While today there are more opportunities for young girls to participate in sports, we owe it to influential Latina athletes who opened that door and changed the game for future generations. Among them is Cuban Olympic Gold Medalist Yumileidi Cumbá who first won in 1990 for the discus throw and Cuban Sibelis Veranes Morell who won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in judo. They aren’t the only examples however and we wanted to honor the amazing and inspiring work these Latina athletes are doing while breaking down barriers. Here are 11 Latina athletes who made history and literally changing the game for women in sports.
Maya Gabeira is a professional surfer from Brazil who had the ultimate comeback. In 2013 she was in a surfing accident where she broke one of her legs and was knocked unconscious by a monster wave. Despite the physical and mental scars that she had from that event, she was determined to get back in the water. In 2020 she made the Guinness Book of World Records for surfing a 73.5 ft. wave in Portugal, the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman.
Dara Torres is a Cuban-American former competitive swimmer and 12-time Olympic medalist, who has represented the United States in several Olympic games. She’s the first swimmer to represent the U.S. in five Olympic Games, and at age 41, the oldest swimmer to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team. In 2009 she won the “Comeback Award” at the ESPY’s for competing in the Beijing Olympics.
Rebecca Lobo is a former basketball player for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. And although she made a huge impact on the court, she was also very influential off the court. After her career in the WNBA, ESPN hired Lobo as a basketball analyst. She recognized that this was an opportunity for her to encourage the younger generation to participate in the sport.
Sofia Huerta is a professional soccer player in the USA National Women’s Soccer League and has played on Mexico’s national football team. Huerta, whose dad is from Mexico, has had a big Mexican influence throughout her soccer career. Because she played on both USA and Mexico’s football teams, she received some criticism from fans. However, Huerta told US Soccer that she had tremendous support from her teammates on both sides to represent both countries. “To be honest, whenever you step on the field to represent your country, the moment is always very important,” Huerta said. “It’s important now, but it was also important when I did it for Mexico. I have a lot of family in Mexico and there was intense pride during that period of my life as well.”
Laurie Hernandez is an Olympic gymnast who was part of the “Final Five” in the 2016 Olympic games. At only 20 years old, Hernandez is a huge inspiration to young girls, especially girls of color, who are dreaming of competing in the Olympics. Hernandez told TIME magazine that growing up in a Puerto Rican household, she never had a Hispanic role model growing up. “Growing up, there wasn’t an exact Hispanic role model that I had. I didn’t realize how big a difference I was making, going to the Olympics and being Hispanic until I would be in an autograph session and parents would come up to me and say, ‘You know, our family is so proud of you, you’re really doing Hispanics proud.'”
Lisa Fernandez is a three-time Olympic gold medalist for the US women’s softball team. With her father being from Cuba and her mother from Puerto Rico, she told ESPN that young women in her culture never really played sports and instead were encouraged to find a husband and start a family. But she credits her heritage for her success. “I made sure to represent not only female athletes but Hispanic athletes as well.”
Lorena Ochoa is considered to be the best Mexican golfer of all time. On top of that, she is the first Mexican golfer to be ranked number one in the world. Fans admired her for her talent and her Mexican pride. She was known to visit the staff of the golf course before playing to thank them for their hard work. She played theU.S.-based LPGA Tour from 2003 to 2010 and was the top-ranked female golfer in the world from April 23, 2007, to her retirement on May 2, 2010, at the age of 28 years old.
Mariana Pajon is a Colombian cyclist who has won Olympic gold medals and the BMX Championship, which is why she is known as the “Queen of BMX.” She made history in her home country by being the first woman to win two Olympic Gold Medals. She is extremely proud of her Colombian heritage and is determined to use her sport to change the image of the country. In an interview with Tokyo2020, she said her hometown of Medellin had been portrayed as a place of drug wars and cartels but the success of different athletes has helped improve its image.
Marta Vieira da Silva, who is commonly referred to as Marta, is a Brazilian soccer player who has scored the most goals for the Brazilian National Team, both male and female, ever. She has been named World Player of the Year by FIFA several times and has won the silver medal at the Olympics. Marta has become such an influential player in the sport. “I played with the boys out on the street without shoes. I was the only girl and every time I played I had to try something so that I could be better.” Marta told SBNation in an interview. Marta continues to spread the message to young girls that there are people who will never believe in you, but you can use that to fuel your own personal fire to become stronger and accomplish your dreams.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is a Spanish tennis player who has won Grand Slam titles as well as Olympic medals. She lit up courts all over the world at a very young age after she won her first French Open at the age of 17. No one believed that she would be able to beat Steffi Graf, a German tennis champ. She has said in multiple interviews that that match defined her career. Her message to the younger generation has always been to fight, give your best, and never give up.
Viridiana Alvarez is a Mexican mountain climber who has earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for climbing three of the world’s tallest mountains in just under one year. She took up the sport about seven years ago showing everyone that dreams do not have to be lifelong dreams and anyone can accomplish their goals. She spreads that message at public speaking events and youth conferences, encouraging people to break barriers and always have a positive attitude.