From Lindsey Vonn to Maria Sharapova,
the portraits of 6 inspiring female athletes
Disclaimer: This is an article about sports that I practice and love, and about athletes whose careers I have followed. It is a very subjective article in which I intend to talk about female athletes that inspire me; it is certainly not a list of all female athletes that deserve a mention (there would be way too many), or about who is more deserving than whom, and it is also not a ranking of the best female athletes. All female athletes deserve coverage, but the following 6 athletes are my personal favorites and I will be explaining why. Please add your voice to the conversation by telling us in the comments section which female athletes inspire you, and by answering our poll.
Women in sports are utterly under-represented. Anyone who has a TV in their home or has walked by a sports bar has seen a football match, and there’s a 99,99% chance that this match involved male players. It is not even necessary to say “male players”. Football players are assumed to be male. The same goes for rugby, cycling, skiing, and most other sports. A few exceptions can be found, such as tennis – partly due to the tremendous efforts of pioneers such as Billie Jean King and the tireless work of the Women Tennis Association, partly because female tennis players are deemed attractive enough to please a (male) audience -, golf, beach volleyball – because watching bikini-clad women jump in the sand and hug one another appeals to a (male) audience -, and gymnastics and synchronized swimming – because these two last examples are perceived and sold as “feminine sports”.
In no way am I saying that female tennis players or beach volleyball female players are less deserving than other athletes whose sport is not marketed as strongly along gender lines as tennis or beach volleyball are. What I am saying is that practicing a sport is not equally encouraged depending on whether you are born a girl or a boy, and that sport broadcasting is a very big money-making machine that clearly discriminates against women’s sports, especially when said sports do not promote the image of women as “hot”, “easy on the eye”, in short – consumable.
I have altogether stopped checking the “Sport” section of one of France’s most famous newspaper, Le Monde, because it almost never includes any sport news that has to do with women’s sports. In the past 7 days for instance, Le Monde has published around 90 articles classified in the Sports section, and only 2 of them were about women in sports, and interestingly, the topic of the 2 articles in question was: the pole-dancing championships…! A thorough study published in 1990 highlighted the many ways in which the representation of women in sports was not only lacking but also “trivialized” compared with how male athletes are portrayed on TV. This study found that men’s sports amounted to 92% of airtime, while women’s sports occupied 5% of airtime (the remaining 3% being dedicated to gender neutral topics). You could think that more than 20 years later, things have changed. But in March 2014, The Guardian reported that in 2013 men’s sports received 97% of sport coverage…
There is a long way to go to fix this drastic imbalance. Prejudices against women in sports (“They are going to be too masculine!”, “They don’t need to be strong!”) have to be fought; young girls and women have to be encouraged to develop their athletic skills, and we have to stop opposing being sporty to being feminine. And we have to demand broadcasters and the press in general that they give greater coverage to women’s sports.
So this is my very small and humble contribution to put in the spotlight some of the amazing female athletes that inspire me, in no particular order.
Lindsey Vonn is quite simply the second most successful alpine skier of all time (irrespective of gender). She has won 67 World Cup titles, and is the only skier alongside with the legendary Ingemar Stenmark to have won 19 season titles across all ski disciplines. If these numbers do not speak to you very much, just remember that she is one of the best things that happened to skiing in the past decade.
Her commitment to her sport and her relentless drive to push beyond her limits is what truly inspires me. In February 2013, she crashed in the super-G during the World Championships and suffered serious injury to her right knee and leg. Nonetheless, Lindsey Vonn returned to the World Cup Finals at the end of 2013, and won the downhill title (although she lost the overall title to Tina Maze). She reinjured her right knee in December 2013 and had to take a full year to recover. During this time, many commentators thought of her as done for, and were quick to dismiss her chances to come back to the top. But she proved them wrong, as Vonn made her comeback at the December 2014 World Cup at Lake Louise, and won the downhill race. In March 2015, she proceeded to win both the downhill and the super-G races at the World Cup in Méribel (France).
Vonn also continuously advocates for her sport to be better represented, and for women’s skiing to be recognized equally to men’s skiing. She has repeatedly bid the International Ski Federation (ISF) to race with the top male skiers, but the IFS rejected her proposal.
You can also watch The Climb, a very interesting documentary on Lindsey Vonn’s comeback to competition after her knee injury: http://www.redbull.com/en/snow/stories/1331702086424/watch-lindsey-vonn-s-the-climb-documentary-movie-free
Fearless and groundbreaking are the two adjectives that first come to my mind when I think of Géraldine Fasnach. But maybe she would not like to be qualified as fearless, because fear is part of what she does. Géraldine Fasnacht made her first noted appearance when she won the world-famous freeride competition, the Xtreme Verbier, during the 2001-2002 edition. She proceeded to win 11 international titles in freeride snowboarding, and stopped competing at the Xtreme Verbier only when they decided to make women compete on an ‘easier’ track.
Starting from 1998, Géraldine Fasnacht also started getting into skydiving and BASE jumping.She has since been travelling the world and completed BASE jumps in locations such as Iran, Antartica, and her native Switzerland. What is amazing with Fasnacht is that one can feel that she is a true lover of mountains and of nature, and her concern is not to impress or to prove that she can always do better faster stronger, but to continue learning and honing her craft – which is flying. She explains that she has learnt a lot from observing how birds fly, and she practices relentlessly to be able to control as many parameters as she can during the flight. BASE jumping requires more than fearlessness; it is an extremely precise sport in which any mistake can be fatal. Indeed when flying with the wingsuit (a combination that has small wings located between the arms and the body), Géraldine reaches a speed of around 180km/hour. But more than the speed, what truly impresses me is her quest to develop different physical abilities in order to follow her dream: to fly like a bird.
Here is the teaser of an amazing documentary (directed by Seb Montaz) centered on Géraldine:
And if you want to know more about Géraldine’s life and work (in French):
 BASE jumping consists in parachuting from a cliff or a fixed structure. BASE stands for Building, Antenna, Span, Earth, the 4 types of structures from which one can jump.
There’s definitely something special about Agnieszka Radwanska, a magician in the tennis world who can produce some of the most unexpected and most finely crafted shots of the women’s tour. Unlike many other contemporary tennis players who rely on strength to overpower their opponents, Radwanska is all finesse, careful placement, and game reading.
She may have the skinniest legs, and sharp knees that betray her rather ‘small’ frame (despite being 1m72, she remains 16cm shorter than Maria Sharapova), but her smart game has allowed her to reach the top 10 and become number 2 in the world in 2012. It’s a real treat to watch Radwanska play, and what she repeatedly shows is that there is much more to sport than pure strength; indeed, smart thinking and mental toughness are very valuable assets that contributed to Agnieszka’s well deserved success. There’s a shadow to Radwanska’s career though: she has never won a Grand Slam title. Will 2015 be her breakthrough year? I, for one, certainly hope so.
Here is a quick display of Radwanska’s brilliance:
A friend of Géraldine Fasnacht and herself an inspiring free skier and BASE jumper, Karina Hollekim has had an amazing career. She became a professional freeskier in 1992, and was then introduced to BASE jumping in 2000. Not deterred by being one of the only women in the burgeoning BASE jumping community at that time, she became the first woman to ski BASE jump – jumping from a cliff while on skis.
Her life took a tragic turn in 2006 when she had a parachute accident which left her with shattered legs. She was told she would never walk again, let alone ski. But in 2010 she came back to the ski slopes, not in a ski wheelchair but standing tall on her legs. I find the determination, patience and courage with which Karina Hollekim leads her life to be truly remarkable. Her example is all about following one’s heart, not being scared to find one’s own path, and to enjoy every moment of our lives.
Here is the trailer to 20 seconds of Joy, the film that recounts Karina’s tragic accident and the slow road to recovery. (I will admit that I am not a fan of the documentary itself, but it remains an interesting watch to get to know more about Karina Hollekim.)
Most people know Maria Sharapova, or have at least seen her face somewhere on TV or in advertisements. But if she is a very successful businesswoman, that is not the reason why I am inspired by Maria Sharapova. What is amazing about her is that she is so determined and so committed to her sport that she can balance being one of the best female tennis players in the world and managing other projects including her endorsements for various brands.
Some people have reproached her for appearing in commercials and ads, but I have not heard the same reproaches voiced about Federer’s many endorsements for Rolex, Jura or Nike, nor have I heard anyone saying that Rafael Nadal cannot be a ‘real’ athlete because he poses half-naked for Emporio Armani or Lanvin. Weirdly, this kind of critique is very much focused on Maria Sharapova. And yet she continues to prove that she has what it takes to be in the top 10. After winning Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17, Sharapova rose to world number 1 in 2005, and won her first US Open in 2006. But a shoulder injury kept her out of the main tournaments from 2007 to 2009, when she made her comeback and won the title in Tokyo that year. Since then, she returned to the top 10 and never really left it; she’s currently ranked world number 2.
When watching Sharapova’s matches, one cannot fail to notice the intense concentration and enduring competitive spirit that are characteristic of her. That is all that matters when she is on court: she plays with a passion that speaks for itself.
Here are 10 displays of Sharapova’s greatness:
And last but not least, one cannot but mention Sarah Burke, the trailblazing freestyle skiing athlete who did so much for her sport and who died in January 2012 while training in the superpipe. It is largely thanks to her efforts that ski halfpipe was introduced to the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
This is the ride that allowed her to win the superpipe gold medal at the 2011 Winter X Games.