International Women's Day

Legendary Canadian female athletes you should know

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate some of Canada's female heroes of the past and not-so distant past. If you don’t already know these athletes, you should.

CBC Sports' Signa Butler celebrates some of Canada's most storied female athletes

Former Edmonton Grads basketball team members (left to right) Edith Stone Sutton (1930-34), Margaret MacBurney Vasheresse (1926-36), Helen Northup Alexander (1934-40), pose with a more modern rubber version of the ball that made them sports legends. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)

This International Women's Day, let's celebrate some of Canada's female heroes of the past and not-so distant past. If you don't already know these athletes, you should.

Celebrate history

The Edmonton Grads

They're the most successful team in Canadian history, winning an astounding 95 per cent of their matches.

From 1915 to 1940, the Edmonton Grads won 502 games and lost only 20, beating the world's best teams from the United States and Europe.

When you have those kinds of stats, you can find yourself on a Google Doodle or in a Heritage Minute.

Though they went undefeated (27-0) through FOUR Olympic Games (1924-1936), there were no gold medals to show around their necks. Women's basketball didn't become an official Olympic sport until 1976.

As for just how good the Grads were, let's leave the final word to Dr. James Naismith, who called them "the finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor."

The Matchless Six

Ethel Smith (left) and Fanny Rosenfeld (second from left) of Canada respectively winning the bronze and silver medals in the women's 100m race at the VIIIth Summer Olympic Games. (The Canadian Press)

The 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, women were allowed to compete in track and field for the first time and the Canadian women headed straight to the podium.

You probably don't know these names, but you should.

Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld was the premiere sprinter of the Games. She ran the anchor leg for Jane Bell, Ethel Smith and Myrtle Cook as Canada won gold in the inaugural 4x100-metre relay.

And that wasn't the end of it. Canadian teammate Ethel Catherwood won gold in high jump.

In total, Canada's women's track and field team won two gold, two silver and a bronze and earned the nickname: The Matchless Six.

Their homecoming to Toronto was nuts. Hundreds of thousands came out to celebrate … and in 1950, Rosenfeld was named Canada's female athlete of the first half of the century.

Nancy Greene Raine

The former Canadian senator is better known as the best alpine skier of her day. 

Nicknamed Tiger (well before the golfer!), if Nancy Greene pounced, there wasn't much her competition could do about it. 

Whether it was her dominant gold medal victory in the giant slalom at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics (she won by a whopping 2.68 seconds!) or back-to-back World Cup overall titles, Greene Raine ruled the slopes and inspired the next generation of ski racers, male and female. 

Nancy Greene ruled the women's giant slalom at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, prevailing by a whopping 2.68 seconds to win a gold medal. (Canadian Press/Associated Press/File)

If you lived in North America or Europe in the 1960s and 70s, she was famous as they come. 

Mars Bar famous! 

Canada's female athlete of the century famous (sharing the century honours with Wayne Gretzky). 

There are parks and lakes and mountain peaks and streets and buildings named after her. But you could argue Nancy Greene's greatest contribution was inspirational.  Her ski schools were everywhere. Thousands and thousands of girls hit the slopes to be just like Nancy. 

She has been tireless in advocating for fitness and an active lifestyle and at 76 years old, she's still carving turns.

Celebrate sisterhood

The Dufour-Lapointe sisters

Canada's Justine Dufour-Lapointe and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe holds hands before climbing on the podium after winning the gold and silver medals in the moguls at the Sochi Winter Olympics Saturday February 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

One of the enduring memories of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games was that of moguls gold medallist Justine Dufour-Lapointe standing on the top step of the podium, looking to her right and holding hands with her older sister Chloe, the silver medallist.

Together, they sang O Canada, tears of joy in their eyes, while nearby stood proud eldest sister Maxime, who finished 12th. They became just the third trio of sisters to compete in the same individual event at the Winter Games. A true family affair.

The Plouffe twins

Edmonton basketball stars Michelle and Katherine Plouffe captured gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games, in between representing Canada at back-to-back Olympic Games.

They were 19-year-old pups when they represented Canada in London 2012 and veterans when the team finished seventh in Rio 2016.

Had it not been for some bizarre and unfortunate Olympic qualifying rules and domestic standards, they would have competed at Tokyo 2020 in the debut of 3-on-3 basketball and been a medal favourite.

The Firth Sisters

From 1972 to 1984, Shirley and Sharon Firth went to four consecutive Winter Olympics, shaped the sport of cross-country skiing in the north and ignited a conversation around indigenous culture.

They were born 15 minutes apart to a traditional hunting and trapping family on the Mackenzie Delta, north of the Arctic Circle. When they were six, their whole community was up and moved to Inuvik.

They learned the sport from a French priest on borrowed skis from a U.S. Army base and eventually a small nordic team was formed. Between Shirley and Sharon, they won 48 Canadian championships. They made little Inuvik a hotbed of ski talent. By the Sapporo Olympics of 1972, seven of Canada's nine nordic skiers were from the Mackenzie Delta.

It's incredible how many setbacks the Firths endured - illness, the death of their mother - but they always kept fighting through.

For the Firths, it was beyond personal, they were acutely aware of representing their culture, too.

Sharon Firth said: "The world was so fascinated by us skinny indian girls and boys and how we danced on skis. Our focus was to represent aboriginal people on the world stage in sport and I think that's what we did."

Celebrate back-to-back Olympic champions

A lot can happen in four years. Let's take an appreciation for how difficult it is to OWN your sport for back-to-back Olympics. Or, in the case of the Canadian women's hockey team, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. A 16-year span of dominance! In this category, we zone in on individual sports.

Catriona Le May Doan

Wearing A Cowboy Hat In Tribute To Her Native Calgary, Catriona Le May Doan Of Canada Takes A Victory Lap With Her Country'S Flag After Winning The Gold Medal In The Finals Of Ladies' 500-Meter Speed Skating Competition At The 2002 Olympic Winter Games. (Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

Le May Doan was the first female speed skater to break the 38-second barrier in the 500-metre event and is also the first Canadian to successfully defend a gold medal in the same event at an Olympics.

She did it in her 500-metre specialty at both the 1998 and 2002 Games. Canadians may remember the iconic image of her skating around the Salt Lake City Oval with a Canada flag in her hand and a black stetson on her head.

She'll forever be known as the "fastest woman on ice."

Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse

In the unpredictable world of bobsleigh, Humphries - the top driver in the world - was looking for every little edge to be the best.

Moyse - the best pusher in the world - was a team-sport star from PEI and member of the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

Together, they left trails of smoke on tracks from Vancouver to Sochi and just about everywhere around the globe. Gold at home in Vancouver 2010 and a repeat four years later in Russia.

In PyeongChang 2018, Humphries partnered with sprinter Phylicia George winning a bronze medal. Moyse chose to push for next-generation pilot, Alyssa Rissling.

That was then. Now, Humphries competes for the United States after an acrimonious split from the Canadian program. She intends to go for gold again with the Stars and Stripes at Beijing 2022.

Rosie MacLennan

MacLennan became the first Canadian athlete to defend their title at a Summer Olympic Games, following up her gold-medal performance in trampoline from the 2012 London Olympic Games with another gold in Rio 2016.

MacLennan's second gold was even more remarkable given her battle back from post-concussion syndrome in the lead-up to the Games. Quite eerily, MacLennan is coming back from another injury (a broken ankle) as she prepares to defend her Olympic crown a THIRD time, this time in Tokyo.

Honourable mentions: Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle

McBean, one of Canada's most decorated Olympians, and Heddle captured the gold in the coxless pair at Barcelona 1992 and followed it up with gold in the double sculls at Atlanta 1996. Two different events. Same result — champions.

Celebrate Summer AND Winter Olympians

Clara Hughes

She's the only athlete in history to win multiple medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. Her six career medals ties her with speed skating teammate Cindy Klassen as Canada's most-decorated Olympian.

As a cyclist, Hughes competed at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta where she raced to bronze in both the road race and time trial.

She returned to her first love of speed skating in 2002, winning medals in three straight Winter Olympics. Her bronze in the 5,000 metres in Vancouver was epic. She retired after 2012 London Games after finishing fifth in the time trial.

Hughes is known for her athletic achievements as well as her humanitarian work. Whether it was donating to Right to Play or breaking down the stigma around mental illness in Bell's "Let's Talk" campaign, she's a champion through and through.

Georgia Simmerling

Simmerling made history at Rio 2016 by becoming the first Canadian athlete to compete in three different sports in three different Olympic Games. In Brazil, she competed in track cycling where she collected her first-ever podium finish, a bronze in the team pursuit.

But she got her first Olympic start in Vancouver 2010 in alpine skiing. She moved on to ski cross in Sochi 2014 and was predicted to be in the medal hunt at PyeongChang 2018 until she broke both legs in a World Cup event just before the Games.

Phylicia George

Bronze medallists in the women's two-man bobsled Kaillie Humphries and Phylicia George, of Canada, smile during the medals ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

Let's just say this three-time Olympian stars on tracks.

She became a dual-season Olympian at PyeongChang 2018 when she won bronze with Kaillie Humphries in bobsleigh.

At her first Olympics at London 2012, George made the 100 hurdles final, finishing sixth. Four years later, she made the hurdles final once again and helped the 4x100 relay team to sixth-place finish.

She's got her eyes on a fourth Games in Tokyo this summer.

Hayley Wickenheiser

She's regarded as the greatest women's hockey player of all-time, but at one point, she traded in that hockey stick, helmet & shoulder pads for a bat, ball & glove.

Just before winning four consecutive Olympic gold medals in hockey, Wickenheiser starred for the softball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. While growing up in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, she was quite the fastball player, representing Canada at the world junior championships at one point. Obviously the diamond took a back seat to the ice as she went on to the most prolific career in women's hockey.

Overall, Wickenheiser's played in six Olympic Games. She's a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, the IIHF Hall of Fame and is currently the Assistant Director of Player Development for the Toronto Maple Leafs

Celebrate leadership

With so many trailblazers in this country, this list could run off the page. Some that come to mind are Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James, the late freestyle skiing legend Sarah Burke, superb athlete and sports administrator Abby Hoffman and others. Here we profile the ultimate fighter for clean sport and a woman who changes the conversation around ability.

Beckie Scott

The moment she won Canada's first-ever cross-country medal at an Olympic Games, Beckie Scott made history, but she could not have known how that achievement would forge the next part of her life.

She finished third in combined pursuit at those Salt Lake City Olympics, only to be upgraded to the Olympic gold after two Russians were caught doping.

Robbed of that Olympic moment, she formed a powerful voice in the boardroom.

She joined the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) athlete committee in 2005 and in 2012 was appointed to their executive committee. She never toed the line. Her fierce stance against drug cheats earned her respect from athletes worldwide, but also the ire of the suits in the room.

Scott resigned WADA's compliance and review committee in 2018 over the reinstatement of Russia's anti-doping agency.

She later stepped down as head of the WADA athlete's committee, but not before making sure a charter of rights for athletes was approved for entry into the WADA archives.

Chantal Petitclerc

Canada's Chantal Peticlerc celebrates victory with a time of 3:56.04 in the final of the 1500m at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, England, Sunday May 15, 2005. (Jon Super/Associated Press)

Canada's greatest wheelchair racer of all-time blazes trails wherever her career takes her - as an athlete, advocate or politician.

As an athlete, she won 21 medals at five Paralympic Games from 1992 to 2008, including 14 gold medals, and broke 26 world records along the way. She's the only female Paralympian to win the Lou Marsh Award as the top athlete in Canada (2008).

She's an advocate for persons with disabilities and has served as Canada's chef de mission for the 2016 Rio Paralympic team and the 2014 Commonwealth Games team.

A member of the Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and Companion of the Order of Canada, she was appointed to the Senate in March 2016

With files from David Giddens


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?