NWSL players strike: How we got here and what it would mean
A work stoppage is on the table for Feb. 1 if an agreement isn't reached...
From Carli Lloyd hanging up her cleats to Allyson Felix shattering records to Emma Raducanu announcing herself to the world, 2021 was a defining year for women’s sports.
As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back at the decisive moments from a banner 12 months that included NCAA championships, the Olympics and a landmark NWSL season.
Here are the top 21 women’s sports moments from 2021:
Stanford won its first National Championship since 1992 and the third title in school history, defeating Arizona 54-53 back in April. The thrilling final capped off a record-breaking season for the Cardinal, with coach Tara VanDerveer passing Pat Summit as the winningest head coach in DI women’s basketball history. With 4.08 million viewers tuned in to ESPN for the championship, Stanford and Arizona’s nail-bitter marked the most-matched title game since 2014.
James Madison’s Odicci Alexander burst onto the scene over the summer, leading her school to an unlikely Women’s College World Series run in June. The star pitcher threw 1,057 pitches, recording a staggering 66 strikeouts in leading James Madison to the semifinals, the first unranked team to do so in WCWS history. James Madison’s historic run included a massive first-round upset against No. 1 Oklahoma, capturing national attention and catapulting Alexander to softball fame.
Ash Barty made history in July, becoming the first Australian woman to win Wimbledon since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980. The world No. 1 defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 to capture her second Grand Slam title.
Sha’Carri Richardson sprinted into track and field celebrity over the summer when she clocked a winning time of 10.86 seconds in the 100m final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in June. Her first-place finish was later disqualified when it was found out that Richardson tested positive for marijuana, bouncing her from the Olympics with a one-month suspension. The ordeal followed the passing of Richardson’s biological mother and spurred a conversation about mental health and rules banning marijuana that many now deem outdated. Despite not racing in Tokyo, Richardson was one of the breakout athletes of the year.
Simone Biles shocked the world when she withdrew from the gymnastics team all-around event at the Tokyo Olympics after being overcome by the dreaded “twisties.” The gymnastics icon went on to pull out of the individual all-around, vault and uneven bars. Biles’s prioritization of her health was a rare and welcome change, instigating a conversation about mental health in sport. Naomi Osaka also contributed to the broader conversation on mental wellbeing when she withdrew from several events on tour. After a trying year of isolation and loss, athletes advocating for mental health offered a timely shift in the cultural perspective.
"Put your mental health first. That's more important than any other medal you could win." - @Simone_Biles— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 4, 2021
Biles spoke with @MikeTirico after securing silver and bronze at the #TokyoOlympics. pic.twitter.com/BCM6QHbD2E
American gymnast Suni Lee stepped into the spotlight when Biles stepped back from the individual all-around event in Tokyo. The 18-year-old dazzled audiences, beating out her competition with a score of 57.433 to capture gold in gymnastics’ most recognized event. Lee’s Olympic title also made her the first Hmong American gymnast to win an individual gold medal.
Allyson Felix became the most decorated track and field athlete of all time after winning a bronze medal in the 400m and gold in the 4×400-meter relay in Tokyo. The five-time Olympian surpassed a record set by Carl Lewis, increasing her medal count to 11, the most of any American track and field athlete to date. At 35 years old, Felix’s accomplishment is made more impressive by the fact that she gave birth to her daughter in 2018, between her last two Olympic campaigns.
Ariarne Titmus swam her way to the top of the podium in Tokyo, dethroning American swimming star Katie Ledecky in the process. The Australian swimmer captured gold in the 400m freestyle, becoming the first athlete to beat Ledecky in an individual Olympic event. Titmus also took home a gold in the 200m freestyle, capping off a breakout Summer Games. The now 21-year-old’s incredible performance captured international attention, but perhaps no one was as excited as her coach Dean Boxall, who went viral for his celebration following Titmus’s 400m victory.
Australia's Ariarne Titmus wins the Olympic gold medal in the women's 400m free.@KatieLedecky gets the silver, earning her first Olympic medal of these #TokyoOlympics.— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) July 26, 2021
📱 NBC Sports App pic.twitter.com/HDzi46SjJG
April Ross and Alix Klineman, or “the A-Team” as the duo is lovingly called, dominated the beach volleyball competition to capture gold in Tokyo. The Olympic title completed Ross’s trifecta, as she won silver and gold in her two previous Games. Klineman had a very different path to Tokyo, only partnering with Ross starting in 2017 and with less than a year of beach volleyball experience. Now, the pair are beach volleyball royalty.
Carissa Moore added to her growing trophy cabinet, clinching the first-ever surfing Olympic gold medal during the Summer Games. The Team USA surfer followed up her podium-topping performance in Tokyo with her fifth WSL title, solidifying herself as a legend in the sport.
Nelly Korda had a landmark 2021, becoming the first golfer to win Olympic gold and a major championship in the same year. The 23-year-old tapped in a four-foot putt to capture gold on the Kasumigaseki Country Club’s 18th hole before being embraced by sister Jessica in what was a historic moment for the Korda family, Team USA and the sport of golf.
Christine Sinclair is already a bona fide soccer legend. At 38 years old, she has the most international goals of all active players with 188 and has won just about every award there is to win in the sport. An Olympic gold, however, had always eluded the Canadian superstar, until this summer, when Sinclair and Canada downed Sweden in a thrilling PK shootout to win gold after defeating the USWNT on their path to victory.
Cat Osterman hung up her cleats for good this year after coming out of retirement for the Tokyo Olympics. The American pitcher helped Team USA to a silver medal and officially closed out her historic career with a successful Athletes Unlimited season, coming second in strikeouts after winning the league’s inaugural season in 2020. On top of an Athletes Unlimited title, Osterman leaves the sport with two Olympic silver medals and a gold, and is widely considered one of the best pitchers in softball history.
The Team USA basketball dynasty continued in 2021, with the Tokyo squad winning the program’s seventh straight gold during the Summer Olympic Games. Legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi made their own history in Tokyo, becoming the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. After the team’s 90-75 victory over Japan, Bird talked about the next generation of players carrying the Team USA torch in the future, while Taurasi signed off the interview by saying, “see you in Paris.” It might have only been a joke about the 2024 Olympics in France, but we’re not counting either GOAT out yet.
"It's not just about us. It's about all the players that have either set the stage or those that are on it right now."— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 8, 2021
Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi after winning the seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal for women's @usabasketball. #TokyoOlympics #OlympicHERstory pic.twitter.com/uxq3GmBzur
Trinity Rodman fielded one of the most compelling rookie seasons in NWSL history, finishing the season with seven goals and seven assists. The youngest player drafted in NWSL history, the 18-year-old ran away with the NWSL’s Rookie of the Year race while also helping lead the Washington Spirit to their first-ever NWSL Championship. Sharing the pitch with some of the best in the game, Rodman was perhaps the most impactful player in the final against the Chicago Red Stars, registering the game-winning assist.
This year’s US Open was one for the history books, featuring an all-teenage final between two previously unknowns: Canada’s Leylah Fernandez and England’s Emma Raducanu. The 18-year-old Raducanu pulled out the win over Fernandez, clinching the Grand Slam without ever dropping a set, the first person to do so since 2014. The Englishwoman was also the first qualifier ever to capture the US Open title and the first British woman to win a Grand Slam in 44 years. Raducanu’s meteoric rise catapulted her to international fame, as the rookie firmly planted herself at the fore of tennis’ next generation.
Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line at the New York City Marathon with a time of 2:33:32, completing her goal of running six marathons in six weeks. The 2017 NYC Marathon winner completed the Berlin, Boston, London, Tokyo (remote), Chicago and New York Marathons, running each of them in under three hours. The 40-year-old, now retired from professional running, celebrated the self-imposed project by cheering USWNT icon and fellow NYC Marathon participant Abby Wambach at the race’s finish line.
Candace Parker had a 2021 to remember, winning a WNBA Championship with her hometown team, the Chicago Sky, in her first year with the squad. Parker led the Sky in an unlikely title run, clinching the league championship after entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. With help from Finals MVP Kahleah Copper and seasoned veterans Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot, Parker clinched her second WNBA title and Chicago’s first championship in franchise history. Later, Parker announced her marriage to Anya Petrakova, with the couple expecting their first child together. Did anyone have a better 2021?
The NWSL underwent a league-wide reckoning in 2021 after multiple players went public with a series of accusations of abuse and misconduct against several prominent coaches. A bombshell report in The Athletic rocked the league, with former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly going on the record with claims of sexual coercion and abuse against former North Carolina coach Paul Riley. The story spurred a sequence of events, including NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird stepping down from her position and the players taking a weekend off from competition. When the athletes returned, they paused at the sixth minute of their matches to recognize the years of silence both Shim and Farrelly endured. A list of demands accompanied the move, instigating an international and ongoing conversation on players’ rights and safety. Needless to say, the league will never be the same.
Carli Lloyd received a sendoff fit for her historic career after the 39-year-old icon announced she would retire at the end of the NWSL season. Before Lloyd hung up her cleats, her hometown fans got one final chance to watch her play in Subaru Park in Philadelphia after Gotham FC organized a farewell match. The USWNT legend was given a proper salute from nearly 10,000 fans, delivering an emotional farewell speech after the game.
The Washington Spirit captured the team’s first NWSL Championship in franchise history in November after a rollercoaster season. On the pitch, the team persevered despite several off-field controversies, including former coach Richie Burke’s being fired following reports of abuse, an ongoing public dispute between owners, and two forced forfeits due to a violation of COVID protocols. The Spirit weathered the storm to end their season on a seven-game win streak, including a thrilling 2-1 victory over Chicago in the NWSL final.
A work stoppage is on the table for Feb. 1 if an agreement isn't reached...
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