansion team, and during the team’s first season, management and ownership wanted to generate some much-needed publicity and hype for south Florida’s first NHL team. To generate publicity, the Lightning signed Manon Rheaume to play in a 1992 preseason exhibition game.

Manon Rheaume female hockey player nhl

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Rheaume thus became the first woman to suit up for an NHL team, and she faired pretty well. She allowed two goals and made some impressive stops, generating praise from her NHL peers for her poise and ability. After her brief NHL stint, Rheaume went onto win a silver medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Sarah Thomas

Look, no one likes refs. But everyone should respect Sarah Thomas. Put away your disdain for the zebras and recognize what Sarah Thomas has done. Thomas started her high-level refereeing in college, becoming the first woman to officiate a Division I football game, a bowl game, and officiate in a Big Ten stadium.

sarah thomas nfl first female referee

Leon Halp/ Getty Images

In 2015, the NFL hired Thomas as the league’s first full-time female official in NFL history. Thomas, who receives a bit more attention than her male counterparts (refs, let it be known, want to receive as little attention as possible), is one tough ref. In 2016, she broke her wrist in a mid-game collision. After getting checked for a concussion, Thomas returned to the field to fulfill her duties.

Violet Palmer

Like Sarah Thomas, Violet Palmer is a trailblazing referee. But unlike Thomas, Palmer was the first female official to reach one of the four highest professional sports leagues in America (MLB, NBA, NHL, MLB). In 1996, Palmer accepted an offer from the NCAA to officiate in that year’s men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Violet Palmer female referee NBA

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However, the offer was later rescinded when NCAA board members hesitated at having a female official officiating college basketball’s most-watched spectacle. One year later, Palmer made history by officiating the 1997 NBA season opener between the Vancouver Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks. In 2006, Palmer made more history when she became the first woman to ref an NBA playoff game.

Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King was the No.1 female tennis player in the world for years and was widely regarded as one of the world’s most successful tennis players, irrespective of gender. In 1973, former world No.1 male tennis player Bobby Riggs, who at the time was 55 years old, challenged a 29-year-old King to a nationally televised and widely publicized match at the Houston Astrodome.

Billy Jean King tennis star

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Dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes,” the match was the most viewed tennis match and was viewed by an estimated 90 million people around the world. The attendance for the match was 30,472, making it the largest audience for a tennis match in the U.S. King monumentally won the match in three sets and is credited with helping proliferate women’s tennis in America.

Julie Krone

Michigan’s Julie Krone is the best female jockey the world has ever seen, bar none. In 1993, Krone, riding her beloved Colonial Affair, won the Belmont Stakes. In doing so, she became the first and only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.

Julie Krone horse racing

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Seven years later, Krone became the first woman to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Lastly, in 2003, Krone continued to make history by becoming the first female jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup race. For her improbable performance in 1993, Krone won the ESPY for Female Athlete of the Year.

Becky Hammon

WNBA legend Becky Hammon became a Russian citizen in 2008. The reason? She couldn’t make the cut for the U.S. Olympic Team. As a hired gun for team Russia, Hammon played in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, helping the Russians capture the bronze medal in 2008. A six-time WNBA All-Star, Hammon first got involved with coaching following an injury that forced her to miss a season.

Becky Hammon NBA coach San Antonio Spurs

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In 2014, the Spurs hired Hammon as an assistant coach. At that point, Hammon became just the second female assistant coach in NBA history and the first full-time assistant coach. At the 2016 NBA All-Star Game, Hammon became the first woman to be a part of an All-Star team’s coaching staff.

Chloe Kim

Most events at the Winter Olympics are separated by sex, including snowboarding. So Chloe Kim hasn’t yet had the chance to compete against the men, but the body of work she has put in in her limited career has been nothing short of amazing. At the 2018 Winter, Kim, who was just 17 at the time, wowed millions around the globe by winning the Olympic gold in snowboarding.

Chloe Kim winter olympics

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Instantly Chloe Kim became a fan favorite in America and the youngest woman to ever win an Olympic snowboarding medal. In 2018, Kim also became the first woman to land the vaunted frontside double cork 1080 in the halfpipe competition.

Ronda Rousey

Whatchu glarin’ at? Ronda Rousey was the baddest woman on the planet at the beginning of her UFC career. Rousey was a U.S. Olympian and bronze medalist in judo at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After fighting her way through small fighting circuits, Ronda got promoted to sign with the UFC and participated in UFC’s inaugural women’s fight.

Ronda Rousey UFC Champion WWE

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From that point on, there was no stopping Rousey. She went onto defend her championship belt six times before a stunning loss to Holly Holm. In 2018, Rousey became the first female fighter to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. She’s also the only woman to win both a UFC and WWE championship as well as being the only female athlete to headline pay-per-view events for both of the aforementioned companies.


Billed as the “Ninth Wonder of the World,” Chyna, born Joan Marie Laurer, is considered one of the greatest, most influential female wrestlers of all time. A WWF legend, Chyna held the WWF Intercontinental Championship twice and the WWF Women’s Championship once. She was the only female wrestler to ever hold the Intercontinental Championship.

Chyna WWE


Chyna, who was considered a proud feminist and sex symbol, was the first woman to wrestle in a Royal Rumble match and a King of the Ring tournament. Out of the ring, Chyna starred in multiple adult films and played a few cameo roles in movies such as “Illegal Aliens” and “Cougar Club.”

Eri Yoshida

Inspired by famous Red Sox knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield, Eri Yoshida grew up practicing baseball’s most bizarre pitch. Despite her small stature, Yoshida had impressive control over her pitches and could fool batters with ease. In 2008, at just 16 years old, Yoshida became the first female to be drafted by a Japanese men’s professional baseball team.

eri yoshida pitcher

@DreamcatchersBB via Twitter

Dubbed the “Knuckle Princess,” Yoshida continued her success and was drafted by the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League, an independent league with no affiliation to MLB. Yoshida, unsurprisingly, became the first woman to pitch professionally in two countries and was the first woman to collect a hit in an American professional baseball game in more than half a century.

Carissa Moore

Surfs up dude! Carissa Moore is one with the wave. Born in Hawaii, Moore began shredding waves at a young age. At 18, Moore became the youngest surfer in history, male or female, to win a surfing world title. That achievement was just the start of great things to come for Moore.

Carissa Moore pro surfer quicksilver big waves

Matthew Stockman/ Getty Images

In 2011, Moore made surfing history when she received a wildcard entry into the Men’s Triple Crown of Surfing, one of the sport’s most prestigious events. By shattering barriers, Moore has inspired millions of young surfers to push the limits and never settle for anything but the best.

Dame Ellen MacArthur

Ellen MacArthur, an honorary Dame, was for a brief amount of time the fastest solo-sailer in the world. On February 7, 2005, MacArthur broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe. In just 71 days and 14 hours, MacArthur circumnavigated the globe alone in her boat.

Dame Ellen MacArthur sails around the world record time

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The record beat the previous mark set by Francis Joyon, a French sailor. However, Joyon didn’t take a liking to his record being broken and set out to reclaim it, which he did less than one year after MacArthur’s blazing-fast journey. In 2009, after a legendary racing career, MacArthur retired to focus on other endeavors.

Jackie Mitchell

Down goes Ruth! Down goes Gehrig! You don’t often hear of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig striking out. It’s even less common to hear them striking out in rapid succession. Back in 1931, Jackie Mitchell, pitching for the Chattanooga Lookouts in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, stared down the “Sultan of Swat,” and struck him out in four pitches.

Jackie Mitchell babe ruth

@amightygirl via Twitter

Next up was the feared Lou Gehrig. He went down on three straight pitches.  Although Mitchell never made it to Major League Baseball, she accomplished a feat many pitchers could only dream of: striking out two of the game’s most feared hitters.

Zhang Shan

From 1972-1992, skeet shooting was a mixed event at the Olympics. But no woman had ever won a medal in those 20 years. That is until Zhang Shan shocked the world on sports’ biggest stage. Shan started the discipline of shotgun shooting at 16, and by 1989 she was a member of the Chinese National Team.

Zhang Shan

China Photos/Getty Images

At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Shan shot her way to the gold medal, besting the most elite male shooters from around the globe. After her triumph, the International Shooting Union prohibited mixed-gender skeet shooting, prompting Shan to retire from the sport until 2000 when Women’s skeet shooting was introduced as an Olympic sport.

Babe Zaharias

A standout multi-sport athlete, Babe Zaharias started off her athletic career in track. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Zaharias medaled three times, two of them being gold. In college, Zaharias was an All-American basketball player, but her real passion lied on the links. Yes, it was golf that captivated one of America’s greatest athletes, and it was Babe that helped launch the LPGA.

Babe zaharias PGA Golf

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However, before the LPGA, Babe challenged the status quo and entered men’s professional golf tournaments. In 1938, Zaharias became the first woman to play in a men’s event when she teed off at the Los Angeles Open, today known as the Genesis Open. In 1945, Zaharias played in three PGA tournaments. Her logic for breaking barriers was succinct and sound. “There was no rule that said a woman couldn’t play in it, so I got in there.”

Mo’ne Davis

Mo’ Davis, mo’ strikeouts. There wasn’t a greater attraction at the 2o14 Little League World Series than pitcher Mo’ne Davis. A dominant, accurate, and hard-throwing pitcher for the Philadelphia team at the Little League World Series, Davis became the first girl to both win a game at the LLWS and pitch a shutout.

Mo'Ne Davis pitcher little league world series

Rob Carr/ Getty Images

She was also the sixth girl to get a hit at the LLWS and the first African -American girl to play in the LLWS. When Davis stepped on the mount, batters shook in their cleats. ESPN ratings for the LLWS shot up when she was on the hill, and for her efforts, she was awarded an ESPY in 2015 for Best Breakthrough Athlete.

Kelly Kulick

“The pins don’t recognize who is throwing the ball, whether it is a girl or a guy,” said Kelly Kulick. But everyone in the bowling world will recognize her. That’s because she is the first woman to ever qualify to play on the PBA Tour. Then she one-upped that accomplishment by becoming the first woman to win the PBA Tour title.

kelly kulick

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In 2010, Kulick stormed through the competition en route to a win at the 45th Tournament of Champions, one of the four majors on the PBA circuit. With that win, Kulick earned herself a nice $40,000 prize and a two-year exemption to continue playing on the predominantly-male PBA Tour.

Ann Meyers Drysdale

The Michael Jordan of women’s basketball, Ann Meyers Drysdale was a pioneer in women’s basketball and is the GOAT when it comes to female basketball players. Ann started wrecking her opponents from an early age, and in high school she was the first person, male or female, to be selected for the U.S. National Team. For most people, that would be a lifetime achievement, but Meyers Drysdale wasn’t satisfied, nor was she slowing down.

ann meyers pacers

@DunkStories via Twitter

After high school, Meyers Drysdale became the first woman to sign a four-year athletic scholarship when she enrolled at UCLA. As a Bruin, she recorded the first quadruple-double in Division I history. In 1979, Meyers Drysdale made more history when she signed a $50,000 contract with a contract with the Indiana Pacers, becoming the first woman to sign with an NBA team.

Danica Patrick

A pioneer in the sport of auto racing, Danica Patrick is arguably the most famous female driver in history. Patrick dropped out of high school to pursue a career in racing and left her competition in the dust. As Patrick rose through the amateur circuits, her fame and reputation began to burgeon. In 2005, she got the call-up to race in the famed IndyCar Series.

danica patrick nascar and f1 driver

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Five years later, Patrick successfully made the transition to stock car racing, racing in the NASCAR X-Finity Series. She’s the first woman in American auto racing history to win an IndyCar Series race, clinch a pole position in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and holds the highest finish by a woman in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.

Janet Guthrie

Originally an aerospace engineer, Janet Guthrie had a passion for speed. Unfortunately for her, rocket racing wasn’t a thing, forcing her to settle for the next viable option: auto racing. Despite being a female in a male-dominated sport and unable to attract top sponsors, Guthrie still managed to blaze many trails.

Janet Guthrie racing

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In 1976, Guthrie became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup race, placing 15th at the 1976 World 600. One year later, Guthrie placed sixth at Bristol, which at the time was the best finish by a woman in a top-tier NASCAR race. In her NASCAR career, Guthrie finished in the top 10 five times.

Ashley Martin

Before Katie Hnida, there was Ashley Martin. A soccer player for the Jacksonville State University Gamecocks (surprisingly not located in Flordia), Martin walked on to the Division I FCS (lower than FBS) football team where she would make football history.

Ashley Martin JSU

@Georgia Sports Hall of Fame via Facebook

On August 30, 2001, Martin became the first woman to play in and score points in a Division I football game, kicking three successful extra points on three attempts in a landslide victory over Cumberland University. After the moment of a lifetime, Martin remained humble in her triumphs. “I didn’t do a thing,” she said. “All these guys put all the heart and hard work in it.”

Becca Longo

Becca Longo was a dominant high school football kicker at Basha High School in Chandler, Arizona. The success she had garnered national attention for the dual-sport athlete, and Adams State University, a Division II school located in Colorado, came knocking.

Becca Longo kicker Adams State University


In 2017, Adams State offered Longo a scholarship, making her the first woman to earn a college football scholarship to a Division I or II school. A hero for millions of girls looking to get into football, Longo’s college career has not gotten off on the right foot. As a freshman, Longo injured her foot and missed the season. On Twitter, she announced her intention to transfer from Adams State.

Katie Hnida

Katie Hnida started her college football career as a walk-on at the University of Colorado. Although she never took the field for the Buffaloes, Hnida did become the second woman to suit up for games at the Division I level, and the first to do so in a bowl game at the FBS level. In 2002, Hnida transferred to the University of New Mexico where she again walked on to the football team.

Katie Hnida kicker

@katiehnida via Instagram

As a Lobo, Hnida became the first woman to play in a Division I FBS bowl game when she kicked in the 2002 Las Vegas Bowl against UCLA. Although her kick was blocked that game, Hnida would go on to make history on August 30, 2003, when she became the first woman to score in a Division I FBS game, kicking two extra points in a blowout win against Texas State University.

Lyn St. James

Before there was the ubiquitous Danica Patrick, there was Lyn St. James, a pioneer racecar driver. St. James is one of only nine women to have qualified for the Indianapolis 500, and in 1992, St. James became the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. Later in her career St. James launched the Women in Motorsports Scholarship program to help develop and encourage women in motorsports.

Lyn St. James racing

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One of the drivers she trained? The aforementioned Danica Patrick, whose career would not be where it is today without the barriers that St. James broke down. St. James also set the record as the first woman to eclipse 200 mph on a closed course when she zoomed around Talladega Superspeedway at 204.23 mph.

Nancy Lieberman

Dubbed “Lady Magic” as an ode to Magic Johnson, Nancy Lieberman is widely regarded as one of the greatest female basketball players ever. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Lieberman, who just turned 18 prior to the start of the games, helped Team USA capture the silver medal, becoming the youngest basketball player in Olympic history to medal. In 2008, Lieberman made a return to the WNBA at 50 years old, breaking her prior mark as the oldest player in league history.

Nancy Lieberman coach wnba big 3 basketball

Adam Hunger/ Getty Images

One year later, Lieberman became the head coach of the Texas Legends, then of the NBA D League. With that, she became the first woman to coach a men’s professional basketball team. Lieberman also was an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings back in 2015, becoming the second female assistant coach in NBA history.

Lisa Leslie

An eight-time WNBA All-Star and four-time Olympic gold medalist, Lisa Leslie left an indelible impact on the game of basketball. Out of the litany of accomplishments she has racked up over her career, the one that stands out the most is her dunk.

lisa leslie wnba hall of fame

Nick Doan/ Getty Images

In 2002, Leslie became the first woman to dunk a ball in a WNBA game, and at the 2005 WNBA All-Star game, Leslie became the first WNBA player to dunk in an all-star game. Today, the basketball legend and high-flying history maker is the head coach of the Triplets, one of the teams in Ice Cube’s professional basketball league, the BIG 3.

Pat Summitt

No one did it better than Pat Summitt. No coach won more games than Summitt’s 1,098 career wins at the time of her retirement from coaching the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team. Summitt’s eight NCAA Championships is an NCAA women’s record and, at the time of her retirement, was third most all time.

Pat Summitt Tennessee women's basketball

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In 2009, Sporting News ranked Summitt as the 11th greatest coach in sports history. She was the only woman on that list. Summitt, who coached for 38 years, never had one losing season. The sheer dominance that Summitt exuded is unlikely to ever get replicated again in basketball history.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams hasn’t had her own “Battle of the Sexes,” but what she has done is cement herself as the greatest female tennis player of all time. Olympics, majors, and minors. It doesn’t matter, because Serena is going to win them all. In 2017, Williams was the only female athlete on Forbes’ list of 100 highest-paid athletes.

serena williams greatest female tennis player

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In 2009, Williams and her sister, Venus, bought a small stake in the Miami Dolphins, becoming the first black women to have ownership in an NFL franchise. So, despite Williams never squaring up against her male counterparts, she’s established herself as one of the greatest athletes of the 2000s and one of the most important personalities in sports.

Nadia Comaneci

Born in Romania, Nadia Comaneci is the woman who is credited with popularizing gymnastics around the globe thanks to her record-breaking, earth-shattering performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. At the 1976, Comaneci, just 14 years old, won three gold medals, one silver medal, and one bronze.

Nadia Comaneci gymnast

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What’s even more amazing about Comaneci’s feat was she became the first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10.0. The score was so improbable at the time that the scoreboards couldn’t even recognize a perfect score. At the 1980 Olympics, Comaneci followed up her dazzling performance from 1976 with two gold and two silver medals.

Steffi Graf

The tennis world’s most dominant female player before a little someone named Serena Williams rose to prominence, Steffi Graf burst onto the scene out of Germany in 1987. For the next decade or so, there wasn’t anyone who was going to slow down the Graf train. A No.1-ranked player, Graf won 22 Grand Slam singles titles, which is second among female tennis players since the start of the Open Era in 1968.

steffi graf tennis player

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In 1988, Graf had what many consider to be the greatest single year in tennis history when she achieved tennis’ only Golden Slam by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year. Graf retired from tennis in 1999 and is married to former No.1 male player Andre Agassi.

Lindsey Vonn

America will likely never see another downhill skier as dominant as Lindsey Vonn. Vonn, a Minnesota native, won the downhill skiing gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, becoming the first American woman to do so. In total, Vonn has three medals from four Olympic Games.

Lindsey Vonn skiing

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In 2016, Vonn became the world’s most decorated skier, male or female, when she won her 20th World Cup Crystal Globe, surpassing the prior mark of 19. She is also one of only six female skiers to have won World Cup races in all five of the alpine skiing disciplines (downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and super combined).

Michelle Kwan

Sorry hockey fans, Michelle Kwan is the real miracle on ice. Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history, is a two-time Olympic medalist (one silver, one bronze), five-time World Champion, and nine-time U.S. Champion. Yes, you read those numbers correctly. During her reign as the ice queen, Kwan was the U.S. Figure Skating Association’s top-paid skater.

Michelle Kwan figure skater

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Kwan was also one of the highest-paid Winter Olympic athletes in terms of endorsement money. Thanks to Kwan’s beautiful artistry on ice, figure skating’s popularity blossomed. Since retiring from skating, Kwan has worked in announcing and has acted as a fitness ambassador for numerous politicians.

Maria Sharapova

Russia’s finest export might have to be Maria Sharapova. On first glance, you may be drawn into Sharapova’s good looks. But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll soon realize that Sharapova is also one of the best female tennis players in the world. She is one of only ten women, and the only to hail from Russia, to hold the career Grand Slam.

Maria Sharapova tennis

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The only thing missing from that pristine resume is an Olympic gold- she won the silver at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Outside of tennis, Sharapova has modeled and is one of the most coveted athletes for product endorsements.

Jennie Finch

Can you think of another softball player as accomplished or famous as Jennie Finch? Still waiting. Ok, no is the answer. The two-time Olympic medalist (one gold and one silver) also led her Arizona Wildcats to the 2001 College World Series. Finch, who can throw high heat, appeared at the 2004 Pepsi All-Star Softball Game where she pitched against Major League Baseball players and faired pretty well.

jennie finch softball

Robert Laberge/Getty Images

And now to the stuff all of you are waiting for: her relationship status. Sorry folks, Finch is happily married to former MLB pitcher Casey Daigle. The power-pitching couple has two sons. Finch is an avid Dodgers fan.

If you’re interested in reading more about other influential women who broke barriers, check out these stories on Science 101!