WHO IS AUSTRALIA’S GREATEST EVER FEMALE ATHLETE?

Is it possible that Australia’s female athletes have performed better than the male athletes?

Arguably yes. As you will see, and we may be able to identify one that stands above the rest.

Women’s sport is not, and might not ever be, equal to men’s sports in terms of popularity and money. It is not however without excellence and slowly it is picking up in terms of representation.

For the first time ever, at the 2012 Sochi Winter Olympics, females made up the majority of the team 52%. In the Summer games, females have made up 45% (Sydney), 43% (Athens), 46% (Beijing), 45% (London). Australian women are qualifying internationally, they are being supported by the AOC and it is providing pathways for the highest levels of sport.

 

Quoting the numbers from the Australian Olympic Committee:

 

  • At the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi two of the three medals were won by women. This represented 67% of Australia’s podium appearances. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London 20 of the 35 medals were won by women. This represented 57% of the podium appearances. This was similar to 2008 in Beijing where Australian women won 58% of the Australian medal haul, leaving men with 42%.
  • On an athlete-per-team-member basis, female Australian Team members have a 36% chance of winning a medal and men have a 22% chance (based on Beijing 2008 results).

 

To an increasingly larger extent, elite women’s sport is growing as a leading force at least for the appearance of gender equality. Whilst a liberal and progressive country like Australia has close to a total parity in representation, its actually only slightly higher than the average.

Again using the Olympic games as a reference and example, women made up 44.2% of all athletes in London and 42.4% in Beijing. Australia is only equal among its peers in terms of representation.

Interestingly, the socio-political war waged post World War 2 can partly be seen as responsible for some of the ground work for serious involvement of women in sport. When East met West during the Cold War it especially met on the sporting field.

 

 

We are forced to consider what benefit there was to women’s equality in their use as athletes to wage socio-political war. The recruitment, development and exploitation of women in sport during the Cold War is well documented. Not all of those athletes have judged their sporting careers to be invalidated or devalued as being part of some sort of sporting machine. One wonders however if we would be where we are now without the Cold War as a catalyst for looking around for what else we could use as weaponry. Female Athletes.

The West won the Cold War; there is no doubt. On the sporting scoreboard though, Communist countries certainly went down swinging and won most of the battles. Females were on the coalface of those battles, sometimes even more so than men. The doping regime of East Germany in particular heavily impacted and in many ways defined the careers of some of our greatest female athletes as you will see.

 

 

We are somewhat more so restricted to amateur sport for women than we are men. Netball and Basketball ARE viable options for professional women athletes but they are clearly not on par with men’s AFL and Rugby League. The ANZ Netball Championship is arguably one of the best sporting competitions in Australia. Its popularity supports 10 teams in Australia and New Zealand. Less so, the WNBL has eeked out an existence as a national brand. We now have Women’s Big Bash Cricket and a W-League in Soccer.

 

The point being, the men’s sports attract the greater amount of sponsors and media coverage and that will likely continue for a while. We don’t know exactly what would happen if there were exactly the same number of professional sporting jobs and money available for women as men in terms of driving more youth opportunities, incentives and pathways for Australian women. Whether the public would support it in the same way we would have to guess at; the AOC though has made headway into this experiment. As it stands, we have what we have.

 

THE CONTENDERS.

Let’s start with Swimming.

We have been blessed with both a long and very strong history of female swimmers. Fearfully, we may have seen the end of an era of amazing female swimming achievement where a continuous roll on of athletes have brought home numerous medal hauls from both World Championships and Olympic games.

Susie O’Neill, Sam Riley, Libby Trickett, Leisel Jones, Jessicah Schipper, Stephanie Rice and Emily Seebohm are just a few of the outstanding contributors to our national swimming exploits. Keep your eyes peeled for Bronte Campbell to be the next.

There are 2 however that stand above and for slightly different reasons.

Dawn Fraser won 3 Olympic Golds in 3 consecutive Olympics at the same event. Only 41 athletes have done that in history, only 10 of those are women. She was the first woman to break 60 sec for 100m freestyle. She held the World Record for 15 years in that event, and it took 8 years after she was retired until her record was bettered.

Dawn Fraser set standards for female swimming that were ahead of her time. her dominance was massive and its a shame that her outstanding athletic career always gets boiled down to conduct issues that appear to be trumped up regarding the 64′ Tokyo Games and her attempts at a political career and media comments later in life. Dawn pays a price like few other female athletes in Australia ever have. Concentrate on the sporting achievements though and she has few peers.

 

Shane Gould hit Australia and the world swimming like a lightning strike: and then she was gone.

 

Shane Gould was a bolt of lightning in Australian sport. In 1972 she won 3 individual Gold medals as well as a Silver and a Bronze. Impressively, whilst Gould was a freestyle specialist like Fraser, included in her medal haul was Gold in the 200m Individual Medley, setting a new World Record in the process.

And then she retired at 17.

Leaving the pressure of instant fame, Gould married and settled in rural West Australia. 20 years later she would return to the pool as a Masters athlete, setting masters records in the 40-45 and 46-50 age groups in freestyle and the medley.

 

Margaret Court still holds the record for the most number of Women’s Singles Grand Slam titles with 24. She won 90% of her matches in Grand Slams and 91% of games in her career. Astonishing numbers. Amazingly, she had 3 of her 4 children during her competitive career including competing at Wimbledon whilst pregnant.

She is credited with being one of the first female athletes to devote significant time to general training. She barbell lifted, did circuit training and performed hill sprints.

 

Do you even know how prolific Heather McKay was?

 

Heather McKay is without peer as the greatest female squash player in history. Her 16 British Open titles, the premier Squash tournament before the inaugural World open, which she won too, included a streak of 20 years where she was undefeated, her only 2 competitive losses occurring at the beginning of her career.

McKay was also a USA and Canadian Racquetball champion. She won 3 US and 5 Canadian Racquetball Championships and was elected to the USA Racquetball Hall of Fame. Another sporting diversification included the Australian Women’s Field Hockey team in 1967 and 1971.

 

Lauren Mitchell is Australia’s greatest ever gymnast. She is the only female to win a World Championship, winning on Floor at the 2010 World Championships. She also followed that victory at a World Cup event in Germany delighting Australian women’s head coach, Peggy Lidick, “When she won floor tonight, I thought that’s fantastic she’s backed up her world championships performance. That almost means as much as the world championships because it just proves that she’s not a one hit wonder, that she’s a consistent performer and she can go in three weeks later and back herself up. Her beam score of 15.375, which is a normal beam routine for her, would have been enough for a gold medal at the world championships.”

 

 

Bev Francis blazed a trail like few others. A 6 time IPF World Powerlifting champion she was Australia’s strongest woman, with career best lifts in competition of 230kg in the Backsquat, 152kg in the bench and 227.5kg in the Deadlift at 82.5kg bodyweight. She broke 40 records and was the first woman to bench 140kg.

Francis started as a Shot Putter. She broke the national record in 1977 and was an Australian Track and field team member for 2 separate periods. Francis then transitioned to bodybuilding. She had 5 consecutive top 3 finishes at the IFBB Ms Olympia.

 

Australia’s Bev Francis was the ground breaker for women’s bodybuilding.

 

 

Louise Sauvage is Australia’s most successful Paralympian. Born with a congenital spinal condition, Sauvage won 9 Paralympic Golds as well as 2 Olympic Golds when the 800m wheelchair race was included in the Atlanta and Sydney Games as demonstration sports.

From 100m to 5000m Sauvage set records and was undefeated from 1993 to 2000 in IAAF events. See won the Boston Marathon 3 times, showing that both her sprint and long distance capabilities were sound.

 

 

 

When the world started to embrace the sport of triathlon, Australia was one of the countries leading the way, and Michellie Jones the premier Australian female to succeed across its multiple disciplines.

A back to back winner of World ITU Championshipsin 92′ and 93′ she went on to win ITU World Cups in 98′ and 99′ before losing in a sprint to the finish in the Olympic Games inaugural contest of triathlon in Sydney in 2000, that athlete, Brigitte McMahon would later test positive to a PED in 2005 and be banned. Transitioning into the long course Ironman distance, Jones claimed second in the 2005 championships as well as winning the 2005 ironman event in Kona, the first female and only second Australian to do so after Greg Welch.

Jones ability to transition from the short to long course triathlon gives her the nod ahead of athletes like Jackie Fairweather. Jones will contest the 2016 paralympics with Katie Kelly a deaf and blind competitor as a guide. A remarkable extension to her career.

 

Picking a candidate from Australia’s Female Surf Lifesaving competition history is difficult. Reen Corbett, Candice Falzon, Linda Halfweeg, Karla Gilbert, Courtney Hancock, Liz Pluimers, Kristyl Smith and Jordan Mercer all present cases that are well established or on the way to being so.

Due to split competitions, it is difficult to compare peers. Karla Gilbert may have the best credentials once we negotiate the terrain. 3 Surf Lifesaving Championship wins, including a 9 year break between the 2nd and 3rd wins, 4 total Nutri-Grain Series wins including a three-peat in 2000/01-2002/03 plus 5 total Uncle Toby’s series wins including 4 in a row. Gilbert shines amongst a select group who experienced a period of fame and success in the 90’s and into the turn of the millennium which has not continued. The limited and waning popularity of the sport have meant that the days of multiple well paid professional athletes competing has now gone; for both men and women.

Gilbert benefited enormously for having a career at a time that precisely coincided with the apex of the sport’s success.

 

10 years earlier or later and Karla Gilbert would not have had nearly the professional success that she did.

 

Alisa Camplin, Jacqui Cooper, Lydia Lassila and Torah Bright have been the success stories in Winter disciplines that have led to the female make up of the AOC team being majority female.

Camplin, Bright and Lassila’s dual medals across several campaigns as well as Cooper’s heartbreaking injury story drew public attention to sports that have few competitors and little history of success.

 

 

Liz Ellis is Australia’s most capped netball player. Her record looms over a sport that established a professional local pathway for female athletes and doubled down on its opportunities despite a limited international presence.

Elli’s 14 year career included the team captaincy for 4 years and Most Valuable Player 4 times. Her Sydney Swifts career also set records for longevity in the Commonwealth Bank Trophy, the Swifts winning 4 times during her career.

Netball bloomed during her career into a vehicle for modern Australian female professionalism in sport and Ellis was the face of it. Internationally, the Australian Diamonds have ascended to dominance during her time, winning World Championships and Commonwealth Games titles.

 

The worthy candidates from Track and Field are numerous. If you can watch this clip of the lighting of the Olympic Flame in Sydney in 2000 and avoid shedding a tear then you have no emotion. It is a scene that perfectly demonstrates my assertion that there is a heck of a lot of excellence in female sport that we should stop and re-consider its place in Australian history. The girls have done fabulously, and for that reason, we have had to include so many.

 

Shirley Strickland (de-la-Hunty) won 7 track medals over 3 Olympics 1948 to 1956. A specialist for the 80m hurdles in which she won Bronze in London 1948 then back to back Gold 1952 and 1956. Strickland laid the foundation for a period where Australia’s Golden Girls would dominate sprint events for a decade.

 

Marjorie Jackson (Nelson) the ‘Lithgow Flash’ won the 100/200m double in Helsinki and was undefeated for 5 years in state and national championships. Her 6 World Records over that time show how completely and utterly she was ahead of the field for the time that she competed.

She defeated Fanny Blankers-Koen in 1949 who was the reigning 100/200m champion from the 1948 London Games then launched a 5 year dominance before getting married in 1953 and retiring after the 1954 Empire Games.

 

Cuthbert’s re-invention of herself as a 400m runner for the Tokyo Games sets her apart as Queen of the track.

 

 

Betty Cuthbert famously won the 100m/200m double in Melbourne, adding the 4x100m relay. Injured in Rome she converted to the 400m and won 8 years after her Melbourne glory; a feat that may never be equaled. She stands as the only athlete in the world to win Olympic gold at 100, 200 and 400m.

That such a natural athlete could be blessed to be born with such excellent fast twitch fibers, but also the genes for multiple sclerosis is such a sweet and sour life to lead. The 400m win really positions her above the rest as the premier Australian track and field athlete of all time.

 

 

Glynis Nunn-Cearns defeated the legendary American Jackie Joyner in the Heptathlon in Los Angles in 1984, winning the award for Australian Athlete of the Year in 1984.

The Heptathlon was the female alternate to the Men’s Decathlon at the time. 100m Hurdles, high jump, Shot put. 200m, Long Jump, Javelin, 800m.

 

Debbie Flintoff-King won arguably the greatest single effort performance to win the 400m Hurdles at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Her come from behind win is my personal favourite Australian performance in sport. Shot out of a cannon landing from the final hurdle King made up four metres to break the line by 1 one hundreth of a second over Soviet Tatyana Ledvoskaya. Her time for the event still stands as the Australian record. The victory was just 0.23 seconds off the world record at the time and she defeated 2 East German girls in the process.

The win came after a Silver in the 1987 World Championships, a defeat to East German Sabine Busch who took 4th in Seoul.

 

 

Raelene Boyle is an athlete who can claim to be wholly robbed of an Olympic Gold due to PED’s. Her 3 silver medals in 1968 (200m) and 1972 (100/200m) were to East German athletes who we have since learned were part of a PED doping regime.

The 200m in particular, Boyle feels that Renate Stecher could have been beaten…..

In the 100 metres she convincingly beat me. I dare say that even without drugs maybe she would’ve won anyway. In the 200 metres she beat me by four-hundredths of a second, which is nothing, and at the end of the race I was running her down, because that bulk that she was carrying was sapping her energy, and her stride had reduced almost to nothing.‘ ABC Radio interview 2004.

Boyle was just 17 years old in 1968 and set Junior World times for the 200m that stood for 12 years and a 100m time that stood for 8.

 

Cathy Freeman requires no introduction.

The person who lit the 2000 Olympic Games torch, won the 400m Gold to add to her 1996 Silver and rode the hopes, dreams and pressure of an entire nation was probably the most famous Australian of the year 2000.

A two time World Champion, her fastest time in the 400m still stands as 6th fastest all time. Main rival Marie Jose-Perec, the winner of the 200m/400m double in Atlanta, never contested the Sydney 400m final, so Freeman never gained direct revenge from the 1996 Atlanta loss. It could be said that Freeman underwent more pressure than any other Australian athlete in history.

 

Nova Peris-Kneebone a contemporary of Freeman draws consideration for several reasons. The first Australian Aboriginal to win a gold medal, Peris switched sports from Hockey to Track and Field.

A key member of the Australian Women’s hockey team that won Gold in Atlanta, Peris made the change to track and field and won the 200m Gold at the 1998 Commonweath Games as well as the 4x100m relay. Any serious discussion of female Australian athletes MUST include Peris on the basis of her sporting shift and determined follow through with this pursuit.

 

Layne Beachley has established herself as the most prolific winner in Women’s surfing. Her 7 World Championships and 6 consecutive place her above the pack and set the table for the likes of Sally Fitzgibbons to take up the mantle of Australia’s dominance of the modern professional sport.

 

Lauren Jackson may have earned more money as a female professional athlete than several others combined. 3 Olympic silver medals and 1 Bronze over 4 Olympics. A captain of the Australian women’s basketball team. A Number #1 pick in the WNBA draft; Jackson has no peer in success and dominance of women’s basketball in Australia, and few in the world. Just at the moment when the woman’s game really started to take off and become popular, Jackson was on another level to everyone else here in Australia and took on and beat many of the world’s best.

Her athleticism, combined with her height made her the ideal basketball player. A 3 time WNBA MVP, Jackson led Seattle to 2 championships whilst also regularly returning home to appear in the WNBL competition in the off season. Jackson carried the flag at the 2012 Olympics she has been consistently relevant in a popular sport for more than a decade. She will make herself available for a 5th Olympics in an attempt to finally win the elusive Gold and cap off a mighty career.

 

 

Karrie Webb has won 57 professional tournaments and 41 on the LPGA tour, more than any other active player.

She has won 7 majors and been ranked #1 in the money list and scoring ranks 3 times each. She is Australia’s greatest ever female golfer. At the turn of the millennium Webb was one of the nation’s premier women professional athletes and along with Lauren Jackson, can claim of making more money as a sportsperson than any other female Australian.

 

Ellyse Perry I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know much about before starting this article.The Australian Women’s cricketer of the year has the distinction of also being a prominent player in Australian W-League soccer.

Perry has been determined to continue seasonal changes of sport throughout her senior career, a near impossible task and it is difficult to say which she is better at.

Playing for New South Wales in the domestic cricket competition, Perry was selected for Australia in the One Day team 2007 and the test team in 2008. An all rounder, she was still in high school when being elevated to national team duties and playing in the ODI World Cup and then the World 20Twenty tournament.

Perry was the first signing for the Sydney Sixers in the Women’s Cricket Big Bash League.

In soccer, Perry played for Central Coast Mariners before transferring to Canberra. She has continued through from being in the Young Matildas to the senior national team Matildas. In the 2011 World Cup Perry became the first female to represent Australia in Senior Cricket and Senior Soccer teams internationally.

The difficult balancing act has led to difficult management decisions and Perry transferred to Sydney FC. Conflicts have arisen. In alternate weekends in 2013 she had to decide between a Sydney FC semi-final and NSW Breakers 20/20 final. This was followed by a Cricket World Cup warm up game vs India and Soccer Grand Final.  Perry chose soccer in week 1 and cricket in week 2. Fortunately, her teams won each of the games when she was both there and absent. It has been a tricky juggling act.

Matildas coach Hesterine de Reus has indicated that future selection in the Matildas will be difficult considering the few games Perry is playing per year at the moment. Still just 25, Perry still has a long future of professional sport ahead of her.

 

 

In the case of Softball, Rowing, Target Sports and Motor Racing there hasn’t been an internationally dominant representative who could make a place for themselves in this bracket of the cream of the crop. To be omitted is no shame, there are numerous who have been, but so many here who make incredibly strong arguments for consideration. What we have here are worthy candidates and there appears to be no other obvious choices.

 

TWO MORE IN THE MIDST OF GREATNESS.

 

We reach a point where some resolution of my subjective judgements is required. We also must consider whether there are any athletes whom still have part of their career ahead of them and consider if they may feature at the top of any list….. there are two of them……

Later this year Sally Pearson will contest her 3rd Olympic games and will attempt to defend her title. So far she has a Silver from Beijing and a Gold in London. She was 2011 World Champion and her career best time is 4th all-time in history. Last year at the World Championships she fell midway through the race and fractured her arm. Now several months into her comeback she is on course to be in Rio and compete again at a high level.

Pearson was 2011 IAAF Female Athletics Athlete of the Year, she is competing at a time where the select few female professionals at the very top of track and field can make a good lifestyle for themselves. She stands on the shoulders of giants. Pearson is up against competition of excellent standard, the opportunity for women around the world to have access to facilities and opportunity have never been better. main rivals Brianna Rollins, Jasmin Stowers and Dawn Nelson have all joined her in pressuring the all time World Record standards of 1980’s athlete Bulgarian Yordanka Kordova.

At a time when PED testing has never been more strict, Pearson has trained whilst ASADA and WADA have ensured as strict a compliance as can be imagined in out of competition testing. She has had her fair share of hardship and adversity. Her 100m Commonwealth Games victory in Delhi was revoked on appeal due to a false start. Her broken arm at World’s set back her training for Rio 2016, and my claim is that if Pearson is able to claim a Gold there, that she should be considered the most complete ‘athlete’ in Australian history.

 

If Sally Pearson wins a 2nd straight Gold and breaks the world record in Rio she needs serious consideration as Australia’s Greatest Female Athlete.

 

2 Gold, 1 Silver and 2 Bronze over 3 Olympics positions Anna Meares as Australia’s greatest female Track cyclist. In the Sprint event, Meares improved her placing in each games. A Bronze in Athens was followed by a Silver in Beijing before she broke through with the Gold in London. Meares emerged at a time when the nation had been awoken to women’s track cycling by Kathy Watt’s Gold and Silver in Barcelona

If that were merely her achievements it would be remarkable. That she just totally dominated the Australian Nationals last weekend with victory in the Keiran, the Sprint and the Team Sprint forces us to stop and take notice. She now has 36 national championship titles. At age 32 she is still in her prime as a track cyclist and Rio looms as does the World Championships.

 

If we are not careful, Anna Meares will have completed her career and the majority of the Australian public will have given her barely more than a second glimpse every 4 years as an Olympian. Shame on us.

 

If Anna Meares adds to her Olympic haul of 5 medals at 3 Olympics where does she stand with Australia’s best female athletes of all time?

 

I feel like the list gives credit to the best female athletes that we have ever seen.

My subjective view is that Margaret Court and Heather McKay have the best records of any Australian female athlete in a commonly contested sport. Court’s introduction and use of general training concepts combined with her career interruptions of pregnancy place her at the apex. It is key that she was not just a very good tennis player. It is that she trained for her sport and was at the frontier of doing so, especially for females. That she has gone on to be a bat-shit crazy evangelist with bigoted views on the LGBTQI community is beside the point in the judgement of her as an athlete.

Albeit that the competition was of a much lower standard than it is today is not the fault of Court and McKay, McKay’s achievements in Racqueball must also be weighed. Her undefeated streak reportedly includes many top male squash players and her undefeated streak might be the most impressive achievement along side Bradman’s test battling average.

 

Shane Gould is the most naturally gifted female the country has ever had. That she emerged so young, defeated athletes from countries with known active doping regimes and won regardless demonstrates a natural talent that then goes on to show up in her masters record. That her career is so short and that we may not have a full picture of her general training preparation leaves her off the top rung of this list however it should be noted that her Gold in the medley should add considerable weight to her ability to perform and win with all strokes.

 

Dawn Fraser was a physical prodigy as well. She set standards that lasted and played the card of dominance in the freestyle for a significant period. You must weigh though her dominance of one event and consider what that means vs the consistency in setting the standard.

 

Lauren Jackson took on the world in a sport we have not traditionally been established in and has always had competition from the more popular netball in the contest for athletes.

 

Bev Francis is a true pioneer. Say what you like about women in strength sports and the use of PED’s but Francis went to very high standards in 3 different sports and in the case of Powerlifting and Bodybuilding can be said to have trail-blazed in unique ways.

 

Sally Pearson and Anna Meares are doing amazing things right NOW. Gold in Rio and they need serious consideration and are truly athletes in that they blend general level preparation, quality world level performance and consistency over a long period.

 

So, we shall put it to a vote through to May, starting with a 32 person bracket that will pit athletes by popular vote until we have a winner. If you wish to vote please email me at coachupham@shirespeedandstrength.com.au and in a week we shall reveal who took the most votes at SSS and by email for the first round.