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9 Women From Olympics Past Everyone Should Remember

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Olympics fever is hitting us hard. Between the first ever Olympic women's ski jumping event and the incredible figure skating routines we're anticipating, we can hardly wait for Feb. 7 to arrive.

In the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Games, we've already listed some of the amazing female athletes we can't wait to see compete. But we're also drawing inspiration from past Olympians.

Women have been participating in the Olympics since 1900, when 22 ladies competed in tennis, sailing, croquet, horse riding and golf, and today make up just under half of all Olympic participants. And though inequality follows women even into the highest echelons of athletics -- for example, female athletes aren't always given the same sponsorship opportunities as their male counterparts -- that doesn't make these Olympians any less awe-worthy.

This group of athletes grew up in ordinary families in West Virginia, rural Georgia, and a village in the Netherlands and went on to break records in women's sports. They rose above criticisms of their private lives and refused to listen when told they couldn't compete.

Here are nine notable female Olympians of the past:

  • Wilma Rudolph, Sprinter, 1956 & 1960 Olympic Games
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    In the 1960s, Rudolph was considered "the fastest woman in the world" -- a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that she spent most of her childhood in leg braces. Rudolph suffered from polio as a child, and was fitted for leg braces after she lost the use of her left leg at age six. After years of treatment and determination, the braces came off -- and her sporting career began.

    During the 1960 Summer Olympics, Rudolph won three gold medals in track and field.

    "I don't know why I run so fast," she told ESPN during her heyday. "I just run."

  • Nadia Comăneci, Gymnast, 1976 & 1980 Olympic Games
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    The Romanian gymnast won three gold medals at the 1976 Games. She was the first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event for her routine on the uneven bars.

    "You have to have a lot of passion for what you do," she told CNN in 2012. "To be able to work hard and to have a lot of motivation because you're going to go to places that you're never going to believe."

  • Alice Coachman, High Jumper, 1948 Olympic Games
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    Coachman, a high jumper who grew up in the segregated South, was the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948.

    Coachman's father didn't approve of her initial training -- which involved practicing on a homemade high jump.

    "He said, 'sit on the porch and act like a lady,'" Coachman told NBC in a 2012 interview. "But I didn't do that."

  • Fanny Blankers-Koen, Sprinter And Hurdler, 1948 Olympic Games
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    The Dutch athletics star won four gold medals in 1948. At the time, she was a 30-year-old mother of two, and was criticized for competing in the Games.

    “I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with -- how do you say it? -- short trousers,” Blankers-Koen told The New York Times in 1982. “One newspaperman wrote that I was too old to run, that I should stay at home and take care of my children. When I got to London, I pointed my finger at him and I said: ‘I show you.’”

  • Fanny Durack, Swimmer, 1912 Olympic Games
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    Durack (left), an Australian swimmer, won gold in the 100m freestyle at the 1912 Olympics.

    Between 1910 and 1918 Durack was considered the world's greatest female swimmer of all distances between sprints and the mile marathon.

  • Helen Wills, Tennis Player, 1924 Olympic Games
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    Wills, an American tennis player, took home gold medals in women's doubles and singles at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

    Wills was largely considered "the first American-born woman to achieve international celebrity as an athlete."

  • Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Speed Skater And Cyclist, 1972 & 1984 Olympic Games
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    Carpenter, the first woman to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, competed as a skater in the 1972 Games and won the gold medal in the cycling road race at the 1984 Summer Olympics.


    "For me, it was everything, because I wanted to win the Olympics so badly," Carpenter-Phinney said of her win in a post-race interview. "That was the crowning glory of a long career, and it gave me the chance to retire on top."

  • Micheline Ostermeyer, Shot Putter And Discus-Thrower, 1948 Olympic Games
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    The French athlete and concert pianist competed in the 1948 Olympics, where she won gold medals in shot put and discus throw, and a bronze medal in the high jump. Ostermeyer had only picked up a discus for the first time a few weeks before winning the gold medal.
  • Mary Lou Retton, Gymnast, 1984 Olympic Games
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    Retton, an American, was the first female gymnast not from Eastern Europe to win a gold medal in the Gymnastic Individual All-around competition. She won five medals total in the 1984 Games.

    As a child, not realizing that competitive gymnastics even existed, Retton's ambition was to become "the finest cheerleader in the world."

    "She always knew what she wanted to do," coach Bela Karolyi said in the documentary "Bud Greenspan Remembers: The 1984 L.A. Olympics." "She always had very set goals. And she was following her goals."

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