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The five greatest female athletes you’ve probably never heard of

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Zushan new author
Roar Rookie
27th May, 2020

When I think of the greatest female athlete of all time, names like Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Cathy Freeman and Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee come to mind.

However, there have been several fantastic female athletes in an increasingly competitive environment, often unheard of and under-represented.

In this article, I take a look at five of the greatest female athletes that most people outside of their specific sports haven’t really heard of.

Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei is famously quoted as saying: “I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest – it’s only a mountain.”

Tabei was the first woman to ascend Mt Everest and also the first woman to reach the summit of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.

In 1975 Junko went on an expedition to reach the summit of Mt Everest and at 6300 metres was buried under the snow, until she was rescued by the sherpas of Nepal.

Either way, having completed this massive achievement, a celebration was held in honour of her success in Kathmandu and thousands of people cheered her arrival at the airport in Tokyo.

In 2012, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and passed away in 2016. Her legacy, however, lives on.

Heather McKay
Now 78 years of age, and very distant from a public lifestyle, Heather McKay may be one of the finest athletes of all time, and arguably Australia’s greatest athlete.


In her prime, she won 16 straight British Open (1962-77) titles in the challenging sport of squash. McKay was renowned for her ability and skill at a time when women’s sport was not taken seriously.

Professionally, she only ever lost two games in her whole career, both of which came very early on. To add to her success, she left the game and returned in 1979 for one final bout on the court, and won the second of two world championships.

Her sporting career did not stop at squash, though. She played in the Australian women’s field hockey team while playing squash and went on to win several tournaments in racquetball. She was inducted into the US racquetball hall of fame. She also won several tournaments in veterans tennis.

There have been debates about whether she was the greatest female athlete in Australia. She might have been recognised as the finest athlete of all time if the sport of squash was more popular.

Derartu Tulu
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Derartu Tulu was the very first Ethiopian and black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She went on to win another gold in Sydney in 2000 and a bronze in 2004. Her specialty was the 10,000 metres race.

Olympic flag

(Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Soon after her initial triumph in 1992, she struggled from injuries, missed some of the world events, and finished fourth at the 1996 Olympics. However, her greatness was witnessed when she returned eight years later to take the gold in Sydney.

Raoua Tlili
Raoua Tlili is a Paralympian and dual athlete from Tunisia. She has won four gold medals and two silver medals at the Paralympic games. She competes in the category F41 discus and shot put events.


For context, F41 is a disability sport classification for people of short stature. Tlili holds the world record for category F41 discus and shot put.

Her professional journey in the sports of discus and shot put began in 2006, and there has been no looking back since. Two golds and two silvers at the Paralympics in 2008 and 2012 set her up as one of the greats of the sport and across the world. This was followed up by two more golds in 2016.

Tlili is truly one of those remarkable athletes that most people around the world have never heard of. She is an incredible professional with the stats, skills and awards that most can only ever dream of.

Karnam Malleswari
In 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics.

With 110 kilos in the snatch and 130 kilos in the clean and jerk, Malleswari’s 240-kilo lift was enough for a bronze medal in Sydney.

To date, she is the only Indian woman to have won an Olympic medal at weightlifting – a truly momentous albeit shocking feat, considering women in India are now plying their trade in ball sports such as badminton and cricket.

Malleswari was also honoured with India’s highest civilian honour: the Padma Shri award.