Women’s athletes are often considered trailblazers for a reason, redefining their teams, leagues, games and cultures as they shift the boundaries of sport.
For every wunderkind, there is an athlete who inspired their greatness or transformed their notion of what is possible. The ’99ers galvanized a generation of American women’s soccer players, Billie Jean King changed the face of women’s tennis and Lisa Leslie motivated aspiring ballers.
Just as those iconic teams and athletes set an example for those who came after them, competitors today are making an imprint on the next generation in women’s sports.
As part of Nike’s 50th anniversary, the company is celebrating the last 50 years of women in sport and looking ahead to the next 50. From making an investment in the WNBA to creating the Nike Athlete Think Tank, Nike has been committed to amplifying and supporting women’s sports. In honor of their historic anniversary, Nike is shining a light on athletes who are inspiring the next generation and shifting the landscape of women’s sports.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka, U.S. national soccer team icon Megan Rapinoe and basketball phenom Sabrina Ionescu have all pushed the limits of their sports while changing the culture that surrounds the women’s game.
Perhaps no professional athlete has done that more in recent history than Osaka. With her candor and resilience, she has not only instigated a conversation around mental health but also challenged what is expected of elite tennis players on the court.
Osaka burst onto the scene at just 20 years old in her own pass-the-baton moment, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets to win her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open. The final, which was filled with controversy as Williams and the chair umpire clashed, served as something of a changing of the guard.
Tears filled Osaka’s eyes during the trophy presentation as boos from the crowd rang out. With Osaka’s win, the fans were denied the opportunity to witness Williams tie Margaret Court’s Grand Slam singles title record. To make matters more complicated, Williams had been Osaka’s idol since she was a child.
From there, Osaka took the tennis world by storm, inspiring a group of young players herself. A year after catapulting to fame at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Osaka was featured in another matchup billed as an established star taking on an up-and-coming prodigy in 15-year-old Coco Gauff.
Osaka came out on top, halting Gauff’s first U.S. Open singles run in dominant fashion. Gauff, overwhelmed by the weight of the moment, appeared emotional as tears fell from her eyes after the match. Having been on the other side of this very scenario, Osaka comforted the teen.
“After the match, I think she proved she’s a true athlete. For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like their worst enemy, but after they treat you like you’re their best friend. And I think that’s what she did today,” Gauff said of Osaka in 2019.
Since those runs at the U.S. Open, Osaka has continued to redefine the sport, taking a step back from the court in 2021 to focus on her mental health while being vocal about the impact of post-match press conferences on her well-being. As Osaka returns to the tour on a more consistent basis, her peers have applauded her bravery and revered her as a leader.
Iga Świątek, who at 20 years old has ascended to the top of the WTA rankings, defeated Osaka in the Miami Open final in April and praised her afterward.
“When I watched you win the U.S. Open (in 2018), I wouldn’t have even thought I’d be playing versus you. You’re an inspiration. This sport is better with you,” Świątek said.
Osaka’s candor surrounding the expectations of fame and pressure to perform has resonated with athletes outside of tennis as well. Nelly Korda, a 23-year-old golf sensation, told Sportskeeda in 2021 that she looked up to Osaka when checking in on her own mental health.
“You also learn from, like, other people, I mean like Naomi Osaka,” Korda said. “You don’t even know what is gonna happen with the girl that just won the U.S. Open. She has all this fame, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know, a prime example is Osaka. Has she just shot up into stardom, and it’s super hard for her.”
Rising above the criticisms and challenges of her sports celebrity, Osaka has helped to destigmatize mental health by bringing attention to it in sports and beyond. An established talent on the court and cultural icon off of it, Osaka is the definition of a generational figure.
S P O R T S M A N S H I P ❤️Naomi Osaka asks Coco Gauff to join her in the post match interview.pic.twitter.com/4SctZMT6hz— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) September 1, 2019
S P O R T S M A N S H I P ❤️Naomi Osaka asks Coco Gauff to join her in the post match interview.pic.twitter.com/4SctZMT6hz
Twelve years Osaka’s senior, Megan Rapinoe has similarly altered the blueprint for athlete activism, fighting for gender and racial equality while earning the distinction as the best footballer in the world.
The California native and two-time World Cup winner has scored 62 goals in her 187 appearances with the USWNT. Leading the team in goals at the 2019 World Cup, Rapinoe has made her mark on the pitch and spearheaded the the players’ fight for equal pay off of it.
Playing for the NWSL’s Seattle franchise since 2013, Rapinoe has been a consistent leader for club and country. Bethany Balcer, one of OL Reign’s most explosive strikers, credits Rapinoe with helping her adapt to professional soccer.
“I think Megan Rapinoe has been one of those players. I definitely look to the forward line a lot,” Balcer told Goal. “And so just making sure I am understanding what the game plan is when I was to go into the games. Whether I am playing the nine or the winger, just learning from them, taking their advice.”
Rapinoe’s outspokenness and authenticity have placed her at the center of the intersection between sports and politics, a role she has embraced. Advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights and racial equality, while pushing the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay, Rapinoe has won herself a legion of young fans and empowered players who’ve come after her.
“In so many ways, you’re the go-to person for current topics and politics issues,” teammate Sam Mewis told Rapinoe on the Just Women’s Sports Snacks Podcast. “I would look to you actually for a lot of things before I was comfortable to speak out myself because I feel like I trust your values, and I trust what you stand for.”
On a team that emphasizes the importance of leaving the squad better than you’ve found it, Rapinoe embodies the USWNT’s progressive ethos.
Teammate and fellow striker Lynn Williams remembers looking up to Rapinoe as a kid before ever sharing the pitch with her.
“Megan has always been an inspiration to me. As a kid, I would be amazed at her poise on the field and how she would always show up in big moments,” Williams told Just Women’s Sports.
“As I have gotten to know her on a personal level, I am in awe of her. She is authentically herself on and off the field. She doesn’t apologize for who she is, and more importantly her energy and positivity inspires me and many others to be authentically ourselves as well. With her, there is no ‘it’s me or it’s you’ mentality. With her, there’s a seat at the table for everyone.”
Megan Rapinoe won the Golden Ball AND Golden Boot. Watch all of @mPinoe's goals and assists that delivered her the World Cup’s top individual honors. 🥇🥇 pic.twitter.com/LGXGSBZ5n7— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 8, 2019
Megan Rapinoe won the Golden Ball AND Golden Boot. Watch all of @mPinoe's goals and assists that delivered her the World Cup’s top individual honors. 🥇🥇 pic.twitter.com/LGXGSBZ5n7
At just 24 years old, Sabrina Ionescu is one of the most undeniably talented guards in women’s basketball.
At Oregon, Ionescu garnered national fame after becoming the only NCAA Division I player ever to amass 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in her career. Simply put, the California native changed college basketball through sheer talent.
Former Oregon teammate and current WNBA rival Ruthy Hebard explained to WSLAM in 2020 how the duo achieved so much success on offense.
“Playing with Sabrina, it was like, I don’t want to mess this up for her either. It’s really just about being strong and focusing on what I want to do and where I want to do it,” Hebard said.
Competing against Ionescu was equally as daunting, with current New York Liberty teammate Didi Richards recalling her head-to-head matchup with the star in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
“Back then, being a sophomore, first year in the Final Four, I was nervous going against the best player, some would say, men’s and women’s. I was real nervous,” said Richards, then a guard for Baylor. “I knew I had to guard her. It was exciting. I think that was one of the games that put me on the map for sure. She’s a great player. She hit some crazy shots on me.”
Ionescu’s Oregon teammates praised her work ethic and game preparation. Former Ducks star and current Liberty teammate Nyara Sabally is anxious to reunite with Ionescu in New York. The No. 5 pick in this year’s draft will miss her rookie season while recovering from knee surgery.
“I’m thrilled that I get to share the court with [Ionescu],” Sabally said after the draft. “Obviously, ‘Sab’ is such an amazing point guard, such an amazing person. I saw her in practice every day. I saw her working every day on the court. I’m just very excited to finally share the court with her, not just in practice.”
Since her college days, Ionescu has expertly leveraged her on-court success and widespread fame. Now in her third season with the Liberty, she has inked several blockbuster deals, including a partnership with Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman’s Thirty Five Ventures.
Ionescu’s foray into business resembles that of Osaka. After meeting on the set of an ad campaign, the two have become fast friends, with Ionescu telling Insider that she “ was always a huge fan of Naomi” before the shoot.
Osaka has been seen practicing in a Ionescu Liberty jersey, and Ionescu is eager to show her support for the tennis star.
“I watch her matches and cheer her on and we talk, whether it’s on social media or text here and there,” Ionescu added. “But I think [we’re] always supporting each other and just rooting for each other and hoping for the best and success.”
Ionescu’s game-changing collegiate career and impressive business portfolio have expanded the possibilities for athletes in women’s sports, on and off the court.
Clare Brennan is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.