After an impressive four Olympic Games, multiple American records, and a bronze medal in the high jump, Chaunté Lowe is not yet ready to step away from the track—even after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis last May. “It’s like, ‘Oh wow, this is not the baton you want to be handed,’” Lowe, a 36-year-old mother of three told Team USA, “but it’s so important for awareness and continuing research.” So while Lowe battles the disease and recovers from chemotherapy (according to an Instagram post in January, she’s done with treatment), she continues to train with the hopes of making her fifth Olympic team.
Lowe wants to use that global platform to spread awareness about the importance of early breast cancer detection, she said. “I used to bury my head in the sand when it came to these issues, but not anymore,” she wrote in an Instagram post in October of 2019. “Know your risk and find ways to mitigate them. There are many ways to prevent cancer for yourself or those you love 💕. Make sure that you know what they are.”
Elana Meyers Taylor
Three-time Olympic bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor didn’t pick up the sport until 2007. But just three years later, the former collegiate softball player made the U.S. Olympic bobsled team—and earned a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games. No easy feat. Since then, Meyers Taylor has added two silver Olympic medals to her collection (2014 and 2018 Games), cementing her status as one of the most decorated U.S. Olympic bobsledders. Last fall, Meyers Taylor announced she was pregnant and would miss this current bobsledding season. But the very next day, in true champion style, she promptly won the women’s drivers division at USA Bobsled Push Championships.
Olympic rower Anita DeFrantz competed in the 1976 Montreal Games, serving as captain of the U.S. team that captured bronze in the sport’s Olympic debut for women. She also went on to become a four-time finalist and silver medalist at the 1978 World Rowing Championships and a six-time national champion.
DeFrantz has made her biggest marks on history outside the boat. In 1980, she led a group of 25 athletes that sued the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) over its resolution to keep Americans out of the 1980 Moscow Games, claiming such a boycott violated constitutional rights and was beyond the power of the USOC. DeFrantz, who had actually been a member of the USOC since 1976, lost the lawsuit but received a medal for her efforts from the International Olympic Committee. From there, she went on to have deep involvement with the Olympics administration, breaking gender and racial barriers along the way. In 1986, DeFrantz became the first African American—and woman—to represent the U.S. on the International Olympic Committee. In 1997 she became the IOC’s first female vice president. And more recently, she continues to advocate for greater equality at the Games. "Sports belongs to all humanity," DeFrantz told the Chicago Tribune in a 2018 article about inequities between men’s and women’s Olympic ski jumping. "There's no reason to exclude women from any sport."
After surviving a helicopter crash while serving in Afghanistan, former Marine Kirstie Ennis endured dozens of surgeries, an above-the-knee amputation on her left leg, and a traumatic brain injury. Then, Ennis found mountain climbing—and a higher calling. Soon after picking up the sport, Ennis developed a (literally) lofty plan: climb the Seven Summits and raise awareness and money for nonprofits in the process.
Since establishing the Kirstie Ennis Foundation in 2018, Ennis has distributed more than $70,000 in grants for nonprofits serving veterans, women, and the disabled population. Her organization also leads clinics that help expose underserved populations and minority groups to outdoor sports. “I like to think that by doing this, I'm hopefully setting a precedent for someone who is watching me…that I’m breaking down barriers to show people that [people with disabilities] can be out there,” she told Glamour last year after returning from a climb into Everest’s “death zone.”
“Hopefully, they’re going to think that they can do it too and that they can do it better than me,” she added. In July 2019, the equality pioneer received the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the ESPYs.
After graduating from the University of Louisville Medical School, Dot Richardson was in the midst of her residency in orthopedic surgery when she decided to take a one-year hiatus. The reason? Training for the 1996 Olympics. A standout softball star from a young age, Richardson earned All-American status as a collegiate player, won two gold medals at the Pan American Games, and was named NCAA Player of the Decade for the 1980s. So, when the sport was finally added to the Games in 1996, Richardson hit pause on her career and joined the American squad. The team dominated the competition and won gold, thanks in part to Ricardson hitting a two-run home run. At the 2000 Sydney Games, Richardson joined Team USA once more for a repeat gold-medal performance.
Among her other athletic accomplishments: three-time world champion, four total Pan American gold medals, and induction into the National Softball Hall of Fame. As for her medical career? Richardson went on to become medical director of the National Training Center in Clermont, Florida, and vice chair of the President’s Council on Fitness.
Women’s weightlifting made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Sydney Games, and that year American Tara Cunningham (née Nott) won gold in the 48-kilogram division, becoming the first female Olympic weightlifting champion in history, per Team USA, after she lifted more than twice her bodyweight. That wasn’t Cunningham’s only accomplishment—not by any stretch. The gifted multisport athlete (Cunningham trained in three different sports at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers: gymnastics, soccer, and weightlifting) also attended the 2004 Athens Games, where she finished 10th in her division, set American records in two different weight classes, and earned two gold medals at the Pan-American Games, plus seven USAW national championships.
In the time since Cunningham’s groundbreaking achievements, the once niche sport of weightlifting has surged in popularity. Between the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, membership in USA Weightlifting more than doubled, from 11,000 to more than 26,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor
This dynamic duo is considered the greatest beach volleyball team of all time after notching three consecutive gold medal performances in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympic Games. That three-peat feat made Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor the first women to win three Olympic medals in the sport and the first athletes—men or women—to earn three beach volleyball gold medals. Also damn impressive: Weeks after winning the 2012 Games, Walsh Jennings announced that she was pregnant with her third child—and had been during the Olympic competition.
May-Treanor has since retired from the sport and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019, while Walsh Jennings went on to win a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics with partner April Ross. In 2018, Walsh Jennings, who openly expressed disappointment over that third place finish in Rio, told the Associated Press she wants to fight for gold one more time at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Megan Rapinoe, soccer queen and relentless equality advocate, is only 34 and already a living legend. In 2019, the superstar forward led the USWNT to its historic World Cup Win, tying for the most goals scored of the tournament (six) and winning a slew of awards, including the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball as well as FIFA’s Women’s 2019 Player of the Year Award later that fall.
Rapinoe is much more than her list of (very impressive) accolades—she’s also a stop-at-nothing champion for equal pay and equal rights. In 2016, after former NFL player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, she became both the first white and the first female athlete to kneel in solidarity. Last March, Rapinoe joined the USWNT in suing the U.S. Soccer Federation over allegations of gender discrimination. And in May, she became the first out gay woman to pose for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. “I’m the antithesis of no fucks given—I give all the fucks,” Rapinoe previously told Glamour. “I just feel that it’s my responsibility to make the world a better place—we all have that responsibility.”