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The 36 most iconic female athletes of the past century

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph

African American sprinter Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. She overcame the loss of strength in her left leg and foot, caused by polio at five years old, to become the fasted woman in the world at the 1960 Olympics. She holds the record for the 100-meter at 11.2 seconds and 200-meter at 22.9 seconds.

Rudolph gained international recognition during the 1960 Olympics because of worldwide television coverage and became an iconic figure for black and female athletes.

During the peak of the civil rights movement, Rudolph was a trailblazer for the rights of African Americans and women. She broke the gender barrier of all-male events in track and field, and her legacy lives on today.

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Billie Jean King

Billie Jean King

Former World No. 1 professional tennis player Billie Jean King is regarded as one of the greatest women's tennis players of all time. She won 39 Grand Slam titles, including 12 in singles, 16 in women's doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles.

King is an advocate for gender equality and social justice. She campaigned for equal pay when the Open Era began in 1968. She became the first female athlete to earn over $100,000 in prize money in 1971, but inequalities continued.

Today, King is still a primary advocate for women and LGBTQ equality. She was outed in 1981.

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Lindsey Vonn

Lindsey Vonn

Lindsey Vonn is one of only two female skiers to win four World Cup overall championships. She won three consecutive titles from 2008-10 and another in 2012. She was also the first American woman to win a gold medal in downhill, which she did at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Vonn won her 20th World Cup crystal globe title in 2016 to surpass Ingemar Stenmark for the overall record for men or women. She is also one of six women to win a World Cup race in all five disciplines of alpine skiing

She is one of the greatest skiers of all-time behind three Olympic medals, four World Cup titles, 82 World Cup victories, and two World Championship gold medals, among other accomplishments.

Vonn has missed parts of several seasons as a result of injuries, which ultimately pushed her to retire in 2019.

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Aly Raisman

Aly Raisman

Aly Raisman is a two-time Olympic gymnast. In 2012, she won the team gold medal, floor gold medal, and bronze medal on balance beam. She took home the individual all-around silver medal and floor silver medal in 2016, as well as another team gold medal.

As decorated as Raisman is on the gymnastics floor, she has become an advocate in the fight to end sexual abuse. Raisman was one of over 100 gymnasts who came forward to speak out against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Since Nassar's trial, during which she delivered a blistering speech, she has used her platform to focus on fixing USA Gymnastics and justice for all victims of sexual abuse.

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Alex Morgan

Alex Morgan

Alex Morgan is the co-captain for the United States Women's Soccer Team and won her second consecutive FIFA World Cup championship in 2019. She debuted in the World Cup in 2011, where the team won silver.

In 2012, Morgan recorded 28 goals and 21 assists to become the second American woman to score 20 goals and 20 assists in the same calendar year alongside Mia Hamm. She was also the sixth and youngest US player to score 20 goals in a single year.

Since being named to the senior US team in 2019, Morgan has accumulated 169 caps and 107 goals. She was also one of the first women's soccer players to appear on the cover of a FIFA video game.

Off the field, Morgan is part of the US soccer women fighting for equal pay.

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Nastia Liukin

Nastia Liukin

Nastia Liukin was a pivotal member of the US gymnastics team during three World Championships and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. She won the 2008 Olympic all-around, as well as five Olympic medals, which tied the record for most medals won by an American gymnast in a single non-boycotted Olympic Games. Simone Biles later also tied the record.

A four-time all-around US national champion, Liukin's strongest events were the uneven bars and balance beam. She attempted a comeback in 2011 with hopes of making the 2012 Olympic team, but fell several times during the Olympic Trials and retired in 2012.

She is now a gymnastics analyst for NBC Sports and hosts an annual Nastia Liukin Cup to support the growth of gymnastics.

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Serena Williams

Serena Williams

Serena Williams is highly regarded as one of the best female tennis players of the Open Era. Her victories have shaped her into an inspirational figure in the sport, especially to children, but she has also been met with backlash by others.

Read more: Serena Williams has a 'bad personality,' according to the tennis player who got kicked out of a press conference because of her

Williams holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined among active players and tied for third on the all-time list. She is second in the Open Era. Her 23 Grand Slam single titles is a record for the most tournament wins in the Open Era.

In 2019, she was the only woman on the list of the world's highest-paid athletes, according to Forbes.

Along with her sister Venus Williams, the two are considered pioneers of a new era for women in tennis that is focused on power.

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Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick is the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing. She accomplished multiple firsts for women in the sport, including being the first and only woman to win an IndyCar Series race at the 2008 Indy Japan 300.

Patrick also had the highest finish by a woman in the Indianapolis 500 (third) and Daytona 500 (eighth). She did not endure as much success as many expected, but she had an undeniable impact on the sport.

In a predominately male industry, Patrick is often credited for breaking the gender barrier and inspiring more women to take part in auto racing and motorsports.

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Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey is a professional wrestler and former mixed martial artist. She is considered to be one of the greatest female athletes ever as the only woman to win both a UFC and WWE championship. She is also the only woman to headline a pay-per-view event.

At the 2008 Olympics, Rousey won a bronze medal in judo, becoming the first American woman to ever do so. She took part in the first UFC women's fight, successfully defending her title against Liza Carmouche.

Rousey was the first female fighter to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2018. That same year, she signed a contract with WWE and began professional wrestling.

Outside the ring, Rousey has written an autobiography and starred in several films, including "Furious 7" and "Mile 22".

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Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova is a professional tennis player and the only Russian to have a career Grand Slam. When she was 18 years old, Sharapova was ranked world No. 1 and was the first female from Russia to do so.

Sharapova has accumulated 36 singles titles and five Grand Slam titles, which ranks third behind Serena and Venus Williams among active players. She is considered one of the best tennis players to play the game.

She has also been involved in various different humanitarian endeavors, including being a United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador focused on the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Programme. She also launched a program in 2018 to mentor women entrepreneurs.

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Katie Ledecky

Katie Ledecky

American swimmer Katie Ledecky won five Olympic gold medals and 14 world championship gold medals, which a record for a female swimmer. She currently holds the world record in women's 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1,500-meter freestyle.

Ledecky made her international debut at the 2012 London Olympics at 15 years old and surprised everyone when she won the gold medal in women's 800-meter freestyle, becoming the youngest ever to win. Four years later, she became the most decorated female athlete of the 2016 Olympics with four gold medals, one silver medal, and two world records. She has broken fourteen world records throughout her career.

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Simone Biles

Simone Biles

American gymnast Simone Biles won the individual all-around, vault, and floor gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. At only 22 years old, Biles is a four-time World all-around champion, with three consecutive victories from 2013-15 and another in 2018. She is also a five-time US National all-around champion.

Biles is the most decorated American gymnast with twenty-five Olympic and World Championship medals, and set the US record for most gold medals in women's gymnastics at a single Olympics with four.

Dominant on nearly every event, Biles is considered to be one of the greatest gymnasts of all-time.

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The 36 most iconic female athletes of the past century

The 36 most iconic female athletes of the past century

Missy Franklin became the first American woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympics in any sport during the 2012 London Olympics at 17 years old. She quickly captivated America's attention and went on to win six gold medals at the 2013 World Aquatics Championship.

Frankly previously held the record at the World Aquatics Championships with 11 gold medals, but Katie Ledecky broke it in 2017 with 14.

If not for chronic pain cutting Franklin's career short, many believed she would go on to dominate women's swimming the way Michael Phelps dominated men's.

In December 2018, Franklin announced her retirement, specifically due to chronic shoulder pain, but she will always be remembered as one of the greats in women's swimming.

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Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe is a co-captain of the USWNT, alongside Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd.

She helped the US to its second consecutive FIFA Women's World Cup championship in 2019, scoring six goals for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball Awards. She was also on the 2015 team that won the Cup, as well as the 2012 Olympic team, which took home gold.

Rapinoe has made noise both on and off the field. She is an advocate for numerous LGBTQ organizations and often uses her platform to speak out against social injustice. She is also an advocate for women in sports and equality.

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Steffi Graf

Steffi Graf

Former German tennis player Steffi Graf is the only tennis player to win each Grand Slam tournament at least four times and achieve the Golden Slam by winning all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year. She won 22 Grand Slam singles titles overall.

She was ranked world No. 1 for 377 weeks by the Women's Tennis Association, which is the longest for any player, male or female, since rankings began being issued.

Along with Margaret Court, the two are the only players to win three Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year five times, among male and female players.

Her aggressive game has been noted as the starting point for today's modern style of play. She is regarded as the greatest female tennis player of all time, including by tennis great Billie Jean King. She is credited with helping to increase the sport's popularity in Germany, where it has remained popular since.

Graf retired in 1999 and was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004.

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Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings are considered the greatest beach volleyball team of all-time. They won three consecutive Olympic gold medals from 2004-12. They also won 21 consecutive Olympic matches and only lost one set during their 11-year run.

May-Treanor announced her retirement following her and Walsh Jennings third gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. She was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2016.

Walsh Jennings began playing with former teammate April Ross in 2013 after May-Treanor's retirement. The two won the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, making her the most decorated beach volleyball player, male or female, in history.

She and new partner Brooke Sweat have their eyes set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi is the all-time leading scorer in the WNBA. Since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Phoenix Mercy, she has won the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award, three WNBA championships, and four Olympic gold medals from 2004-16. She also won the WNBA MVP Award in 2009 and two WNBA Finals MVP Awards in 2009 and 2014.

Over her 15 year career, Taurasi has been selected to seven WNBA All-Star teams. She is one of 10 women who have won an Olympic gold medal, a NCAA championship, and a WNBA championship.

She is considered one of the greatest woman to play basketball, being called the "White Mamba" by Kobe Bryant and the Michael Jordan of the WNBA by DeAndre Ayton.

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Larisa Latynina

Larisa Latynina

Larisa Latynina holds the record for most Olympic gold medals by any gymnast, male or female, with nine. Her 18 medals for the Soviet Union was a record for 48 years.

Latynina retired in 1966, but went on to coach the Soviet's women's gymnastics team during the 1966-76 Olympics. She is often regarded as the establishment of the Soviet Union's dominance in gymnastics.

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Jackie Joyner-Kersee

One of the greatest American track and field athletes, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was known for the heptathlon (where athletes compete in seven different track and field events in two days) and long jump. Over four Olympic Games, she took home three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals in the two events.

Joyner-Kersee established the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation in 1988, which is dedicated to providing youth, adults, and families with athletic lessons and resources to improve their quality of life. She also is one of 11 athletes who founded Athletes for Hope, which helps professional athletes take part in charity events and volunteering.

She is also an activist for children's education, racial equality, and women's rights.

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Candace Parker

Candace Parker

Candace Parker was the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game. Drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks No. 1 overall in 2008, she became the second player to dunk in a WNBA game in June 2008.

Parker led the Sparks to their first WNBA championship since 2002 alongside Alana Beard and Nneka Ogwumike in 2016. She's been named WNBA MVP twice and was named the WNBA Finals MVP in 2016.

She was the first player to win Rookie of the Year and WNBA MVP in the same season in 2008.

Off the court, Parker is a studio analyst for CBS Sports NCAA tournament coverage and "NBA on TNT".

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Nadia Comaneci

Nadia Comaneci

Nadia Comaneci competed during the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics in gymnastics and is credited with bringing attention to the sport worldwide. From Romania, she won five gold medals in individual events and was the first to be awarded a perfect 10 score.

In two Olympics, Comaneci had nine perfect 10s. She won nine Olympic medals and four World Artistic Gymnastics Championship medals.

Now retired, Comaneci has remained a prominent figure in gymnastics. She also is involved in fundraising for various different charities.

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Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova is considered to be one of the best female tennis players in history. She is the only player to be ranked No. 1 in singles (332 weeks) and doubles (237 weeks) for over 200 weeks. She won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, a record 31 major women's doubles titles, and 10 major mixed double titles.

She won the Wimbledon women's singles title a record nine times, including six consecutive titles, which is regarded as the best performance by a player at a major event.

Navratilova is one of only three women to achieve a Career Grand Slam in women's singles and doubles, and mixed doubles, which consists of every senior Grand Slam title. Over five seasons from 1982-86, she won 428 out of 442 singles matches. She owns the best win-loss record in the Open Era going 86-1, as well as the longest winning streak with 74 consecutive wins.

Navratilova came out as bisexual in 1981 and has been an activist for gay rights, along with animal rights and underprivileged children. However, she has also been criticized for "transphobic" comments.

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Marta Vieira da Silva

Marta Vieira da Silva

Marta Vieira da Silva, more commonly known as Marta, was the first soccer player, male or female, to score at five FIFA Women's World Cups. Her 17 goals makes the record for most goals scored at the tournament.

Marta has been named FIFA World Player of the Year six times, including five consecutive from 2006-10, and is regarded as one of the best female players of all-time. She won a silver medal at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, as well as the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the 2007 Women's World Cup.

The Brazilian is highly regarded as a prolific scorer who is able to play creatively as a leader.

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Lexi Thompson

Lexi Thompson

Lexi Thompson was the youngest golfer to qualify to play in the US Women's Open at 12 years old. At 15, she turned professional and a year later set a new record as the youngest-ever winner of an LPGA tournament. She was 16 years, seven months, and eight days old.

Thompson won her first major championships at 19 years, 1 month, and 27 days old, making her the second youngest LGPA golfer to win a major at the 2014 Kraft Nabisco Championship.

She has accumulated 11 LGPA Tour victories and one major at 24 years old.

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Nancy Lieberman

Nancy Lieberman

Regarded as one of the greatest figures in American women's basketball, Nancy Lieberman played for several different teams and leagues before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Dallas Diamonds.

She was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. Lieberman played for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA's inaugural year in 1977, when she was the oldest player at 39.

In 1998, Lieberman became the general manager and head coach of the WNBA's Detroit Shock, where she coached for three seasons. She broke her own record as the older player in WNBA history when she signed a seven-day contract in 2008 at 50 years old with the Shock, playing in one game.

She is currently a broadcaster for the New Orleans Pelicans and head coach of the Power in the BIG3.

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Mia Hamm

Mia Hamm

Soccer icon Mia Hamm was a member of the USWNT from 1987-2004. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time FIFA Women's World Cup champion. During her college years, she led the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to four consecutive NCAA Division I Women's Soccer Championships.

Hamm was a member of the USWNT during the 1991 inaugural Women's World Cup in China and remained on the team for the three tournaments that followed. She was also a member of the US team during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, which was the first games that held women's soccer as an event.

Hamm ranks third in USWNT history with 276 international caps and first in career assists with 144. She was the first woman inducted into the World Football Hall of Fame.

She retired in 2004, but has inspired many in the sport, including 2019 World Cup Champion Rose Lavelle.

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Abby Wambach

Abby Wambach

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Abby Wambach is currently the highest all-time goal scorer for the US women's national soccer team. She holds the record for international goals among male and female players with 184.

Wambach was a member of USWNT from 2001 to 2015, winning the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup title. She is known for her skillful play, especially diving headers to score goals. Her equalizing header against Brazil in 2011 in the 122nd minute off a cross from Megan Rapinoe is often called one of the greatest goals in the Women's World Cup. It set a record for the latest goal ever scored. She was awarded the Bronze Boot and Silver Ball after the tournament.

That same year, she also became the first soccer player of either gender to be named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.

Wambach retired in 2015 and is regarded as one of the best to play US soccer.

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Mary Lou Retton

Mary Lou Retton

At the boycotted 1984 Summer Olympics, Mary Lou Retton became the first-ever American woman to win the all-around gold medal in gymnastics. She won by .05 points, beating Romania's Ecarterina Szabo. It marked the first time a female gymnast outside Eastern Europe won the individual all-around gold.

She also took home two silver medals and two bronze medals, helping her rise to popularity in the United States of America.

Retton coined her own move on the uneven bars called "The Retton Flip." The move consists of a transition from low-bar to high-bar, ending with the gymnast sitting on top of the high bar. It was removed from the Code of Points because it was a "belly beat" move, which is when the gymnast hits their hips into the low bar to gain momentum.

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Michelle Kwan

Michelle Kwan

Retired American figure skater Michelle Kwan is a five-time World Champion and nine-time US champion, which ties her for the all-time National Championship record. She is a two-time Olympic medalist, winning a silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002.

She is the most decorated figure skater in US history and is considered one of the greatest figure skaters of all time. Kwan stole the hearts of the American people to become one of the country's most popular female athletes.

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Venus Williams

Venus Williams

Along with her sister Serena Williams, Venus Williams is highly regarded as one of the greats to play tennis. Venus Williams was the first African American woman to be ranked No. 1 by the Women's Tennis Association in the Open Era, and second all-time.

She has seven Grand Slam singles titles, which is tied for eighth in the Open Era and 12th on the all-time list. She is also unbeaten in Grand Slam Women's doubles titles. Her and Serena have 14 together.

Williams has four Olympic gold medals, one in singles and three in women's doubles. She also has a silver medal in mixed doubles, which ties her with Kathleen McKane Godfree for the most Olympic medals won by a male or female tennis player. She is the only player to win a medal at four Olympic Games.

Following in the footsteps of Billie Jean King, Williams fought for equal prize money at Wimbledon, gaining the backing of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and won the fight.

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Maya Moore

Maya Moore

WNBA star Maya Moore was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft by the Minnesota Lynx after leading the University of Connecticut women's basketball team to back to back national championships. Her highlight career with the Huskies included an unbeaten streak of 90 games, which is an NCAA record among men's and women's teams.

Moore has won four WNBA titles, as well as the WNBA Rookie of the Year Award. She also won MVP in 2014. She has also won titles in the Spanish league, EuroLeague, and Chinese League.

In February 2019, Moore penned an article on The Player's Tribune saying that she would take sabbatical for the 2019 season to focus on family and ministry dreams.

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Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Babe Didrikson Zaharias

Multi-sport American athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics and won 10 LGPA major championships. She won a total of 82 gold tournaments. Zaharias also participated in basketball, baseball, softball, diving, roller-skating, and bowling.

Zaharias was known for breaking the boundaries of what it meant to be female in her time. She was physically strong and criticized for it.

She was inducted into the LGPA Hall of Fame in 1951 and the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1976.

Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1953. In her later years, she also became known as an advocate for cancer awareness, using her popularity to raise money for her cancer fund. At the time, many Americans refused to seek treatment for cancer.

She died three years later in 1956 at 45.

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Sheryl Swoopes

Sheryl Swoopes

Sheryl Swoopes was the first player to be signed in the WNBA and a three-time WNBA MVP. She won three Olympic gold medals and was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.

Swoopes was the first WNBA player to have a triple-double in the regular season and playoffs. She was the first women's basketball player to have a Nike shoe named after her, called the Air Swoopes.

She became one of the highest-profile athletes to publicly announce she is gay in 2005. Since retiring from the sport, Swoopes has coached various different women's basketball programs.

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Cheryl Miller

Cheryl Miller

Gold medalist and University of Southern California women's basketball star Cheryl Miller is one of the most well-known collegiate players to play the game.

Miller only played professionally for the US basketball team, leading them to a gold medal during the 1984 Olympics.

Her jersey was the first retired jersey at USC from both basketball teams. She scored 3,018 career points and had 1,534 career rebounds, which is third all-time in NCAA history. She helped the Trojans to two NCAA titles, winning NCAA Tournament MVP both seasons.

Miller still holds multiple records at USC, including points, rebounds, 128 games played, 462 steals, 1,159 field goals, and 700 free throws. She has been a coach and sportscaster in her years after playing.

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Nancy Lopez

Nancy Lopez

Golf great Nancy Lopez left college during her sophomore year to turn professional in 1977. She won nine tournaments during her first full season on the LGPA Tour in 1978. She was named LPGA Rookie of the Year and LPGA Player of the Year, and won the Vare trophy, which is given to the player with the lowest-scoring average for the season. She was the only woman to achieve all three in the same season.

From the late 1970s to late 1980s, Lopez was the game's best player, winning three majors, all at the LGPA Championship. She never won the US Women's Open, but finished second four times. In 1997, Lopez became the first woman to score under 70 for all four rounds but finished second to Alison Nicholas.

She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1987.

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Lisa Leslie

Lisa Leslie

Lisa Leslie is a three-time WNBA MVP and a four-time Olympic gold medal winner. She was drafted No. 7 overall in the 1997 inaugural WNBA draft and went on to win two WNBA championships with the Los Angeles Sparks. She was also selected as a WNBA All-Star eight times.

Leslie was the first player to dunk in a WNBA game. Since her retirement in 2009, she has served as a sports commentator in several sports networks and in 2018 joined Fox Sports Florida as a studio analyst on Orlando Magic broadcasts.

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