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Major athletes, major moments in the history of women's sports

Billie Jean King holds the winner's trophy high

Billie Jean King holds the winner's trophy high in the air after she defeated Bobby Riggs in the $100,000 winner-take-all tennis championship in the Astrodome in Houston, Texas on Sept. 20, 1973.  Credit: AP

In recognition of women’s history month, Newsday has assembled the top 50 moments that impacted women's sports. We tried to include inspiring performances, important firsts and events that changed opportunities for women and girls in sports. This is admittedly an unscientific arrangement based mostly on one reporter’s opinion. We present the list chronologically because it best illustrates how women’s participation and achievement in sports has evolved and grown over the past 100 years.

With one caveat, it would have been nearly impossible to rank the achievements in order of importance. The signing of Title IX into law in 1972 is easily the most important event on the list as it opened the door to mass participation for women and girls in sports, making so many of the later achievements possible.

The list:

1926: GERTRUDE EDERLE is the first woman to swim the English Channel, finishing in 14 hours, 34 minutes.

1932: BABE DIDRIKSON sets four world records, winning two gold medals and one silver medal for track and field in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. She goes on to co-found the LPGA and wins 10 major women’s championships.

1943: ALL-AMERICAN GIRLS PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL LEAGUE holds tryouts at Wrigley Field and plays first game on May 30, 1943. Formed by baseball executives who wanted to keep the sport in the public eye while most able-bodied men were away at war, this league was the inspiration for the movie “A League of Their Own.”

1952: WOMEN compete in "open" equestrian events at the Olympics for the first time, meaning men and women compete together.

1956: ALTHEA GIBSON becomes first African-American woman to win a Grand Slam Tournament when she wins the singles title at the French Open. She would follow by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957.

1960: WILMA RUDOLPH is the first American woman to win three track and field Olympic gold medals, the 100 and 200 meters and the 400 relay. Nicknamed the "Black Gazelle" for her graceful running style, she was the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961.

1967: KATHERINE SWITZER is the first woman to officially compete in the Boston Marathon on April 19, 1967. She registers under the name K.V. Switzer to gain entry. When marathon organizer Jock Semple spots her and tries to rip her number off, her boyfriend's body blocks him. Switzer manages to finish the race in 4 hours, 20 minutes.

1970: CATHY RIGBY wins the silver medal in balance beam at the world championships, becoming the first American male or female gymnast to win a medal in international competition.

1971: AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) is formed to plan, govern and promote the growing number of college tournaments for women athletes.

1972: TITLE IX is signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972. Law prohibits schools that receive federal assistance from discriminating on the basis of sex. Participation in women’s sports explodes over the coming decades. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 294,015 high school girls played sports in 1971-72. In 2018-19, that number had increased to 3,402,733.

1972: MARIA PEPE, a 12-year-old from Hoboken, New Jersey, suits up and pitches three games for the Young Democrats baseball team. Little League bans her from further participation, but the National Organization for Women sues Little League Baseball on her behalf. In 1974, New Jersey Superior Court rules that girls must be able to play, opening the door to girls across the country.

1972: OLGA KORBUT inspires a new generation of gymnasts when she wins three Olympic medals and introduces the world to the Korbut Flip on the uneven bars.

1973: U.S. OPEN is the first tennis major to offer equal prize money to men and women after women’s champion Billie Jean King threatened to organize a boycott of the tournament. Weeks later, on Sept. 20, 1973, King beats Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis exhibition.

1975:  ANN MEYERS is the first woman to be signed to a four-year, full-ride college athletic scholarship by UCLA. Meyers makes history again five years later when she signs a $50,000 no-cut contract with the Indiana Pacers. She participates in three-day tryouts for the team, the first by any woman for the NBA, but is not chosen for the final squad.

1976: NADIA COMANECI, a 14-year-old Romanian gymnast, is awarded the first perfect 10.0 mark in Olympic history for her uneven bars performance in the Montreal Olympics.

1977: SPORTS BRA is invented at University of Vermont. Co-inventors Hinda Miller, Lisa Lindahl and Polly Palmer-Smith sew two men’s athletic supporters together to make their first prototype.

1977: JANET GUTHRIE becomes the first woman to compete in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. She finished 12th at Daytona and 29th at Indianapolis.

1978: MELISSA LUDTKE of Sports Illustrated files a lawsuit that leads to a U.S. District Court ruling that male and female reporters should have equal access to athletes in locker rooms.

1978: THE AMATEUR SPORTS ACT is signed by President Jimmy Carter prohibiting gender discrimination in open amateur sports, making training facilities and money more available to women and minorities. It establishes the United States Olympic Committee and provides for national governing bodies for each Olympic sport.

1982: NCAA holds its first women’s basketball tournament. Louisiana Tech defeats Cheyney State, 76-62, in the title game.

1982: CHERYL MILLER scores 105 points in Riverside Poly's 179-15 win over Riverside Norte Vista, setting what then was believed to be a national record. It is later reported that Marion Boyd of Ionaconing Central High in Maryland scored 156 points in a game in 1924.

1987: JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE becomes the first female, who is not a swimsuit model, to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, three years after she won the silver medal in the 1984 Olympic heptathlon. Within the next decade, Joyner-Kersee will win three gold and two bronze medals, making her one of the most decorated Olympic woman runners of all time.

1987: MARTINA NAVRATILOVA wins her sixth straight Wimbledon singles title, defeating 18-year-old Steffi Graf, 7-5, 6-3. Navratilova will reach the Wimbledon Finals nine consecutive times from 1982-90 and will win the tournament a record nine times.

1988: FLORENCE GRIFFITH JOYNER wins three gold medals and shatters world records at the Olympics in South Korea. Flo Jo became a household name after setting a 100-meters record of 10.49.

1991: UNITED STATES women defeat Norway, 2-1, in the first FIFA Women’s World Cup.

1992: MANON RHEAUME becomes the first woman to play in a major U.S. professional sports league when she suited up during an exhibition game with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning faced off against the St. Louis Blues, where the 20-year old goalie played one period and allowed two goals on nine shots.

1993: JULIE KRONE rides Colonial Affair to a win in the Belmont Stakes, making her the first and still only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.

1993: GAYLE GARDNER becomes the first woman to broadcast play-by-play of a baseball game, calling the action of a game between the Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies.

1994: NANCY KERRIGAN wins a silver medal in the Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway six weeks after being hit in the knee with a baton by an assailant hired by the boyfriend of skating rival Tonya Harding.

1995: REBECCA LOBO leads Connecticut to the first of its 11 national championships with a 70-64 win over mighty Tennessee. The win gives UConn a 35-0 record for the season, making it the second women’s team of the NCAA era to go undefeated and the first undefeated team (in all divisions men or women) to win 35 games in a season. The team, and its rivalry with Tennessee, is widely credited for the increased interest in the women’s game.

1997: FIRST WNBA game took place on June 21, 1997 when the New York Liberty defeated the Los Angeles Sparks at the Great Western Forum before a crowd of 14,284.

1997: VIOLET PALMER becomes the first female official to reach the highest competitive tier in any major U.S. sport when she officiates the NBA season opener between the Vancouver Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks on Oct. 31, 1997.

1998: U.S. WOMEN’S HOCKEY TEAM wins inaugural ice hockey gold medal at 1998 Nagano Olympics.

1999: BRANDI CHASTAIN scores the winning goal in the shootout as the United States beats China in the World Cup Final in front of the largest crowd to watch a women’s sporting event -- 90,185 fans jammed the Rose Bowl. After a scoreless draw in regulation, the match went to the shootout phase and was 4-4 when China’s Liu Ying missed her kick. Chastain followed with the game-winner.

2002: LISA LESLIE becomes the first woman to dunk in a professional basketball game. Leslie received an outlet pass from Latasha Byears, took two dribbles and dunked with 4 minutes, 46 seconds left in the first half of the Los Angeles Sparks' 82-73 home loss to the Miami Sol.

2003: KATIE HNIDA becomes the first woman to score for a FBS or FCS team when the New Mexico kicker made two extra points in a game against Texas State.

2005: PAT SUMMITT and her Tennessee Volunteers beat Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, giving her win No. 880, which bested Dean Smith’s record. She would add many more, eventually crossing the 1,000-win mark and retiring (prematurely due to illness) with 1,098 victories.

2008: DANICA PATRICK becomes first woman to win an Indy Car race when she crossed the finish line first in the Indy Japan 300 in Montegi, Japan.

2008: DANA TORRES, at age 41, competes for the United States in her fifth Olympics, and takes home three silver medals. She becomes the oldest swimmer to medal at the Olympics.

2010: The UCONN women's basketball team wins its 89th straight game, surpassing John Wooden's UCLA men's team, who won 88 games in a row from 1971-1974. The Huskies go on to win 90 straight games and later put together a run of 111 straight wins.

2012:  LONDON OLYMPICS marks the first time the Games had seen every country in the competition send female athletes as the Arab states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Sultanate of Brunei allowed women to compete for their countries for the first time.

2012: RONDA ROUSEY becomes the first woman to sign with the UFC. The former Olympic bronze medalist in judo was installed as the championed and she competed as the headliner in the UFC's first women's MMA fight in 2013.

2014: MO’NE DAVIS becomes the first female pitcher to win a Little League World Series, landing her on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

2014: BECKY HAMMON becomes the first full-time female assistant coach in any of the major U.S. sports leagues when the San Antonio Spurs name her an assistant.

2016: RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER is the first woman to publicly accuse former USA gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault.

2016: SIMONE BILES takes home five medals in the Rio Olympics. She wins individual golds in the all-around, vault and floor; a bronze in the beam; and gold as part of the United States team dubbed the Final Five.

2017: SERENA WILLIAMS has had so many great moments, it is hard to pick one. This is as good as any: Williams wins Australian Open when eight weeks pregnant. Williams picked up a record 23rd Grand Slam title with a win over her sister Venus, giving her the most Grand Slams in the Open era of any male or female player.

2018: ARIKE OGUMBOWALE hits buzzer-beater in 2018 women’s NCAA championship game to give Notre Dame a title and a win over Mississippi State.

2019: U.S. WOMEN’S SOCCER team files gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer Federation three months before winning their fourth World Cup.

2020: SABRINA IONESCU’S college career is cut short when NCAA tournament is canceled because of coronavirus. Ionescu of the Oregon Ducks is the only NCAA player, male or female, to put up 2,000 points, .

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