Not very long ago, for a girl to aspire to become a professional runner or cyclist might have seemed like just a dream. Before 1960, the longest Olympic running event women were allowed to compete in was the 200-meter dash. A women’s marathon wasn’t added until 1984. In the past few decades, women’s representation in sports has increased dramatically, but the finish line – when male and female athletes are given the same compensation, media attention and respect – is still a long way off.
While we haven’t yet achieved true equality in sports, there are countless women who have pushed against any limitations set before them and along the way they have laid the groundwork for the next generation. In recognition of the virtuous and tireless process of forward progress, we asked ten women who are making strides in sport who it was that inspired them. Here are their responses.
“It’s hard to choose just one hero, because I’ve spent my whole life looking up to strong women and being inspired by their fortitude and quiet bravery. But if I have to pick just one, it would be Kelly Holmes. From the age of about 11, I was passionate about running. Running was my fun, my therapy, my escape, my obsession. I wasn’t much good at it but I dreamed of one day being FAST. I can still remember watching Kelly Holmes run at the Athens Olympics, from the sofa at home, and feeling blown away by her performance in first the 800m and then the 1500m. It wasn’t just that she was an amazing runner and she won two Olympic finals. It was the expression on her face: the surprise, the disbelief, the pure joy. The memory of watching still brings tears to my eyes. I knew Kelly had battled with injuries for years, and suffered clinical depression as well, and on her face you could see what it meant to her. I never even dreamed I’d be an Olympian myself, but watching Kelly Holmes win like that was the most inspirational experience of my life.”
Emma Pooley is a three-time Olympian and silver medalist at the Beijing games.
“My hero is Melissa Arnot, the first US woman to climb and descend Everest without oxygen. She is a strong mountain guide and encouraged me to go to Cho Oyu and climb my first 8000-meter peak this fall. In April, I’m going to climb Everest as a #climbforequality, to highlight the disproportionate numbers of women on 8000-meter climbs (about 10%) and to highlight the role that men and people of all genders can play in advocating for gender equality and supporting women’s leadership.”
Caroline Gleich is a ski mountaineer and activist.
“When I first started my journey toward pro bike racing, I had very little direction. And then one day I saw a post from cyclocross racer Mo Bruno Roy about a new organization started by pro road racer Amber Pierce: The Network for Advancing Athletes. The program partners aspiring women in sport with current professionals in the sport. It was perfect. I learned so much from the women involved with NAA and was endlessly inspired by Amber’s drive to give women resources and information.”
Ayesha McGowan is on a mission to become the first ever African-American pro female road racer. Along the way, she is creating representation in cycling and encouraging other African-American women and youth to follow their dreams, whatever they may be.
“I wouldn’t be where or who I am today without J’ne Day. She is the embodiment of strength, persistence, joy, and the deliberate intention to follow what you love and never apologize for being yourself. When I met J’ne it was my first run, at 5am, one cold, dark morning. From there, J’ne introduced me to the joy of trail running, she coached me to my first road marathon and then an ultra marathon. She taught me to problem solve and to find the positive side when things don’t go your way – in life and during a race.”
Hillary Allen is a professional trail runner, coach, and neuroscientist.
“I started ultrarunning not really that long ago, 2012, but back then I really couldn’t find many females out there doing the races. One name kept coming up though, Mimi Anderson. She was out there doing all sorts of badass things. Really inspired by her races, I signed up for my first big multistage ultra.
I remember emailing her with heaps of questions and she responded every time. I’ve met her a few times since then and she’s just lovely in real life. Fearless, strong, groundbreaking and an inspirational hero of mine.”
Susie Chan is an endurance runner who enjoys anything from 1 mile to 100 miles.
“Whether on the race course or in the office, I’ve found that it’s natural to feel competitive, both with myself and with other women. But one crucial thing I’ve learned from Mary Wittenberg is that there’s room for everyone to thrive — that when one person pushes the pace, it pushes everyone to get faster. Mary is someone who has found that perfect balance between being a badass businesswoman who is firm but kind, fair but cheerful, well-liked, and well-respected. Mary has had an incredible career dedicated to getting the world to run, and getting female runners, in particular, the pay, airtime, and respect they deserve.
During a conversation on my podcast, the Ali on the Run Show, I asked Mary about being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and whether she had any advice for women in similar positions. ‘Don’t let that get in your way,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry about seeing someone who looks like you in front of you. Worry about seeing someone who looks like you behind you so you can bring them along. Just get out there on your merits, fight for what you believe, and don’t ever be shy about it. Don’t think about your gender as something that holds you back. It never, ever should.”’
Ali Feller is a freelance writer and editor and the host of the Ali on the Run podcast. She’s a seven-time marathoner, many-time half-marathoner, and new mom to Annie, born in October 2018.
“My high school field hockey coach, Karen, is one of the reasons I am still competing as an athlete today. I showed up to high school preseason as a gangly freshman, with running speed and determination, but comically few field hockey skills. Karen believed in me from day one and created a team culture centered on joy. Through Karen’s belief, I stuck with field hockey and developed a love of athletics that would define my life. Like many young female athletes, I struggled with embracing vulnerability. Karen’s persistent belief enabled me to better accept myself for who I was. In addition, Karen’s butt-kicking, turf-field diagonal running workouts reappear in my Strava feed and her ladder drills reappear in my trail running skills.”
Megan Roche is a five-time USATF trail running national champion, a North American Mountain Running Champion, and a six-time member of Team USA. She graduated from Stanford Medical School in 2018 and is a running coach for Some Work All Play (SWAP).
Mary Kate Callahan
“I met Keri Serota when I was 12 – I was playing every sport that existed and she was working at the same adaptive sport organization. One of our first interactions was her coming up to me and asking, ‘Do you want to come to New York with me and race in the NYC triathlon?’ While I didn’t go to NYC that year, the following year I was crossing my first finish line of a triathlon, racing in my first National Championship, and qualifying for my first World Championships in New Zealand. All of this was because of that extra little push Keri gave me to get involved in the sport that now has me chasing Paralympic dreams.
“I think the role Keri has played in my life goes beyond the athletic accomplishments she has helped me achieve. She is a pure example of chasing something you believe in so much – she took her passion of adaptive sport and love of triathlon to be the founder of Dare2tri – an organization devoted to getting those with physical disabilities involved in the sport of triathlon from the grassroot level all the way through the Paralympic level. She took a leap and since 2011 – Dare2tri has reached the lives of people all around the world.”
Mary Kate Callahan is a parathlete who was a part of the Strava Speed Project team in 2018. She’s completed Iron distance triathlons and is currently training for the 2020 Paralympic games.
“My friend and now pro cyclocross racer, Elle Anderson introduced me to cross about 4 years ago. Elle brought me to my first race and lent me a bike for the whole season. I signed up for all the local races and started making friends in the community, I loved it. Elle convinced me to jump into a UCI race that season, something I never could or would have done without having someone to show me the ropes.
“I walked away with two top-20 results, feeling completely inspired by all the strong women there. Katerina Nash won the races that weekend, another rider who has had an incredibly inspiring career, combined with an admirably humble attitude. That weekend sparked my competitive side and left me wanting more. As a newcomer to the sport, I was lucky to learn from a friend and get exposed to racing with the best early on!”
Caitlin Bernstein is a full-time Recruiter at Strava and a part-time semi-pro bike racer.
“I’ve always been inspired by Pro Mountain Biker and World Champion Rebecca Rusch because she goes after incredible feats of endurance with a meaningful story to tell, is creative with how she runs her business, and has been in endurance sports for a long time. When I first started endurance racing, I wanted to be like her!”
Sonya Looney is a World Champion endurance mountain bike racer, host of the Podcast The Sonya Looney Show and TEDx Speaker.
These are just a small sample of the women (and men) who are working towards greater equality in sport. Strava is proud to provide a place for them to share their stories and their activities.
Looking for more inspiring stories? Follow us on Instagram and check out our #MoveEqual series.