The world needs inspiring female athletes!
With the England ladies’ football team making the World Cup final, doing what the men have been trying (and failing!) to do since 1966, women’s sport seems as strong as ever. There is talk of the Lionesses “inspiring a generation”.
This is completely true — and yet nothing especially new or surprising. Athletes have always been compelling role models, their achievements inspiring youngsters to pick up a sport and pursue it. Even if those youngsters don’t go on to become top-level athletes — that inspiration can stick around for life in the form of a beloved hobby, or the drive and self-belief you need to achieve your own life goals.
These 3 inspiring female athletes have been the greatest role models for me — in sport and beyond.
1. Liz McColgan
I think it is fair to say that Liz McColgan changed the course of my life. Without Liz, I would never have become a runner myself. And I’ve been a runner now for the best part of three decades.
I didn’t come from a sporty family. In our house, sport mostly meant something that was on TV — not something you actually went and participated in. Football, tennis, cricket, and athletics in summer: if it could be watched and enjoyed from the comfort of our own sofa, we were into it.
Of course I cheered on all the British athletes of the era— Steve Backley in the javelin, Linford Christie in the 100m sprint, Colin Jackson and Sally Gunnell in the hurdles. Florence “FloJo” Griffith-Joyner was a fascination too, with her sparkling, talon-like fingernails and glamorous trackside look.
I’d watch the athletic elites with enthusiasm — but nothing made me feel like taking up a discipline myself. I thoroughly disliked the sport we did at school and dreaded having to do the egg & spoon and sack races on the annual school sports day. So undignified.
Then I came home one evening in summer 1991, turned on the TV and watched the Scottish long-distance runner Liz McColgan win the 10,000m at the World Championship in Tokyo for Great Britain. (Click here to watch a clip).
It certainly wasn’t her running style that inspired me. Watching Liz run was never pretty. All hunched over and unsmiling — McColgan wasn’t about appearances, she was about getting the job done. And she did that very effectively.
What impressed me most about Liz on this evening was the fact that she had given birth to her first child with husband Peter McColgan (a steeplechaser from Northern Ireland) only 10 months previously. Even aged 9, I realised how big an achievement that was and how important a signal Liz was sending out to other women, whether athletes or not. Yes, she told us — you can be a mum and still be at the top of your game.
I thought she was brilliant. And I started to think that maybe running might be something for me, too. It seemed like a sport for the strong, the brave, the tenacious. Those seemed like admirable qualities to aspire to and have.
It took another few years for inspiration to turn into action. My first runs were at age 11 in the mandatory cross-country races we did at school every year. It turned out I was quite good at it. So I started running in my free time too.
Three marathons, countless half marathons and thousands of kilometres in my running shoes later — I am so grateful to Liz McColgan for having inspired me all those years ago.
[P.S. Remember I mentioned that baby Liz had just had when she won the 10,000m in Tokyo in 1991? Well, that baby girl was called Eilish and she went on to become a runner for Scotland and Great Britain too – a whole family of inspiring female athletes! Watch her repeat her own mother’s achievement by winning gold at the Commonwealth Games over 10,000m in 2022 here.]
2. Janja Garnbret
I started to watch climbing competitions in about 2015. I’ve been going bouldering on and off since 2013 and wanted to watch how the pros climb to try and improve my own (meagre) skills in the climbing hall.
When I started watching the IFRC World Cup, the ladies’ boulder comps were dominated by Britain’s Shauna Coxsey and the Japanese climbers Miho Nonaka and Akiyo Noguchi.
Then, all of a sudden, the name “Janja Garnbret” started to crop up with increasing frequency. Janja, a climbing prodigy from Slovenia, had already been making waves in the youth lead and bouldering competitions for a few years and was now breaking onto the senior circuit. Where it didn’t take her long to start showing everyone else how it is done.
These days, when Janja shows up to a competition — it is pretty clear that all the others are fighting for second place. There is something truly magical about watching her send a boulder — there is a flow and an ease to her climbing that makes it look so easy. You only remember how hard the moves she’s knocking out are when you a) try and do a boulder yourself, or b) watch the other elite competitors fall off them again and again.
Take a look at this bouldering final in Bern in 2023.
The entire competition is worth watching, but if you don’t have the time, check out boulder W3, starting at 26:40. Janja comes on at 38:40. This boulder is unbelievably difficult, with 6 or 7 dynamic moves all threaded together one after the another. For comparison: I have never managed to do a single dynamic move in all the 10 years I’ve been bouldering. They require strength, technique, accuracy — and the bravery to simply throw yourself up/across the wall. Without a harness.
Watch Janja fly! Even the presenters — including Shauna Coxsey herself — are lost for words. You know you are taking your sport to the next level when all the commentators can come up with to say about your performance is: “well, there’s Janja Garnbret – doing Janja Garnbret things”.
As of 2023, Garnbret is quite simply the best competition climber in history — either male or female. France’s Oriane Bertone and the American Natalia Grossman are the only female climbers who look even remotely capable of seriously challenging her right now. I would like to watch a mixed competition for once. I’m fairly sure that Janja would dust away her male competitors just as easily as the female ones.
Long live Queen Janja — a true icon for athletic equality.
3. Ekaterina Gordeeva
I think the first time I noticed Ekaterina Gordeeva was at the 1994 Winter Olympics, held in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer. Due to a change in the eligibility rules which allowed professional skaters to compete, she and her skating partner (and now husband) Sergei Grinkov were back in the pairs competition. Which they won — oh-so-easily, putting on a fantastic performance in the Long Programme with a piece set to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. At the closing gala, they skated again — this time to Debussy’s Reverie.
I was thoroughly enchanted: the athleticism, the technical brilliance, the artistry — and of course the way their love for each other shone right through in their skating. Of course, it didn’t do any harm that Sergei was gorgeous and Ekaterina stunningly beautiful.
How they had matured since winning gold in Calgary in 1988 when Ekaterina (“Katia”) was just 16 years old. But the clean, balletic grace so typical of Soviet skaters was still there, in spades. Just lovely to watch — although it was the result of a punishing training regime that probably wouldn’t be permitted these days.
It all seemed like a fairytale — but it was not destined to last. Sergei died suddenly while skating in Lake Placid in November 1995: a massive heart attack brought on by an undiscovered congenital heart defect. From one day to the next, Katia was left without a husband, a father for her little daughter Daria — without a skating partner, without a career.
She could have given up and returned to Russia to live with her mother. But her love for skating convinced her to carry on — as a solo artist. Learning to perform all the required moves for a solo skater was no mean feat — but she managed it, even competing in the professional world championships just a couple of years later.
In the decades since, Katia has continued to be a well-loved figure on the professional skating circuit in the United States, performing in shows, galas and popular TV shows. She has remarried twice: first to the Russian skater Ilya Kulik (with whom she had another daughter, Elizaveta) and then to the Canadian skater David Pelletier.
Among a crowded field of inspiring female athletes, she is a symbol of strength and resilience — returning to life when everything seemed lost. Ekaterina Gordeeva was always determined to write her own fairytale — and for that I will always admire her.
Photo credit: Sergign on Envato Elements