This Friday night, July 27th, the eyes of the world will turn to London as the 2012 Olympic Games begin. For some of the athletes, their dreams will be realized, as they triumph in a sport they've been training for their entire lives. For others, their hopes will slip from their grasp, sometimes by a mere fraction of a second. But for all of us watching, it will be another galvanizing display of talent, inspiration and endurance.
But what makes it even more exciting this year is that the Games haven't even begun, and Team U.S.A. has already scored a giant win for women. This year, for the first time ever, the U.S. Olympic team will include more women than men. What a fitting tribute that is to the 40-year anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law that assured greater and fairer opportunities in athletics for millions of females across the United States.
What makes this amazing landmark even sweeter is that women weren't even allowed to compete in the modern Olympics until 1900 in Paris. That year, women's events in lawn tennis, croquet and golf were introduced; and at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, women's athletics and gymnastics were added. Over the course of the next 84 years, women not only began to participate in the men's events, but dominate in many of them, as well. With the introduction of women's boxing this year, there is no Olympic event left that is exclusively for men. And with Saudi Arabia sending two women to the London Games, for the first time in history, all participating nations will have female Olympians competing.
Looking back, there have been countless amazing stories that perfectly capture the brilliance and stamina of our female Olympians -- from track star Wilma Rudolph becoming the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics in 1960; to Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scoring an unprecedented seven perfect 10s -- and capturing three gold medals -- at the 1976 games in Montreal; to Dara Torres winning three silver medals at her fifth Olympics -- the 2008 Games in Beijing -- at the age of 41, becoming the first woman in history to swim in the Olympics past the age of 40. These are just some of the superwomen whose stories continue to inspire audiences around the globe.
When it comes to our current Olympic team, keep your eye on Lolo Jones and Allyson Felix, who are but two members of a track and field team that promises to grace the podiums come medal time. Natalie Coughlin -- the first U.S. female swimmer to win six medals in a single Olympics in 2008 -- is back again this year, and she may steal some of the thunder from pool dynamos Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte as they all go for gold. Also, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh are back for their third Olympiad as the top U.S. beach volleyball team. And, of course, Serena and Venus Williams will be on hand in hopes of adding more gold to their trophy shelf.
But who will be the breakout stars of the gymnastics and soccer teams? Who will amaze and inspire us this time? Who will come to symbolize the very essence of their sport -- and in doing so, inspire millions of girls around the world to go for their dreams?
As we watch the opening ceremonies and see the pride on display as the athletes enter the stadium, we can look forward to a new generation of stars being born, and look back at those who came before to light the way.
After winning three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Wilma Rudolph became internationally known as the fastest woman in the world. The first American woman to win three medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, Wilma emerged from the 1960 Rome Olympics as "the Tornado."
Track and field athlete Lolo Jones was expected to win the 100m hurdles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but her dreams were dashed after tragically tripping over a hurdle during the race, leaving her in seventh place. Jones holds the American record in 60m hurdles and has been successful in the World Indoor Championship and the Diamond League races. She placed third in 100m hurdles in this year's U.S. Olympic Trials, making her comeback a likely event.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee is considered by many to be among the greatest female athletes of the 20th century. She is the most decorated woman in U.S. Olympic track and field history with six medals. Joyner-Kersee was also the first woman to earn more than 7,000 points in the Olympic heptathlon in 1988, scoring a record breaking 7,291 points.
Sprinter Allyson Felix took home Olympic gold as a member of the U.S. Olympic women's track & field team in Beijing and earned silver medals in the 200 meter races in both Beijing and Athens. Coached by Bobby Kersee, who is the husband and coach of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Allyson will be a force to reckon with as she strives for gold in her third shot at individual Olympic gold.
In 1976, Nadia Comaneci became the first female gymnast to ever be awarded a perfect 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event. At the age of 14, Nadia scored a 10.0 for her routine on the uneven bars at the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Over the course of the 1976 Olympics Nadia earned six additional perfect scores, winning three gold medals and a bronze medal, while her team took home the silver medal.
Headlining the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team in London, Gabrielle Douglas proved herself at the American Cup in March when she earned the highest all-around score as a U.S. team alternate. Douglas won the Olympic Trials and is especially strong on bar routines, which has been a weak spot for the U.S. team in the past.
Known as the Magnificent Seven, the 1996 United States Olympic Women's Gymnastics team made history when they won the first ever gold medal for the U.S. at the Atlanta Olympics. The seven team members included: Amanda Borden, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug, and Shannon Miller. The competition ended dramatically with Kerri Strug valiantly doing a perfect landing on an injured ankle.
2011 All-around world champion Jordyn Wieber has already had a busy year. The winner of the all-around competition at the American Cup, Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships and Visa Championships placed second all-around at the Olympic Trials and is expected to help lead the U.S. women's gymnastics team to victory in London.
Though she wasn't an Olympic athlete, Gertrude Ederle set the stage for future female swimmers when she became the first woman to swim across the English Channel on August 6th, 1926. Despite the fact that the 19-year old New Yorker chose a day so rough that even steamship trips were canceled, Gertrude completed the swim in 14 hours and 31 minutes, breaking the 50-year old record.
Eleven-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin made great strides at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when among other victories, she became the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals in consecutive Olympics. She is also the first woman to swim the 100m back in under one minute. If her success continues, she could walk away from the London Olympics as the most decorated female athlete for the third time in her career.
Twelve-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres competed in five separate Olympics, winning at least one medal in each one. At age 40, only a year after giving birth to her first child, she won the gold medal in the 100m freestyle at the U.S. Nationals. Torres served as an inspiration for older athletes when she became the oldest swimmer to ever compete in the Olympics at the 2008 Beijing Games. She had been training to compete in the 2012 Olympics, but was disqualified at the Olympic Trials, ending her remarkable 28-year career.
Swimmer Rebecca Soni took home three medals, including one gold and two silver and set a world record in the 200m breaststroke at the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2009, she set another world record with her time for the 100m breaststroke at the World Championships. Soni, who was named World Swimmer of the Year and American Swimmer of the Year by "Swimming World Magazine" multiple times, is expected to have another record-breaking performance in London this summer.
Althea Gibson, sometimes referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of tennis," made huge strides in breaking the color barrier when she became the first African American female to win a Grand Slam title in 1956 at the French Championship. Althea was also the first African American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour in 1964.
Tennis' superstar sisters Venus and Serena Williams won the gold medal in Women's Doubles in both the 2000 and 2008 games, and Venus also won the Women's Singles gold in 2000. This year they are back in the doubles mix and this could be Serena's year to win that elusive singles title too.
Paving the way for modern Olympians, Billie Jean King is one of the best-known female tennis players in history. Not only did she win 12 Grand Slam singles titles during the course of her career, she was the first woman to ever to be named the Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 1972, and in 1973, she famously beat Bobby Riggs in the epic "Battle of the Sexes" matchup. Billie made history again in 1984 as the first female head of a professional athletic league when she became the commissioner of the World Team Tennis.
Russian tennis superstar Maria Sharapova is the highest paid female athlete in the world, and one of the most recognizable faces in sports. In May, she regained her #1 world ranking after she won the French Open, joining a very short list of women who have completed a career Grand Slam. Though at times it seems like she is everywhere, there is one place she has never been, and that is standing atop an Olympic podium with a gold medal around her neck. So, we'll be watching closely, because Maria usually gets what she wants.
Sixty one years after the men's first FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in 1930, the first FIFA Women's World Cup was held in 1991. The competition took place in Guangdong, China and the American soccer team became the first team in history to win the Women's World Cup, beating Norway 1-2. In 1999, the US was victorious again, beating China 5-4 in a penalty shootout with Brandi Chastain scoring the winning goal.
Currently ranked first by the FIFA Women's World Rankings, the U.S. women's soccer team are two-time defending Olympic champions that are on track to claim a third gold medal this summer. Goalkeeper Hope Solo is often regarded as the best in the world, Abby Wambach is second on the international scoring list and newcomer Alex Morgan is known to have a knack for making game-winning goals at crucial points.
Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias became world-renowned after winning two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. During her lifetime she earned All-American status in basketball and by 1950 she had become America's first female golf celebrity winning every golf title available, including 82 tournament titles and 41 LPGA tour wins.
Known as one of the most successful beach volleyball teams, Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor took home gold at the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Olympics. The pair, who are close friends, were the first beach volleyball team to repeat as gold medalists in the Olympics and are on track to set a new record at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Women are banned from playing sports in Saudi Arabia, so the whole world was surprised when the country announced that it would be sending two female athletes to this year's Olympic Games. The entire Saudi national team was at risk of being eliminated from the Olympics by the International Olympics Committee due to their ban of female athletes, but this year, Sarah Attar (pictured) will run the 800m track event and Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will participate in judo. These historic Olympic Games will be the first time that every participating country sends at least one female athlete to represent their nation.
Women's boxing will make its Olympic debut at the 2012 London Games. The US will be represented in all three weight divisions - Queen Underwood in the lightweight division, Marlen Esparza in the flyweight division and Claressa Shields in the middleweight division. The inclusion of this sport marks a momentous occasion - this will be the first time that women compete in all of the same sports as men in the Games. <em>Photo courtesy of Flickr User: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/usembassylondon/">usembassylondon</a></em>
For the first time ever, American women (269) will outnumber men (261) at the Olympic Games. Many attribute this to Title IX, a law passed in 1972 barring sex discrimination in federally funded athletics, educational programs and other activities.
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