Who is the greatest athlete of all time? Everyone seems to have a different opinion, though the same names typically float to the top of the list: Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens and more recently, Michael Phelps. Largely missing from the lists of all-time greats are women. Occasionally one or two will make the cut – if the list is long enough.
But despite their absence from lists of the top 10 or 30 or 100 greatest athletes, sports history is replete with amazing women whose athletic accomplishments, though less heralded, are equal to those of their male counterparts: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 4-time Olympian and 6-time Olympic medalist who twice won gold in the Heptathlon… Martina Navratilova, the winningest player (man or woman) in tennis history… Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina, whose 18 Olympics medals (9 of them gold) were the record Michael Phelps just defeated in London… Canadian cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes, a 6-time Olympian and the only person (man or woman) to win multiple medals in both summer and winter Olympics… Fanny Blankers-Koen, Dutch sprinter and hurdler who won 4 gold medals in the 1948 London Olympics – while pregnant…
Any of these women and many more (including swimmers like 12-time Olympic medalists Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin) could vie for the title of “greatest athlete.” But among all of these remarkable women, two stand out and would give any athlete – man or woman – a run for their money when it comes to all-time greatest: Lottie Dod and Babe Didrickson Zaharias.
Dod and Zaharias share the Guinness World Record for “Most Versatile Female Athlete,” and their athletic accomplishments are truly astonishing.
Lottie Dod in 1891 (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)
Lottie Dod of Great Britain won the silver medal in archery at the 1908 Olympics in London. Here's a brief rundown of her other athletic achievements:
• When Dod was just 11 years old, she entered her first tennis tournament, competing against adult women in doubles with her sister. The Dods won the Consolation Tournament and a reporter noted, "Miss L. Dod should be heard of in the future." The world didn't have long to wait.
• At age 15, she became the youngest woman ever to win the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles Championship. That was in 1887, and her record stands to this day.
• Dod went on to win Wimbledon four more times.
• In 1897, Dod took up field hockey, founding a women's team in the town of Spital, England. Within two years, she was playing on the England national team.
• Dod reportedly found golf a difficult sport to master… But that didn’t stop her from winning the British Ladies' Amateur tournament in 1904.
• Winter sports were also a source of enjoyment for Dod, though she didn't compete in them on the same level as she did in archery, tennis, field hockey and golf. Still, she was a proficient figure skater. And mountain climber. And curler. And tobogganer…
Babe Didrikson Zaharias drives a ball during the $1500 Southern California Open golf tournament at Oakmont golf course in Glendale, Calif., in this Dec. 17, 1936 photo (AP Photo/File)
Babe Didrikson Zaharias found her Olympic success in track and field. At the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she won gold in both the 80-meter hurdles and javelin throw, and took silver in the high jump. In a list of Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century, the Associated Press ranked Zaharias 9th, thanks to her mighty achievements in track and field and beyond:
• In 1932, Zaharias competed in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championships in the track and field team division… without any teammates. Her team of one was victorious, setting five world records in one day. (Did we mention that Zaharias was the only person on the team?)
• Like Dod, Zaharias won the British Ladies' Amateur golf tournament – as well as the U.S. Women's Amateur, three Women's Western Opens, and more. She was also a founding member of the LPGA.
• Zaharias competed against male golfers, too – she was the first (and still the only) woman in history to make the cut in a regular PGA Tour event.
• She achieved All-American status in a third sport, basketball, leading her team, the Golden Cyclones, to the AAU Basketball Championship in 1931.
• Zaharias played pocket billiards competitively, though she wasn't a champion.
• Even when she didn't compete, Zaharias loved to play a wide variety of sports. Baseball, softball, diving, roller-skating, bowling…
As we marvel at the achievements of today’s athletes (London 2012 swimming sensation and multiple medalist Missy Franklin comes to mind), we can also take a moment to remember and thank the Lottie Dods and Babe Didricksons of the past, whose hard work helped open the door for the women winning medals today.
Written by Linnea Crowther and Jessica Campbell