2019 feels like a critical moment in women’s sport, thanks in part to the ultra-talented – and outspoken – female sports stars to watch.
Not only are these female sports stars dominating their fields, they’re also fighting back after years of discrimination, demanding more from the powers that be: better healthcare, salaries and adequate training, for a start.
These are the female sports stars to start following now, from boxers to golfers to women changing the face of basketball and hockey.
Ramla Ali, Boxing
A London transplant who fled her native Somalia as a child, Ali began boxing in secret because she knew her family wouldn’t approve. In 2016, she became the first Muslim woman to win a title for England (the England Boxing Elite National Championships), and has continued to win titles – she’s the current African Zone Featherweight Champion – as well as a face of Nike though a sponsorship deal. Next stop? She’s got her sights set on an Olympic medal, competing for her country of birth, Somalia, in 2020. In her spare time, she volunteers for charity Fight 4 Change, where she teaches Muslim women self-defence and boxing in private, female-only classes.
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Vivianne Miedema, Football
The Dutch-born Arsenal striker recently took home the accolade of Professional Football Association Player of the Year, but she’s been one to watch since she made her debut aged 14. The 22-year-old helped lead her team to their first League title since 2012, scoring an impressive 39 goals in 46 competitions this season. She’s also inspiring the next generation off the field, as a comic book author who stars in her own series of Dutch children’s books.
Jennifer Kupcho, Golf
Kupcho may still be a collegian – she’s in her senior year at Wake Forest University in North Carolina – but she’s been making waves as the winner of the first-ever Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship. The tournament itself made history as the first women’s tournament at a previously (defiantly) male-only club. Not only did Kupcho’s win get her noticed on the global stage, it earned her a space in the US Women’s Open, where she will make her professional debut.
Nneka Ogwumike, Basketball
The WNBPA president and forward for the LA Sparks is an elite athlete at the top of her game. Now, she’s determined to change what basketball looks like for the next generation of girls, to ensure they’re treated as equals in the sport and to encourage them to want to grow up to play women’s basketball, not men’s. She penned an emotional essay, Bet on Women, in November 2018, on the subject, addressing the WBNBA’s decision to opt out of their collective bargaining agreement.
“To me, opting out means not just believing in ourselves, but going one step further: betting on ourselves. It means being a group of empowered women, in the year 2018, not just feeling fed up with the status quo, but going one step further: rejecting the status quo. And it means taking a stand, not just for the greatest women’s basketball players of today, but going one step further: taking a stand for the greatest women’s basketball players of tomorrow,” wrote Ogwumike.
Gabrieli Pessanha, Jiu-Jitsu
The undefeated 18-year-old Brazilian was raised in the Cidade de Deus favela (made famous in City of God) before a meteoric rise over the past few years, where she has won title after title and continued to beat belt-promotion requirements in the process. She’s currently competing as a brown belt, but watch this space – she may just get promoted to black belt at her next podium ceremony.
Lily Partridge, Long-distance running
Not only is Partridge a leading marathon runner (she was the 2018 British Marathon champion), she has also spoken out about body-shaming in elite athletics, telling the Telegraph in April 2019: “Female athletes are under pressure to look a certain way. Over the years we’ve had a lot of British marathon runners who are thin, but does that mean a marathon runner has to look like that? … As long as I’m performing at a level I want to, and I’m healthy and happy, then whether that means something wobbles or not, that doesn’t bother me. Performance is more important to me than how my body looks.” Hear, hear. Partridge also spoke out about the worrying idea that some professionals have that elite runners don’t need to menstruate – and how it’s a process of reeducation for coaches and pros in the sport.
Meghan Duggan, Hockey
Women’s basketball isn’t the only US sport calling for better treatment of its athletes: US women’s Olympic hockey captain Meghan Duggan is one of the leaders of the charge calling for a sustainable professional league for Women’s Hockey in North America. Along with 200 other players, she’s boycotting all play in North America until issues like low salaries and a lack of proper healthcare are addressed. “While we have all accomplished so much, there is no greater accomplishment than what we have the potential to do right here and right now – not just for this generation of players, but for generations to come,” she Tweeted in a statement.
Hannah Dines, Cycling
Paralympian Hannah Dines is the fourth-best trike racer in the world, and came fifth in the Rio Paralympics in 2016. However, it’s not just her prowess as an athlete that’s drawing attention: she’s come forward about the chronic pain she endured for years due to swelling from her bike saddle, requiring her to have surgery on her vulva (read her comment piece on topic in the Guardian). She has openly called for more research to be done into women’s cycling to help alleviate these issues for future female cyclists.