Maria Sharapova

Maria Yuryevna Sharapova was born in Nyaga, Russia on April 19, 1987 but, at the age of five, was ‘discovered’ by Martina Navratilova at a tennis clinic in Moscow. On the advice of the 18-time Grand Slam singles winner, Sharapova to Florida with her father in 1994 and never really looked back.

Sharapova turned professional in 2001, at the age of 14, at a time when her aggressive, hard-hitting style of play – characterised by powerful serving and ground strokes – was starting to become en vogue. She eventually grew to a height of 6’2″, which gave her a significant height advantage over most opponents.

In any event, Sharapova won her first Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 2004, beating Serena Williams in straight sets in the final. She went on to become the first and, so far, only Russian woman to complete a career Grand Slam, winning the US Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008 and the French Open twice, in 2012 and 2014.

In February, 2016, Sharapova admitted that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open the previous month, having tested positive for meldonium, or mildronate, on the same day as her quarter-final defeat by Serena Williams. The drug, which she had knowingly taken for ten years, was only banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on January 1, 2016. Sharapova was, nonetheless, suspended by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for two years, reduced to 15 months on appeal.

On her return to the WTA Tour in April, 2017, her comeback was hampered by ongoing injury problems. Having failed to regain her previous form, in February, 2020, at the age of 32, Sharapova announced her shock retirement in an exclusive essay for ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Vogue’.

Rachael Blackmore

Recently described by Conor O’Neill, Chairman of the Association of Irish Racecourses, as a ‘fantastic ambassador’ for National Hunt racing, jockey Rachael Blackmore is probably best known as the first woman to ride the winner of the Grand National. On April 10, 2021, she partnered Minella Times, trained by Henry de Bromhead, to a 6½-length victory over stable companion Balko Des Flos in the celebrated steeplechase. Reflecting on her groundbreaking success, Blackmore said, ‘I don’t feel male or female – I don’t feel human.’

Even before the Grand National, Blackmore and de Bromhead were already enjoying what the Racing Post described as a ‘season of wonder’ in 2020/21. At the Cheltenham Festival, Blackmore rode six winners, including Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle, to become the first woman in history to win the Ruby Walsh Trophy, presented to the leading rider for the week. Back at the Festival in 2022, Blackmore rode three more winners, including Honeysuckle in the Champion Hurdle again, but stole the headlines again by becoming the first woman to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. After riding 3/1 favourite A Plus Tard to a 15-length victory over defending champion, and stable companion, Minella Indo, she said, ‘You can never dream too big because this is something I never thought would be possible.’

A graduate of the University of Limerick, Blackmore rode her first winner, Stowaway Pearl, trained by John Joseph ‘Shark’ Hanlon, at Thurles in February, 2011, as a 20-year-old amateur. She turned professional in 2015 and, in 2017, became the first woman to win the Irish Conditional Jockeys’ Championship. That summer, she began a partnership with Henry de Bromhead, whom she described as a ‘game-changer’ as far as her riding career was concerned, and has never looked back.

Megan Rapinoe

Instantly recognisable by her cropped blonde or, more recently, pink hair, Megan Rapinoe is known for her outspoken views on politics and social justice issues, including LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality. However, it should not be forgotten that it was her skill on the football field that made her a public figure in the first place.

Now 36, Rapinoe has played her club football in the Pacific Northwest, for Seattle Reign FC – or OL Reign FC, after the club became part of the Olympique Lyonnais family in 2020 – in Seattlle, Washington since 2013. Seattle Reign FC won National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Shield twice, in 2014 and 2015, and Rapinoe has captained the side since 2018.

A left-sided attacking midfielder or winger by trade, Rapinoe has also demonstrated her creative, dynamic style of play to excellent effect at international level down the years. As part of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), which she co-captained between 2018 and 2020, she has played in three World Cups, in 2011, 2015 and 2019, and at three Summer Olympic Games, in 2012, 2016 and 2020. After finishing runners-up in 2011, the USWNT won the World Cup in 2015 and 2019; they also won the gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012 and the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

At the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, Rapinoe not only won her second World Cup title, but also the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards. In an incredible year, she was also named the Best FIFA Women’s Player and won the second ever Ballon d’Or Féminin, presented by France Football.

Rebecca Adlington

Born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire on February 17, 1989, Rebecca Adlington was introduced to swimming at an early age. In her early career, she won the gold medal in the girls’ 800-metres freestyle at the European Junior Championships in Lisbon, Portugal in July, 2004 and the silver medal in the women’s 800-metres freestyle at the European Championships in Hungary, Budapest in August, 2006, on her senior international debut.

However, it was at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China that Adlington would become a household name. Still only 19, and with little expectation, she nonetheless won gold medals in both the 400-metres freestyle and 800-metres freestyle. Indeed, in the final of the latter event, Adlington swam a time of 8:14.10, taking 2.12 seconds off the previous long course world record, set by American Janet Evans 19 years previously.

Adlington’s victory in the 400-metres freestyle made her the first British female swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal since Anita Lonsbrough won the 200-metres breaststroke at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Furthermore, she also became the first British swimmer, male or female, to win more than one gold medal at the same Games since Henry Taylor won three at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.

Adlington was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the New Year Honours List for 2009. She went on to compete at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, winning bronze medals in the 400-metres freestyle and 800-metres freestyle. At the time of her retirement from competitive swimming the following February, at the age of 23, Adlington was the most decorated and successful British female Olympic swimmer of all time.

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