Eight Women Olympians to Watch

In praise of the female Olympic athlete.

The Olympics officially kick off today, but the irksome tendency to praise the bodies of female athletes for their sexiness rather than their speed, stamina, power, or strength, began weeks ago.

The most egregious example is a viral YouTube video (and an avalanche of derivative GIFs), which depicts Australian hurdler Michelle Jenneke doing her pre-race routine before breezily winning her 100m hurdles heat at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona. Her routine—which involves lots of bouncing and smiling and pony tail swinging—seems to seamlessly play into everything we want a female athlete to be: perfectly proportioned, cute, feminine, and really, really hot.

There’s no denying the fact that Jenneke is a talented sprinter and that she has a particularly attention-getting pre-race routine (and every athlete knows the sacred pre-race routine should never be changed). But the sensation she has sparked is a perfect example of an annoying trend: the female athletes that tend to get the most attention also happen to be the ones that can most easily grace the pages of a men’s magazine. While this happens to some degree with males as well (Michel Phelps’ abs anyone?), it is certainly not a pre-requisite for media attention in mens’ professional sports

As the Olympics kick off, here is a list of fierce female athletes that you should follow not because of the way they look, but because they embody everything else that females can and should be: strong, determined and fearless.

When Amantle Montsho was growing up in rural Botswana, people told her father that his “girl runs like a boy.” Her father responded simply by letting her run, something young Botswanan girls weren’t typically encouraged to do. It’s a good thing he did, because Montsho—who has done the bulk of her training in Senegal due to Botswana’s lack of facilities—is the favorite to win the women’s 400m race in London, one of the most glorified races of track and field. She’s also no doubt managed to inspire countless Botswanan girls to keep running as well.

One doesn’t get more badass than 18 year old Sadaf Rahimi. First of all, she’s a female boxer, which means you shouldn’t mess with her, ever. Secondly, she’s the solitary member of Afghanistan’s Olympic squad, a distinction that’s been held by only 2 other Afghan women in history. Rahimi grew up under the Taliban government, which banned women from participating in sports, but Rahimi’s parents are supportive of her career and that of her sisters, who are also boxers.

Twenty-two year old Holley Mangold initally thought her sport was going to be gymnastics, until realizing that her body type might be better suited for something else. These days, 350 lb American weight-lifter can snatch 242.5 lbs and clean-and-jerk 319.7 lbs. With a New York Times profile and a MTV documentary, she’s also no stranger to attention. But hearing her talk about her sport confirms her undeniable passion for what she’s doing: “It’s like peace, there’s no struggle,” Mangold said. “That’s what we’re all searching for, that feeling of weightlessness.”

The pressure is on for Jessica Ennis. She has quite literally become the most recognizable face of team GB in the run up to her nation’s Olympics. She’s also the first female athlete to ever reach £1 million in sponsorship deals. However, something tells us this 26 year old heptathlete—who delayed any wedding planning after her fiancé’s 2010 proposal to focus on London 2012—is more than ready to live up to her host nation’s expectations.

Homare Sawa of Japan has already had quite a year. After leading her nation’s team to a World Cup victory in a final match upset against the USA, Sawa was named women’s player of the year by FIFA, an award she accepted in a powder-blue kimono. Her team’s World Cup victory came at a time when the nation of Japan was still reeling from the Fukushima disaster, making her somewhat of a national hero. There are rumors she may retire after London 2012, but until then, 33 year old Sawa seems squarely focused on leading her team to gold.

To call Egyptian athlete Aya Medany multi-talented would be an understatement. As a pentathlete, her sport requires her to be more than adept at swimming, running, shooting, riding horses, and fencing. As a woman who maintains the customs of her Islamic faith, she also does all those things while wearing a specially designed hijab (a choice that doesn’t come without controversy), and is the only competitor to do so. A bona fide sports star in her home country, Medany’s appearance at the London games will be her third Olympics.

Not many people can say that their first Olympics also took place in their home country. In addition to being able to claim that, Rebecca Tunney can also say that she is youngest, shortest, and lightest Olympic athlete competing at London 2012. At 15 years old and 4 ft 9 inches, Tunney will compete in the balance beam, vault, uneven bars, and floor events. Tunney is also apparently a rapid learner; at the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Tunney had only been doing gymnastics for one year.

Another quick study is American cyclist Evelyn Stevens, who was working for a Wall Street bank the last time the world’s attention was fixated on the Games. Within a year of casually picking up cycling, she recognized her potential and promptly quit her job. Things are looking good for Stevens as she heads to London; in April, she won the major Flèche Wallonne race in Belgium, and was the first American to do so.

Images, in order:  tableatnyaktivioslo; balazgardi; ReutersJJ Vicoo_Ozzzzk; Aya Medany; Team GB; Velo Steve

Rosie Spinks

Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist from California with a degree in Environmental Studies. Her work has been published in publications including Sierra magazine, GOOD magazine, the Ecologist, and the Guardian Environment Network. A passion for travel, running barefoot outdoors, and reconnecting people to what is good dominates most of her thoughts. You can follow her writing on Twitter and Tumblr.