IWD2021: Celebrating our fema... | Australian Olympic Committee

IWD2021: Celebrating our female athletes who chose to challenge

Author imageAOC08 Mar 2021
Betty Cuthbert gold medal

To celebrate International Women's Day 2021 we take a look back at just some of the many incredible Australian women who created Olympic history and inspired the nation by, 'Choosing to Challenge.'



Many of the younger generation may not have heard the name ‘Fanny Durack’ but she paved the way for Australian sportswomen over a century ago when she became the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack rose to fame at Stockholm 1912, setting world records in the 100 and 220-yard freestyle events. This was back in the days when swimming in Australia was segregated by gender, and females were not even able to be watched by male spectators, including their family.

After public outcry, these rules were changed so that Durack could compete at Stockholm, where she won Australia’s first female, and only, gold medal of the 1912 Olympics, followed by fellow Australian Wilhelmina Wylie in second place.

From 1910-1918 Durack was known as the world's greatest female swimmer across all distances, from sprint to marathon.



With four gold and four silver medals to her name,  Dawn Fraser is considered one of history's greatest sprint swimmers, plus her spirit, tenacity and talent were likened to her famous swimming predecessor, Fanny Durack.

Overcoming severe respiratory issues, the 39-time world record holder competed in Melbourne 1956 alongside an Australian team which dominated in the pool.

Fraser won the 100m freestyle, was a member of the winning 4 x 100m relay team and finished second to Lorraine Crapp in the 400m. She went on to win the 100m freestyle in Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964), collecting silver in the sprint relays at both those Games, and silver again in Rome in the medley relay.

Fraser’s greatest victory occurred at Tokyo 1964, against all odds. After being involved in a fatal car accident that killed her mother and seriously injured Fraser's neck and spine, she came back to win gold in the 100m freestyle.

Such was her dominance of the event that she held the world record for 16 years.


IOC feature Aussie legend Marjorie Jackson-Nelson in new series


Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, also known as the ‘Lithgow Flash’  made history in track and field when she became the first Australian woman to set an athletics world record and win an Olympic athletics gold medal.

It was at Helsinki 1952 where she claimed the 100m and 200m gold medals, breaking a 16-year-old world record in the 200m.

Jackson-Nelson was the first Australian, male or female, to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics since Australia’s very first Olympian, Edwin Flack, in 1896.

In honour of her incredible feats, Jackson was awarded an Order of Merit by the Australian Olympic Federation and in 1985 was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame

Never turning down an opportunity to give back to Australian sport, Jackson-Nelson carried the Olympic flag during the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony, this was two weeks after major back surgery where she had to stand for the duration of her flight from South Australia to Sydney.

From 2001-2007 she served as the Governor of South Australia. In 2008 she had the Olympic Order bestowed upon her, and in 2013 was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.



Eighteen-year-old Betty Cuthbert rated her chances of making the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games as so far-fetched, that she purchased tickets to attend as a spectator. Little did she know she would soon become the ‘Golden Girl’ of the Games, picking up an incredible three gold medals for Australia.

Cuthbert won gold in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay at Melbourne 1956, making her the first Australian, male or female, to ever win three gold medals at an Olympic Games. The teenage superstar became the poster girl for the true Aussie underdog; inspiring and exciting the nation.

Cuthbert called time on her career shortly after, but it wasn’t long before she laced up her running shoes again, for a shot at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It was here that she claimed her fourth gold medal, in the 100m.

Just five years later the golden girl was heartbreakingly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Cuthbert passed away in August 2017 but leaves a legacy that will never be forgotten.


Shirley Strickland (de la Hunty) won seven Olympic sprinting and hurdling medals --- three gold, one silver and three bronze medals --- through the Games of 1948, 1952 and 1956. In truth, she deserved one more. In 1948 in London she was wrongly judged to have finished fourth in the 200m final; a photo finish of the race --- not consulted at the time, but discovered in 1975 --- showed beyond doubt that Strickland had actually finished third.

As it was, her tally of seven women’s track-and-field medals remained a solo record from 1956 until equalled in 1976 by Irena Szewinska, of Poland. Merlene Ottey, of Jamaica, also reached seven in 1996, and went on to win an eighth medal in a sprint relay in Sydney in 2000.

Shirley honoured with IAAF Hall of Fame induction

Born in Guildford, WA, the daughter of a Stawell Gift winner, Strickland was a woman of exceptional spirit. After the 1948 London Games - at which she won a silver medal in the sprint relay and bronze in both the 80m hurdles and the 100m sprint - she was advised by her coach that it was time to retire. She was 23, dedicated and defiant. She thanked him for the advice, and ignored it.

In Helsinki she won the 80m hurdles, setting two world records and defeating her London conqueror, Fanny Blankers-Koen. She also was a member of the world record-breaking Australian relay sprint team, which lost a baton in the final.

At the Melbourne 1956 Olympics, by then 31 years old and a mother of two, she won gold again in the hurdles, and was a member of the winning relay team.

She remains the nation’s only track and field athlete, male or female, to have won back-to-back gold medals.



Anyone born before the year 2000 can recount exactly where they were when Cathy Freeman sprinted to 400m gold at Sydney 2000.

It was a moment that united an entire nation when the then 27-year-old carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during her victory lap; A fitting honour for the Olympic torchbearer and cauldron lighter as she celebrated both a century of women’s participation in the Olympics and the heritage of Indigenous Australians.

Freeman’s gold in the 400m also broke a 54-year-drought, as she became the first Australian woman since Betty Cuthbert in 1956 to win a flat race on the track at the Games.

Freeman ended her athletics career with a gold and silver Olympic medal, two World Championship golds and one bronze, four Commonwealth Games golds and one silver, as well as multiple national and international titles.

Freeman still sits as the sixth fastest woman in the world, but now devotes her time to inspiring future generations through her Cathy Freeman Foundation.



Sixth-fastest hurdler in history and London 2012 gold medallist, Sally Pearson had to overcome many setbacks throughout her career.

After making her international debut as a 16-year old and winning the 100m hurdles title at the World Youth Championships, Pearson was tipped to medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games but tripped over a hurdle, dashing her hopes of landing on the podium.

The following year, Pearson broke an almost 35-year-old Australian record, when she ran 12.71 seconds.

She made her Olympic debut at Beijing 2008, where she won Australia's first hurdles medal in forty years with silver in a time of 12.64, breaking her own record.

In 2011 the Queenslander became the first Australian to be named the IAAF Female World Athlete of the Year. Her near-perfect results saw her claim 15 of the 16 100m hurdles races she competed in throughout that year, including the 2011 World Championship in a time of 12.28s.

Pearson’s focus and determination ensured that the pressure of being the Olympic gold medal favourite would not rattle her. She qualified fastest for the Olympic final in London in a season’s best time of 12.39. With the world watching, Pearson went quicker again in the final as she broke the Olympic record to win the gold in a time of 12.35, 0.02 ahead of Beijing gold medallist, Dawn Harper.

The race was run in the pouring rain and Pearson’s record still stands as of 2020.



As a 27-year-old Alisa Camplin-Warner won Australia’s first-ever Olympic skiing gold medal at Salt Lake City 2002, after buying her first pair of skis just five years prior.

Camplin-Warner’s childhood dream was to represent Australia at an Olympic Games, although she assumed it would be in either athletics or gymnastics, that was until she was scouted at a trampoline demonstration and recruited into the new sport of aerial freestyle skiing.

It took Camplin-Warner seven years of training along with a broken hand, collarbone, shoulder, twice-dislocated sternum, torn hip flexor and knee, two broken ankles and 12 cracked ribs before she made her Olympic debut.

The resilient Victorian believed all the injuries had been worthwhile to claim Olympic gold, but shortly after, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) putting her out of competition for ten months, before tearing the same ligament just months out from Torino 2006.

Amazingly, she was able to complete her rehab and qualify for Torino 2006 where she found bronze with her trademark triple twisting double somersaults.

After her Torino campaign, Camplin-Warner announced her retirement, saying she had achieved everything she had ever wanted from the sport.

She is now an accomplished businesswoman, company director, executive coach, keynote speaker and television commentator and has just been announced as the Deputy Chef de Mission for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games.


Jacqui Cooper, Australia’s most successful World Cup skier and a trail-blazer for Australian female aerial skiers, ended an inspirational career when she retired following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Born in January 1973, she won the World Cup aerials championship five times, more than any other aerial skier, male or female.

She won the world championship in 1999, as well as bronze medals in 2007 and 2009. Overall, she competed in 139 World Cup events between 1991 and 2010; she had 40 podium finishes, with 24 victories - seven ahead of the next most prolific winners, Canada’s Marie Claud Asselin and fellow Australian Kirstie Marshall.

In 2010 Cooper became the first Australian woman to win selection for five Olympic Games. She went to Lillehammer (1994), Nagano (1998), Salt Lake City (2002), Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010). Sadly, though, her Olympic timing was never quite right, and she had to watch as younger teammates Alisa Camplin (2002) and Lydia Lassila (2010) won gold medals.

She attended the 2002 Games as a hot favourite, but wrecked a knee in a training accident just days before her competition. Cooper’s best Olympic result was a fifth in Vancouver, when she beat the odds to reach the final after suffering a major hip injury seven months earlier.

Cooper was a teenage trampolinist before Australian Winter Olympic Institute chief Geoff Lipshut recruited her to his fledgling program in 1989. Her pioneering feats, with those of Marshall, laid the foundation for aerial skiing to become Australia’s most successful winter sport. She set many benchmarks, among them the first performance in competition of the triple twisting triple somersault.    


Another winter sporting icon, is Lydia Lassila who attended an incredible five Olympic Games, all while juggling being a mum and later, running a business.

Lassila is one of Australia’s most-decorated female skiers having won gold in 2010 and bronze four years later in Sochi – a title she shares with the abovementioned legend, Camplin.

A former gymnast, she made her Games debut in 2002 at Salt Lake City having only been skiing for two years. A water jump accident almost ruined her 2006 campaign but just 8 months later she headed to her second Games. It was in Torino where, after landing awkwardly, she blew her knee out and would again be forced off the snow.

Back and more determined than ever, 2009 saw her take out the World Cup title, setting her up as one of the favourites at the Vancouver 2010 Games and Lassila didn’t disappoint. She became Australia’s fifth Winter Olympic champion when her triple-twisting triple somersault in the final saw her claim the gold medal. Four years later she would return to the Olympic arena, following the birth of her first son Kai, and win bronze at the Sochi 2014 Games.

Having not competed since the Sochi Games and having welcomed her second son to the world, Alek, Lassila made a remarkable return to the snow in 2017. Lassila took out two World Cup events, including her first event back, finished third overall in the World Cup standings before competing at the 2017 World Championships where windy conditions cruelled her chances of more success.

Following the World Championships Lassila waited until the first World Cup of 2018 to get back into elite competition where she finished 13th in Deer Valley.

The 36-year-old showed the world she is still at the top of her game by winning gold and silver at the back-to-back World Cup events at Lake Placid just three weeks out from the PyeongChang 2018 Games, where she finished 14th in her final Olympic appearance.



Track cyclist Anna Meares amassed some exceptional feats during her 15-year-career. With six Olympic medals (including two gold), 11 World Championship titles, five Commonwealth Games golds and 35 national crowns she has left a legacy that is hard to match, but in 2008 her career almost came to a premature end.

In January of 2008, just seven months out from the Beijing Olympic Games, Meares suffered a horrific injury at the World Cup in Los Angeles, which resulted in a broken neck.

Travelling at 65 km/h, the then 24-year-old broke a vertebra, dislocated her right shoulder, tore multiple ligaments and tendons and skinned various parts of her body.

The impact was labelled ‘career-ending’ and all hopes for another Olympic campaign were seemingly dashed, that was for everyone but Anna. After spending less than two weeks in a wheelchair and neck brace, Meares got back on the bike, determined to defend her Olympic crown.

After six months of gruelling preparation she rode to silver in Beijing before taking back her rightful place on the throne at London 2012, finding her second Olympic gold medal.

Meares continued her inspiring journey, creating history by becoming the first Australian to medal in four Olympic Games, when she claimed bronze at Rio 2016 before calling time on her illustrious career later that year.


Susan O'Neill


Susan O’Neill ended her illustrious swimming career with eight Olympic medals - an Australian women’s record, shared with Dawn Fraser and Petria Thomas. (Ian Thorpe, with nine, is the only Australian with more.)

Dubbed “Madame Butterfly” for her peerless quality as a butterfly swimmer, O’Neill attended three Olympic Games - winning bronze in Barcelona in 1992; gold, silver and bronze in Atlanta in 1996; and a gold and three silvers in Sydney in 2000.

Although she was more famous (and more comfortable) with the butterfly - in which she achieved world No.1 ranking over both the 100m and 200m - she was also rated world No.1 in the 200m freestyle through 1999-2000.

After winning the 200m butterfly at the 1994 Commonwealth Games and 1995 Pan Pacific titles, she won the 1996 Olympic gold medal in that event, defeating Ireland’s triple winner Michelle Smith, who was later found guilty of drug offences.

One of O’Neill’s greatest triumphs came in May 2000, when she broke the 19-year-old 200m world record of the great Mary T. Meagher, swimming’s first Madame Butterfly.

Her career ended paradoxically at the Sydney Olympics, when she won the race she didn’t expect to (the 200m freestyle), and finished second in the one she expected to win (the 200m butterfly).

O’Neill, until then unbeaten in the butterfly event for six years, was the first Australian woman since Dawn Fraser to win gold in successive Olympics.

O'Neill will attend the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games as Deputy Chef de Mission.


Triple Olympic gold medallist and Hockeyroo, Rechelle Hawkes, will go down in history as one of the world's greatest Olympic hockey players.

Her decorated career spanned four Olympic Games, culminating at Sydney 2000 where she became the second woman alongside Dawn Fraser, to win Olympic gold at three Games.

She made her national debut as an 18-year-old and as she progressed, became not only a regular starter, but a leader and a legend within the Hockeyroos team.

She was named Captain in 1993, a title she held for eight years and over her career she led her team to gold at three Olympics, won two World Cups, five Championship Trophies and a Commonwealth Games title making her the most successful woman to ever play the game.

Hawkes was honoured by being asked to read the Athlete's Oath at Sydney 2000, an experience she said was very special and touching.

It was the perfect send-off for the hockey-great, who famously hurled her stick into the air and announced her retirement at the same Games.


Slalom paddler, Jessica Fox made history in 2019, officially earning the title of, ‘World’s Greatest Paddler’ aka the paddle G.O.A.T (Greatest of All-Time).

Usurping both her mum and dad from the throne, Fox was able to pull off a perfect season last year, becoming the first person to win every C1 race in a season, along with being the first to win the dual C1 and K1 World Championship crown.

Claiming gold at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympics, followed by silver at London 2012 as a teenager, and bronze at Rio 2016, 25-year-old Fox is one of the exciting young Australian athletes expected to etch her name into sporting folklore.

The Fox family has a penchant for breeding success. Her mother and coach, Myriam is a dual-Olympian and K1 Olympic bronze medallist, while her father, Richard who competed at Barcelona 1992 is a five-time world champion. Younger sister Noemie is also making her mark, tearing up the rapids.



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