The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are unlike any prior Olympic Games. Delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Games continue to spark controversy as coronavirus cases peak in Japan. The COVID-19 safety measures included limited spectators, making the stands look eerily abandoned. Yet, in a time of uncertainty, these female Olympic athletes continue to inspire fans with their talent, activism, and grit.

1. Rose Lokonyen Nathike (EOR – Athletics)

Nathike was born in what is now South Sudan. At age eight, she fled with her family when civil war broke out, ending up in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. While in Kakuma, Nathike began playing soccer and running for fun. She soon demonstrated her exceptional running ability and was selected to train at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation Training Centre. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, she competed on the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team (EOR), carrying the flag at the Olympic opening ceremony. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tegla Loroupe Training Centre closed, forcing Nathike to train in Kakuma. Nathike now advocates for and inspires refugee athletes worldwide.

Rose Lokonyen Nathike at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Image: Nathike’s Instagram.

2. Ashleigh Barty (Australia – Tennis) 

Ashleigh (Ash) Barty is currently ranked world No. 1 in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). She has 11 singles titles in her career, including the 2021 Wimbledon singles title and the 2019 French Open Singles. Barty is also the first Indigenous person to play Olympic tennis. She is of Ngarigo descent and serves as the National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador for Tennis Australia. Her goal in this role is to encourage Indigenous youth to play tennis. Furthermore, Barty is an animal activist, partnering with the RSPCA in their rescue pet adoption efforts.

3. Susana Rodriguez Gacio (Spain – Paratriathlon) 

At this year’s 2020 Paralympics, Gacio is hoping to compete in two events, the triathlon and the 1,500 meters run in the Paralympic Games, which would make her the first Spanish Paralympic athlete to do so. Because she is legally blind as result of albinism, Gacio uses a guide to describe the course to her. She also wears special clothing and sunscreen to protect her skin. However, none of this has set her back. Gacio won three world championships and is currently the leading athlete in the women’s PTVI (vision impairment) category. Moreover, she received 5th place at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. In addition to her athletic career, Gacio is also a medical hero. During the coronavirus pandemic, she helped rehabilitate COVID-19 patients in Santiago De Compostela, Spain. She treated patients at the hospital in addition to training three hours daily for the Paralympics.

Susana Rodriguez Gacio training on a stationary bike. Image: Gacio’s Instagram.

4. Rayssa Leal (Brazil – Skateboarding)

On July 25th, 2021, Leal won a silver medal for Brazil in women’s Olympic street skateboarding. At only 13 years and 203 days old, she is one of the youngest competitors at the 2020 Tokyo Games, along with Japan’s gold medalist, Momiji Nishiya (13 years and 330 days). Leal is also Brazil’s youngest Olympic medalist. Had she beaten Nishiya for gold, Leal would have been the youngest gold medalist in Olympic history. Leal started skating at age six. At age seven, she gained fame when a video of her in a fairy costume mastering a heelflip went viral. Leal’s and Nishiya’s hug after-competition hug has also shown the world true sportsmanship.

5. Laurel Hubbard (New Zealand – Weightlifting) 

Hubbard is one of the highest ranking female weightlifters in the world. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she is competing in the +87 kg category, which is the highest Olympic weight category for women. Hubbard is also the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Games. Although her participation has sparked controversy, the International Olympic Committee assures that she meets the qualifications for transgender females. In addition to inspiring transgender athletes worldwide, Hubbard also recovered after an elbow injury at the 2018 Commonwealth Games almost ended her career.

6. Kyra Condie (USA – Sport climbing)

This year, Condie will compete in sport climbing, one of the sports debuting at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Last year, Condie became the first Olympic sport climber on Team USA. Yet, Condie’s journey was not easy. At age 13, she was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis, with a 70-degree curve in her spine. In an interview with Time, Condie says when she was diagnosed, her doctor encouraged her to quit because she would eventually start a family. She refused to accept that answer. After Condie found a doctor who supported her passion, she got surgery and kept climbing. Four months later, she became a nationalyouth champion. Now, Condie uses her fame to empower women and advocate for greater diversity in sport climbing.

7. Kimia Alizadeh (EOR – Taekwondo)

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Kimia Alizadeh became the first woman to earn an Olympic medal for Iran. She hoped her win would become an inspiration for other female Iranian athletes. However, in January 2020, Alizadeh left Iran and moved to Germany, where she was granted asylum and now trains. In an Instagram post, she mentions the oppression of women and being used as a “tool” as reasons for defecting.  At this year’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Alizadeh, representing the Refugee Olympic Team (EOR), beat Iranian Nahid Kiyani 18-9 in her first match. she then beat two-time Olympic champion, Jade Jones of Britain, 16-12 in her second. Unfortunately, she lost the bronze medal match.

8. Naomi Osaka (Japan – Tennis)

Although Osaka did not win a medal for Japan, she was honored by lighting the Olympic flame in the Tokyo Games opening ceremony. In 2019, after beating Czech Republic player Petra Kvitova in the 2019 Australian Open, she achieved the rank of World No. 1, the first Asian player to do so. According to the WTA, Osaka is currently No. 2 in singles. At only 23 years old, she is a four-time Grand Slam champion. In addition to her impressive tennis career, Osaka, along with American gymnast Simone Biles, has spoken out about athlete mental health. Osaka, of Japanese and Haitian descent, is also an outspoken supporter of Black Lives Matter. In the 2020 U.S. Open, she wore face masks bearing the names of police violence victims. 

9. Allyson Felix (USA – Athletics)

Felix is a five-time Olympian and nine-time Olympic medalist. While she is not a rookie Olympian, the 2020 Tokyo Games is her first Olympics competing as a mother. Felix gave birth to her daughter, Camryn, in 2018. It was a complicated pregnancy; at 32 weeks, she developed a condition called preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure and damage to the liver and kidneys. It is also more common in Black women. Due to her condition, Felix had an emergency C-section. Camryn was born seven weeks prematurely, spending time in the NICU before recovering. Since giving birth, Felix has spoken out about racial disparities in health care, even testifying before Congress. She also recently wrote a New York Times op-ed about leaving her former sponsor Nike due to lack of maternity support.

10. Sunisa Lee (USA – Artistic gymnastics)

After Simone Biles withdrew from the all-around individual final for mental health reasons, Sunisa (Suni) Lee stepped up to the podium. She is now the sixth consecutive American woman to win an all-around gold medal in artistic gymnastics. Lee is also the first Hmong athlete to represent Team USA in the Olympics. She achieved the gold medal despite devastating losses this past year, including losing two relatives to COVID-19 and an accident that left her father paralyzed from the chest down.

Sunisa Lee wins gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Image: Lee’s Instagram.

These ten female athletes stun the world with their skill and use their voices to lead movements. Watching these women stand tall on the Olympic podium and stand up for what they believe in should inspire us all to strive for gold.

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