These athletes have set records, made history, broken barriers, and inspired generations of women
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We love watching the Olympics for many reasons, but especially because it's so inspiring to see strong female athletes make history, break records, and otherwise rock. In anticipation of the upcoming Summer Games in London, we set out to recognize some of the many amazing women who have competed through the years. It was hard to narrow down this list to 15 athletes because all Olympians are exceptional in some way, but we think the following ladies have helped shaped the world's view of what female athletes can do.
Who do you think should be on this list? Read on for our top 15 favorite female Olympians and then let us know who you admire and why!
Mildred Didrikson Zaharias
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Known as "Babe," after the famous baseball player, Mildred Didrikson Zaharias played basketball and golf, and she had a successful career in track and field. Not only was she the first woman to win both the British and U.S. Amateur, but in 1939, she was the only woman who qualified for the Los Angeles Open (a men's golf tournament). In addition, she won gold and silver medals in the hurdles, high jump, and javelin events in the 1932 Olympics.
Mary Lou Retton
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Even today, people flip for Mary Lou Retton! The pint-sized gymnast won three Olympic gold medals in the 1984 Games, and she was the first female gymnast from outside the Eastern European bloc to win the all-around title. Retton also has a move named after her, the Retton Flip, though it's no longer used due to new regulations.
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Talk about a baller! Basketball player Lisa Leslie is a three-time WNBA MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist. Leslie was a pioneer in the sports world and played for 11 seasons before retiring.
The 6'5" athlete admits that she was teased in high school for her height, receiving her fair share of "how's the weather up there?" jokes. Rather than let it deter her, she used it to push herself to develop a healthy self-confidence. Now, she works to inspire young girls (short and tall) to develop one themselves. Click here for her top tips on self-esteem.
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Australian Natalie Cook is the only beach volleyball player to have competed in all five Olympic games since the event was introduced in 1996. She's been playing beach volleyball competitively for 17 years, has won five Australian championships, and will make history this year as the only Australian women to have competed in five or more Olympic Games. We can't wait to see her big comeback!
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Swimmer Dara Torres is a 12-time Olympic medalist and has competed in five Summer Games and was the oldest female swimmer to participate in 2008. Although the 45-year-old champion didn't qualify for the 2012 Olympics, we're still big fans.
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The youngest Grand Slam champion in history, Russian-born Maria Sharapova is also the No. 3-ranked tennis player in the world right now. Besides playing tennis, Sharapova walks hills, bikes, practices yoga, and works on her core, she told SHAPE.
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Missy Franklin may be young (she's only 17), but she's seriously accomplished. Not only has she qualified to compete in more Olympic events than any other American woman, but she's a five-time medalist and record-holder. This summer Franklin will compete in seven events (four individual and three relay). Until this year, Natalie Coughlin, Katie Hoff, and Shirley Babashoff were the American women who had competed in the most swimming events, as they had each competed in six.
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Swim champion Natalie Coughlin started her swim career by breaking two records in high school. Now, the 11-time medalist has won a total of 48 medals in international competitions, including six Olympic medals.
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Despite being born prematurely and wearing braces on her legs for nine years, Wilma Rudolph became an outstanding sprinter. In fact, after the 1960 Olympics, she was nicknamed "The Tornado." Ultimately, Rudolph would end her career with three Olympic gold medals.
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Retired track and field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee ranks as one of the greatest athletes in history. She's won three gold medals, two silver, and two bronze Olympic medals in the heptathlon and women's long jump events. The now defunct Sports Illustrated for Women voted Joyner-Kersee as the greatest Olympic athlete of the 20th century, just ahead of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. As of May 2012, she holds the world record for heptathlon, while her long jump record of 7.49 meters is second on the long jump all-time list.
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Track and field star Betty Cuthbert was known as Australia's "Golden Girl." In 1956, Cuthbert set a world record of 11.4 seconds in the 100-meter dash, as well as records in 1958 (though those would later be broken). She won three gold medals in 1956 and then retired in 1960. However, her retirement didn't last long. She competed in the 1964 Olympics and won a gold medal in the 400-meter dash. Soon after, she retired permanently.
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Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva is a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2004 and 2008), a five-time world champion, and the current world record holder in pole vaulting. Not surprisingly, she is considered the greatest female pole vaulter in the world.
However, she didn't begin her career as a pole vaulter! Isinbayeva took up gymnastics at age 5 and kept at if for 10 years, only giving it up when she grew too tall to pursue a career as a professional gymnast.
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There's not a person in the gymnastics world who doesn't know of Nadia Comneci. In the 1974 Montreal Olympics, the Romanian-American gymnast became the first female athlete to score a perfect 10 (in 2004 the scoring system changed; a now-perfect score would be a 16) in an Olympic gymnastics event. She's also won five gold medals and is widely considered one of the greatest gymnasts in history.
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Granted, speedskating is a winter sport, so you won't see it in London this summer. But American speedskater Bonnie Blair is worth mentioning here because she is one of the best speedskaters of all time, as well as one of the most decorated Olympic athletes of all time.
After competing in four Olympics, Blair has won five gold medals and one bronze medal. Not only that, but in 1992, Sports Illustrated voted her "Sportsman of the Year," and in 1994, The Associated Press selected her as the female athlete of the year. She was the most decorated American winter Olympian until Apolo Ohno knocked her off the top spot (he currently has two gold medals, two silver, and four bronze).
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Retired swimmer Janet Evans held world records in the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter freestyle events until they were broken in 2006. At the end of Evans' career in 1996, she held 45 national titles—third only to Tracy Caulkins and Michael Phelps.
Recently, Evans attempted to make a comeback, but she did not qualify in the 2012 Olympic trials, thus she will not be going to London this year.
Want to see what an Olympic swimmer eats every day? Click here for a peek into Janet Evans' diet!