1 of 15All photos
@rondarousey - 8.8 million followers
When Rousey graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, she proved once and for all that being strong and powerful is damn sexy—one of the most empowering highlights from her 2016, in our opinion. Don't get us wrong: Ronda Rousey should first and foremost be applauded for being the kickass fighter who stole all our hearts (and envy). But Rousey took all of 2016 off from fighting after losing her title at the end of last year. And while the badass fighter will be back in the Octagon on December 30, she's spent much of the year enjoying being such a powerful role model—including redefining the whole idea of "perfection" and was named one of TIME's 100 most influential people.
2 of 15All photos
@thenikkibella - 5 million followers
The top-followed pro wrestler Nikki Bella was sidelined for the first half of the year after having surgery for a neck injury in January. But after 10 months of being out of the ring, the Total Divas star made a surprise appearance fighting at WWE's SummerSlam. On Instagram, she said of the moment, "7 months ago when I had surgery I hoped for that day to come but was told it wouldn't. I prayed and trained so hard that it would. I just knew that I couldn't have already had my ending in the ring. I just wouldn't accept it. The @wwe universe keeps me alive. You give me energy that no one else can give me. You challenge me. You make me want to be better." Her determination and comeback is proof of what hard work and the support of the #BellaArmy can give you.
3 of 15All photos
@serenawilliams - 4.8 million followers
This year, Williams won Wimbledon—matching Steffi Graf's record-tying 22 Grand Slam titles—and set a record of spending 186 weeks ranked at No. 1. And while her athletic dominance is praiseworthy on its own, one of our favorite moments of 2016 was the open letter she penned in Porter Magazine's Incredible Women of 2016 issue last week to "all incredible women who strive for excellence." The tennis superstar voiced her gripes with being defined as a great "female" athletes while LeBron James and Roger Federer are never touted among the greatest "male" athletes. She sent one of the greatest messages women everywhere should hear loud and clear: "We should never let this go unchallenged. We should always be judged by our achievements, not our gender."
4 of 15All photos
@alexmorgan13 - 4.3 million followers
In a New Year's day post, Morgan said 2016 was going to be about pushing limits and making progress—a tall order coming off winning the World Cup with the U.S. Women's Team last year. But, in addition to repping America in the Rio Olympics and finishing the season as a nominee for the 2016 Female Soccer Player of the year, Morgan joined her teammates this year to file an action with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions, accusing the US Soccer Federation of wage discrimination on behalf of the entire US Women's National Team. In a post, she says it's about more than just equal pay—playing on the same top-notch fields the men's team does and having comparable travel accommodations are also part of the asks. Why is it so important? "We decided to do this for all of the little girls across the country and around the world who deserve to have a voice, and if we don't leverage the voice we have, we are letting them down."
5 of 15All photos
@thebriebella - 4.3 million followers
The pro wrestling bombshell has made a lot of announcements this year: First, in April, that she was semi-retiring from the ring, and then in October, that she and her hubby were expecting a baby girl. So while her feed isn't as heavy on the drool-worthy abs or mid-wrestle moments as it once was, Bella uses her 'gram to promote philanthropic causes important to her, particularly environmental and animal cruelty issues (as well as show off her growing bump!).
Paige (Saraya-Jade Bevis)
6 of 15All photos
@realpaigewwe - 3.5 million followers
The Total Divas star has a lot to brag about, holding the longest reign as the WWE's NXT Women's Champion. But the British wrestler has had a rough year, requiring neck surgery and then failing drug tests with her employer (questionably for the prescriptions from her surgery). While she waits out her suspension, though, Paige has been getting her strength back, hitting the gym hard but safe, working out with her neck brace, and filling her feed with the general goofiness that makes Total Divas fans love her.
Natalie Eva Marie
7 of 15All photos
@natalieevamarie - 3.5 million followers
The pro wrestler had some great matches in 2016, but her biggest news outside the ring (other than dying her iconic red hair dark this summer): The Total Divas star launched her own fashion line and nonprofit foundation, the first of which donates part of its proceeds to the latter. "My goal with this brand is to inspire and empower women to love themselves and build each other up. I'm gonna combine this with a nonprofit organization and give back to the women who need a little push in the right direction," she says.
8 of 15All photos
@simonebiles - 3.4 million followers
Biles may be eighth on the list of most Instagram followers, but she's first on ridiculously successful athletes for the year. To say she cleaned house in Rio is putting it lightly—the 19-year-old set an American record for most gold medals in a single Games, becoming the most decorated female U.S. gymnast ever. She was also nominated for a 2016 ESPY award for Best Female Athlete, shortlisted for TIME's 2016 Person of the Year award—and she even published a book, Courage to Soar. She could take all of 2017 off and we'd still be trying to pick our jaws up off the floor.
9 of 15All photos
@mirzasaniar - 2.4 million followers
Perhaps the most successful Indian tennis player and certainly one of the highest profile athletes in India, Mirza just celebrated 80 consecutive weeks as No. 1 women's doubles player in the world. She's also an amazing force in the movement for Indian women's rights, being outspoken about ending the practice of female feticide in India, criticizing government policies on domestic violence and sexual assault, and speaking out on the unbalanced pay scale in her sport. She was also named one of TIME magazine's 2016 list of 100 Most Influential People In the World.
10 of 15All photos
@natbynature - 2.3 million followers
Racking up five of the top 15 most followed athletes, this list makes one thing clear: Social media loves pro wrestlers (and Total Divas stars!). Natalya, though, is the first third-generation female wrestler in the world and has been competing for over a decade. And she's still going crazy strong with a lively year in the ring, winning matches but also getting her front teeth knocked out. But even when you're an international star and fit AF, the most rewarding wins are still the simplest: Last week, Natalya announced she broke her personal deadlift record, at 264 pounds. 💪
11 of 15All photos
@alyraisman - 2.2 million followers
Competing again in the Olympics this year, Raisman won a gold medal in the team event, as well as six medals overall. And if that wasn't impressive enough, the Rio wins made her the second most decorated American Olympic gymnast in history, as well as, along with Gabby Douglas, the only Americans with back-to-back team golds. Idk, that seems like maybe the highlight of her year? (Check out our interview with Raisman to hear what it was really like to compete for gold, plus her body image advice.)
12 of 15All photos
@mariasharapova - 2.2 million followers
Sharapova may be one of the most successful tennis players out there, but failing a drug test at the Australian Open for the banned substance meldonium put a damper on her impressive momentum—in the form of a 15-month suspension by the International Tennis Federation. From the looks of Sharapova's feed, though, she's not wasting time wallowing and instead filled 2016 with a ton of workouts—everything from tennis to boxing—and downtime with girlfriends and family. Plus, the athlete has poured a ton of time into furthering her line of candy and chocolate, Sugarpova, a portion of which proceeds go to the Maria Sharapova Foundation.
13 of 15All photos
@gabbycvdouglas - 1.9 million followers
We love the social support for all our Team USA gymnasts here, but Gabby Douglas has perhaps also received the most flack among our beloved ladies. Despite winning gold at Rio and breaking damn impressive barriers—becoming the first African American in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion and the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics—Douglas was the subject of social media bullying, and was called both 'unpatriotic' and 'unsupportive.' If you ask us, bringing home multiple gold medals should bring nothing but support. Luckily Douglas agrees—she recently posted this haters-gonna-hate pic with the caption, "When you can't see the haters online because you're blocking them out with your winnings."
14 of 15All photos
@alanarblanchard - 1.8 million followers
The pro surfer and model's Insta can be described in three words—swim, sun, skin. The beach babe has amassed a massive social following thanks to an array of sexy swimsuit shots—many suits of which she designed herself for RipCurl—both on the beach and on a board. And she uses her power for good: Along with one of her besties, surfer Bethany Hamilton, Blanchard hosts a free surf competition aimed at supporting young Hawaiian surfers.
15 of 15All photos
@lauriehernandez_ - 1.6 million followers
Clearly, with Hernandez as the fourth to breach the top 15, Instagram loves our U.S. Women's Gymnastics team. In 2016, besides bringing home gold and silver at the Olympics this year (NBD), Hernandez also launched her own signature leotard line, competed on Dancing With the Stars, and wrote a memoir. Some of her most inspirational moments this year, though, were rather unintentional: Hernandez taught us that a little wink to the camera and self-talk of "I got this" can be enough to keep you grounded and get you to you gold.