Women blazed new trails and changed the rules in the past decade

It wasn't easy narrow down a list of female athletes whose achievements in the past ten years have transcended sport. But these athletes made their respective sports better and women's roles in them stronger going into the next decade.

From challenging gender roles to creating new possibilities, these athletes did more than just win

(Illustration by Sophie Baron/CBC)

The past 10 years has been a transformative decade for women; from Hollywood, to boardrooms, to fields of play, women have challenged and changed their landscape of treatment and opportunity.

But for those reasons and more, this list wasn't easy to narrow down. It could have been much longer, especially if you considered results alone. But the women on this list made the cut for transcending scoreboards or accolades. 

From 2010 through this year, along with achieving incredible results, these women pushed the boundaries of their sport, opened doors and made history in ways that created new possibilities for young, female athletes in decades to come.

Athletes will aim higher, push harder and achieve more for these women who came before them. 

Kaillie Humphries

In addition to winning Olympic gold medals, Kaillie Humphries won the right to compete against men. (The Associated Press)
It was her back-to-back gold medals from Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 that made Humphries a household name, but she cemented that legacy by racking up 50 World Cup medals (24 gold) and two world championship titles to date.

While dominating on the ice, Humphries became a vocal leader for Canadian Olympians and a trailblazer for female athletes. In 2014, she and American pilot Elana Meyers Taylor became the first women to pilot male crews in international competition. Then in 2016, after years of fighting for the opportunity, Humphries made history again by piloting the first female team in a four-man World Cup. 

Humphries ended the decade with a bombshell decision to leave Team Canada and compete for the United States. She may be under a new flag, but the legacy Humphries created as a Canadian athlete widened the scope of opportunity not only for women in bobsleigh but for any woman facing boundaries dictating what they can achieve.

Lindsey Vonn 

Lindsey Vonn dominated on the ski hill. (Getty Images)
Lindsey Vonn saw unparalleled success in alpine skiing. Her career spanned 18 years, winning medals in six world championships and taking home three Olympic medals. But she's best known for her 82 World Cup wins and being just four away from tying the all-time record when she retired in February 2019

Vonn also made a push to compete with the men. Her first formal request to the international ski federation was denied in 2012. In 2017, Vonn prepared another proposal to join the men's downhill event at Lake Louise, not to be competitive, but to have the opportunity to go up against the best in the world. 

Unfortunately, racing against men wasn't something Vonn got to do. But her name will always be known as one of the greatest skiers of all time — man or woman. 

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Christine Sinclair

Christine Sinclair is poised to set a new goal-scoring record. (Getty Images)
The last 10 years saw Christine Sinclair become one of the best goal-scorers in international soccer and undoubtedly the best player in Canadian history.

Since scoring her first international goal 19 years ago, Team Canada's captain is now up to 183. No doubt Sinclair's third decade playing the beautiful game will see her break the all-time record of 184, currently held by American Abby Wambach.

Between her individual dominance and leading Canada to two Olympic medals and an eighth-place world ranking, the name Sinclair has become legend in Canada and an inspiration for endless young players. Sinclair showed them a kid from small-town Canada can still become one of the best players in the world.

Caster Semenya

Caster Semenya continues to fight for the right to compete without hormone therapy. (Getty Images)
What makes someone a woman? It's quite a question to be bestowed on a single athlete, but the South African middle-distance runner is now the face of the international gender debate.

In the latter half of this decade, the two-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion in the 800-metre has seemingly spent as much time in the courtroom as on the track, fighting to compete in the body she was born with. The intersex athlete risked her career to force administration and law makers to have an official conversation and show both sides to an argument even scientists have trouble agreeing on.

Semenya's standing at the frontier of a sociological and legal battle that will effect the future participation of many young athletes who don't fall cleanly into the male or female categories.

The U.S. women's gymnastics team

For different reasons, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman were the faces of USA gymnastics during the darkest time in the team's history.

Aly Raisman led the U.S. gymnasts fight against their abuser, disgraced doctor Larry Nasser, sentenced to 175 years in jail for his crimes. (Getty Images)
Raisman became one of the most vocal athletes in the sexual abuse scandal surrounding former team doctor Larry Nassar. The six-time Olympic medallist spoke in court, in countess news outlets and even wrote a book detailing the abuse she suffered and what ensued. 

Raisman has not officially retired but recently announced she will not return for Tokyo 2020. Raisman's new goals are spreading awareness about what abuse is and pushing for reform in USA Gymnastics so young athletes are protected in ways she and her teammates weren't.

In 2018, Biles tweeted she too was abused by Nassar, publicly shaming USA Gymnastic for making the abuse possible. But while addressing heavy issues in the press, she was also becoming the best gymnast of all time. In 2019 Biles became the most decorated gymnast in world championship history and had a third skill named after her. All of this in the six years since the 4x Olympic champion began her senior gymnastics career. 

These teammates are heaving USA Gymnastics into a new era, creating an environment where athletes are safer and performance goals are higher than ever before. 

Serena Williams

Serena WIlliams did what no man will ever duplicate - winning a Grand Slam championship while pregnant. (Getty Images)
The name speaks for itself. In the last decade Williams cemented her dominance in tennis, adding to her already impressive totals to where she now stands with four Olympic gold medals, 23 Grand Slam wins and 72 other career singles titles. 

But it's not only that Williams wins; her unapologetic approach to the game has challenged traditional limitations typically put on female athletes. In 2017 Williams won the Australian Open, only to reveal weeks later she was pregnant at the time. And in 2018 Williams' on-court behaviour sparked debates over sexist treatment.

Williams is also a leader off the court. She's a seasoned business-woman having launched clothing lines, invested in thirty-plus businesses and was the first athlete ever named on Forbe's richest self-made women list. In the last 10 years, Williams proved not only that women can win as much as men, but are also just as marketable.

Becky Hammon

Becky Hammon became the first woman to work on the coaching staff of a men's NBA team. (Getty Images)
If you told anyone 10 years ago that a woman would be a NBA coach, people's eyebrows would shoot up. But since Becky Hammon became the first female first full-time assistant coach in league history, the notion is far less surprising.

Before Hammon started working with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 she spent 16 years as a WNBA point guard and went to two Olympics. It was on the flight home from Sochi 2014 that she got to know Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, obviously making a good impression. 

Since Hammon started with the Spurs almost six years ago, 10 women now sit on NBA benches including Canadian Jessica Roque. It's expected that sooner or later (definitely in the next decade) Hammon will make history yet again as the first female head coach of a major professional North American sports team.

Megan Rapinoe 

This past decade saw the midfielder become a prominent voice for equal rights and pay, preferring her sporting events with a healthy dose of politics.

Megan Rapinoe was a vocal advocate for gender equality in soccer and social injustice in the United States. (Getty Images)
In 2016 she publicly supported Colin Kaepernick by taking a knee at a Seattle Reign FC game, saying as a gay woman she knew what it meant for the American flag to not represent all her liberties. It was the beginning of a tradition for Rapinoe, taking the stance again at the 2019 FIFA World Cup by not singing the American anthem or placing her hand over her chest. She also had some choice words for President Donald Trump. 

Rapinoe also led the fight for pay equity. In 2016 she and teammates filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming wage discrimination and in 2019, she and the national team filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation alleging institutionalized gender discrimination in terms of pay and working conditions. 

All this culminated in 2019 with Rapinoe winning her second FIFA World Cup title and being named the 2019 Ballon D'Or winner and the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the year. If the next decade builds on the momentum Rapinoe and players like Ada Hegerberg have created in the last 10 years, excuses for international soccer's gender pay gap will start to run out. 

Hayley Wickenheiser

This last decade showed Wickenheiser wouldn't lose speed after taking her career off the ice.

Hayley Wickenheiser ended her decade with her induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November. (Getty Images)
In 2017 the two-time Olympic champion retired as Canada's all time leading international scorer with 168 goals and 211 assists over 23 years. The last decade of her career saw her named to the Order of Canada, win two of her four Olympic gold medals and her seventh world championship gold. Nowadays Wickenheiser is in medical school, the assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs and became the seventh woman inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

From being the first woman to put up a point in a men's professional league to scoring five goals in five games on a broken foot at Sochi 2014, Wickenheiser's career is a thing of legend in Canada and will continue to be whether she laces up or not. 

The Next Gen

The women on this list have had careers spanning years, many longer than a single decade. But there are some up-and-comers who just got started in the last few years and look like they'll do big things in the next 10.

For example, Bianca Andreescu's historic 2019 season put Canadian tennis on the map in a way it's never been before. Or figure skater Alexandra Trusova making history in 2018 as the first woman to land a quad in competition, changing the strategic and technical approach of the entire woman's event. 

Those two wrap up our list as nods to the next generation of game-changing athletes who are just getting started, and who will one day likely join the others before them in leaving their sport in a different place than they found it. 


Jacqueline Doorey is a digital host and producer for CBCSports.ca


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